Sellaronda Bike Day 2018 – on the Brompton

It had been a good 2.5 years since I had taken my Brompton to the Stelvio Bike Day. Still remembering the breathtaking experience of riding an alpine pass road with no motorized traffic around, I had since learned about a similar event at a no-less iconic mountain road: the Sella Ronda Bike Day in the Dolomites – on a ring road over four passes, all the way around the Sella group of mountains and totalling 1.980m of ascents.

Shuffling around some work-related obligations, it was at rather short notice that I decided to finally give it a go in 2018 – along with, as I would afterwards learn from the media, 24.000 other cyclists.

And so I found myself on Thursday evening, 21 June, boarding an ICE train from Berlin to Munich. There, I would meet my partner-in-crime (my brother, and his road bike) with whom, after a night in Munich, we would pick up a rental car and drive ourselves to Northern Italy.

Image caption: While bicycles are not accepted on most of Germany’s high speed trains (a planning mistake finally being corrected on the 4th generation ICE trains), there is always a gap somewhere for a folded-up and wrapped Brompton.
Image caption: Compared to the full-size road bike, my little Brompton could have fit in a much smaller car as well…

The drive via Garmisch, Innsbruck and Brenner gradually built up the excitement: the mountains were getting higher, the landscape more pittoresque (well, minus the rather ugly motorways glued on to the sides of the valleys) and the roads more narrow.

Image caption: Driving down Zirler Berg, as we cross from the German side of the alps into the Inn valley in Austria.
Image caption: On the Brenner motorway, passing from Austria into Italy.
Image caption: Entering the Gardena valley (Grödental), on a winding road up towards Santa Cristina.

We got to our hotel mid-afternoon, enough time to do a little shakedown ride down and back up the steep access road to the plateau we were staying at. While the environment was nothing but stunning, the scouting operation led to the understanding that the shortcut we had intended to use the next morning was closed due to massive construction work for a skiing slope. This would mean we would have to drive down to the valley after all.

After a relaxed evening over a delicious five-course dinner and watching a world cup soccer match on TV, the 6 a.m. alarm woke us up to a most formidable, crisp mountain morning.

Image caption: What a great day for an alpine cycling adventure! The view from the hotel room, with the Langkofel massif in the morning sun.

We filled up on the breakfast buffet (almost a shame to not have more time to truly enjoy the spread; we corrected that the next morning) and drove ourselves into what had turned into a very busy valley; long queues of cars arriving and looking for a place to park. Compared to the town of Prad at the Stelvio event, the parking guidance signposting was less developed here, leaving it largely to a guessing game to find a spot to park. Such a pity we had not been able to start cycling directly from the hotel as originally planned. But after getting yelled at by a carabinieri, receiving conflicting information from the traffic guards and a bit of improvisation, we finally found a space on a parking lot and started to get ourselves ready.

We joined the masses of cyclists on the main road just at the east end of the town of Selva (Wolkenstein), and this is where the workout began. It was still rather chilly in the shade, and we were glad to carry a few extra layers – and these would come handy during all the descents of the day anyways. While I last time had packed all my belongings in a small backpack strapped to the rear rack, I this time had adapted my luggage strategy: with the weight being the same (relevant on uphills), I was hoping the generally rather unfavourable profile of the Brompton T-Bag (some compare it to “having the aerodynamic features of a bus”) could provide a welcome bit of extra air resistance on the downhills.

The atmosphere was relaxed, people were chatting joyfully and – as I had experienced in my previous “bike day” adventure – the Brompton turned out to be a great conversation starter to get chatting with others. Again, I was happy to see the great mix of participants, with a lot of children and even a family with kids in a trailer. Overall, the event felt to be even more dominated by Italian-speakers than on the Stelvio, and I very much like the joyful, open and relaxed attitude of Italian cyclists. As last time: absolutely splendid company, beyond any language barriers!

Image caption: Let’s do this!

The first climb, 650m from 1.580m in the valley to the 2.230m top of the Sella pass, provides a great view on the iconic Langkofel and Plattkofel mountains. We took a few brief stops, but generally just pushed on at a gentle yet determined pace; my personally preferred speed was somewhere in the 7 km/h zone, almost exclusively using the lowest of my six gears. Half-way up, the local tourist office sold commemorative bike jerseys; given the rather steep 36 EUR price tag (while still featuring sponsor logos), I decided to pass.

Image caption: Climbing the first pass of the day in the morning sun.

After 1h 30min and uncounted hairpin turns, we eventually reached the top where crowds of cyclists took a little time-out to admire the landscape and celebrate their first achievement. Two cars, who apparently had not read the signs posted everywhere on all roads leading to the Sellaronda, tried to make their departure from a hotel up on the pass, only to soon learn that they would have no chance (nor permission) of driving anywhere before the afternoon.

So far, I had only spotted a handful of cyclists not on standard road or mountain bikes: a group had passed me on tandems. Up on the Sella pass, however, seeing a rider on a Pennyfarthing was an unexpected sight. Turned out he was an Italian long-distance cyclist on some mission for a cause. After he had finished his interview with Italian TV station RAI, I said hello and we took the opportunity to have our picture taken: “small wheels meet big wheel”.

Image caption: While I can somehow image riding up the Sella pass on a Pennyfarthing, I would be very curious to know how he got down again. We spotted him two more times later, so apparently he did. (Picture taken on the Sella pass, with the Marmolata, the Dolomites’ highest mountain, in the background.)

With “celebrity selfies” out of the way, it was time for the first downhill section. As I wrote about in my Stelvio post, while the Brompton is rather well suited for riding up a mountain (especially in the six-gear variant, with -12% reduced gearing), riding down a mountain is a little iffy. It can be done, as many “Brompton alpinists” have proven, and it actually is a lot of fun, too. If only there weren’t this constant subconscious fear how even a small issue would most certainly escalate into a rather serious crash.

Hitting a pothole is one of the concerns. Luckily, these main routes in the alps are of rather good road quality, so with a reasonable amount of attention, and careful use of the entire road’s width wherever possible, this can be dealt with. The other, more serious issue would be a tire blowout. Dangerous on any kind of bike, riding 16-inch wheels would likely lead to a complete loss of control. This is amplified by the fact that the rim surface of a Brompton wheel is only about a third of that of a regular bicycle – i.e. any use of the rim brakes heats up the rims much faster.

With my somewhat reassuring experience and zero-failure history from the Stelvio ride to build on, I decided to focus as much as possible on choosing a good line, while breaking only when absolutely necessary – in brief, but strong, intervals. Some sources suggest that riding downhill without breaking also cools the rims due to “air cooling”; I’m not quite sure do I buy the implied physics behind that, but less braking is always good, I figure.

So I dashed down the southern side of the Sella pass, only occasionally interfering to keep the speed under 50 km/h (call me a wimp, but beyond that it just has too much of a daredevil feel to me). Everything seemed to go really well. Until, well, until I suddenly heard the whizzing sound of air exiting an inner tube. It came from the rear, luckily – a flat front tire being much more risky in regards to loosing control – and was not an explosive, but a slow failure. This meant I had enough time to apply full breaks, coming to a standstill just meters away from a terrace restaurant and (how lucky can one be?) one of the few bike mechanic service points on the route.

Image caption: The moment of “surviving” a full-speed downhill flat, coincidentally caught on tape (video still).
Image caption: Probably the most scenic location that I ever had to fix a flat tire in – and I’ve fixed a few! Plus, a café next door to wash my hands afterwards, and a bike mechanic with a metered foot pump 10m away.

After putting the bike into the “repair position” (a rarely promoted feature of the Brompton, which, put up half-folded and upside down, turns into a mobile bike repair stand) and taking the rear wheel mechanics apart, the first view under the tire quickly told what had happened: apparently from air expanding under heat, the inner tube’s pressure had become so high that it had made dents into the rim tape where the spoke holes are covered and in one of those “pimples” that had developed on the inner tube, the tube’s rubber had failed (the rim tape, actually a rather hard plastic layer, was unharmed). In hindsight, this probably could have been avoided by lowering the air pressure in the tire before the downhill – a strategy I applied after the repair, for the rest of the tour.

Image caption: The “pimples” of my Schwalbe inner tube; probably caused by too high pressure as the rims started to heat up?!

This was the moment I figured that taking only one spare tube on an adventure like this might have been a bit risky. With three more passes ahead, anticipating that more flats may occur, I decided to not throw in a new tube quite yet. Instead, I fixed it with a patch. The bike mechanics from the nearby service tent kindly lent me some isolation tape to double-up the rim tape, and as I refilled the tyre, I carefully paid attention to stay well below the maximum 100psi pressure.

After a forced break of almost an hour, we were back on track. After two more turns of downhill, the road merged with that coming up from Canazei in the Fassa valley – bringing more cyclists up to the circle road that is the Sellaronda. From here on, it was all uphill again, now aiming to summit the Pordoi pass, at 2.240m. This meant another 440m of climbing, over a distance of 6km.

Mostly in forested areas, this climb was not quite as spectacular as the first (or I did not understand to look behind enough), but it was a joyful atmosphere and, after the excitement of the first downhill, an almost relaxing experience. I did not stop much, and after 50 minutes of pedalling reached the second pass of the tour – as usual, quite a crowd scene, with groups recollecting after doing the ride each in their own pace, and alpine selfies being taken abound.

After a short break, I once more checked the air pressure of my tires (not too hard, not too soft) and, with slight nervousness, indulged in the otherwise joyful experience of once again letting gravity do its thing. And what fun it was! The slope was reasonable, the curves wide, and the asphalt smooth. I stopped twice for a few minutes, to give the breaks a chance to cool off, but more importantly to take in the breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Or simply watch the endless stream of all kind of cyclists racing down the mountain. A road cyclists fell in a hairpin turn just in front of me, but luckily got away unharmed – seems he had taken too much speed into the turn. Nonetheless, a good reminder of the risks that come with this kind of fun.

Image caption: Yes, a Brompton blends in just fine with the road bikes on a road like this.
Image caption: El Brommito taking a rest for cooling the rims, while the cows seem rather unimpressed by the cyclists speeding down from Passo Pordoi.

As I proceeded down towards the half-way point of the tour, a village party at Arabba, I eventually noticed that my rear tire got softer. The immediate suspicion was that my patch from earlier probably did not like the heat (something I’d read about before, and the reason I would only ever start a tour like this with fresh, unpatched inner tubes). I pumped more air once, hoping to at least make it to the village, but soon after, about a kilometer from the village, I had to pull over and replace the inner tube. With my only spare tube, which was rather unsettling at this point.

Image caption: This picture tells a lot about the joy of riding down an alpine pass! …if only the patch on my inner tube would have held all the way. (It also tells a lot about the difference to the Stelvio tour, which is higher up hence less green.)

The repair took me about 25 minutes, not so much for changing the tube, but because the Brompton’s gear mechanics are somewhat fiddly to get off and on. Not to mention the exhausting work of pumping up a tire to 60-70 PSI manually in the mid-day sun. The only other cyclist stopping to ask whether I need assistance – something I always do when seeing a cyclist with a mechanical – was, to my great joy, the only other Brompton rider I saw the entire day. At this point almost done with inflating the tire, we exchanged brief “Forza Brompton” shouts and he went his way. (On a side note, I do believe the Brompton Club Italy arranges a group ride for the Sellaronda Bike Day every year, but since they start from Canazei and hence would always be one pass ahead, I never got to see them.)

Finally reunited in Arabba, we got to fill up our water supplies at a fountain (interestingly, the Valgardena tourist office had earlier replied to my e-mail inquiry that there is no water supplies on the entire event; at Stelvio, there were water tanks provided along the road) and grab a bite. Then, after one more call at a service tent to use a proper pump with a pressure gauge, it was off to pass number three, the smallest one at 1.850m, i.e. a 250m climb from Arabba.

Passo Campolongo, it turned out, was to be my favourite. Not so much for its rather steep (yet short) climb out of Arabba, but due to a very gentle, well-paved, downhill section all the way from its top to the village of Corvara. This road, with only a few tight turns in between, could be ridden with almost no breaking at all and provided great views to enjoy while riding.

Image caption: It indeed is a rather steep ascent out of Arabba, up the Campolongo pass.
Image caption: Working up the mountain road, one pedal stroke after the other.

All off a sudden, finishing this ride with no more spare tubes on hand seemed more likely again! This was the pure joy I’d been searching for.

Image caption: The downhill part of Passo Campagnolo was the most joyful part of the entire tour – steep enough to enjoy the thrill of a long downhill, yet not too steep to raise Brompton-specific braking concerns.

We did not even stop at Corvara, instead moving ahead to the final, and maybe most challenging ascent of the day. The gradient not being significantly different from the previous ones, this was due to two factors: First of all, obviously, the fact that this was the fourth uphill section of the day; having been on the road for over six hours by this time clearly showed its effect. Secondly, and this was to be the bigger challenge, the road was only closed from motorized traffic until 3.30 p.m. At half past three sharp, myself not even half way up the final 597m climb to the pass at 2.119m, long queues of cars and motorcycles started to spread their exhaust fumes and noise.

All of a sudden, it became so apparent just how lovely an experience it had been to ride the Sellaronda road without combustion engines around. And, already being tired, this did not add to the motivation.

Image caption: As the road is reopened, sheer endless queues of cars and motorcycles start to pass the cyclists.

There is no reason to hide the truth: I was struggling big times. With tired legs and arms, constant overtaking from loud motor cycles and smelly sports cars (apparently the main demographics driving this road), it was only the strong desire to really do this entire loop despite all its challenges that kept me going: one hairpin turn at a time, sometimes pushing the bike for a few hundred metres in between (which barely makes a difference in speed, but activates different muscles for a change) and compassionately cheering each other on between the few cyclists still on the road. I also may have consumed an entire 150g bar of milk chocolate on the last 2km and tested close to all benches spread out on little pull-outs along the road.

Even greater was the joy to truly make it, after 1.5h of struggle, to the final pass, Passo Gardena (Grödnerjoch). This had been a great effort by my standards (and with 130m more than the Stelvio, the most climbing I’d ever done on a bicycle in one day), and I had consciously made it more difficult than necessary by choosing a 16-inch folding bike. But here I stood – after a total of 1.980m of climbing – and all that remained was a long and easy downhill back to our car. And in case of another flat, the reopened road would at least have allowed me to get picked up from the roadside – I don’t see myself having fixed another flat that day.

Image caption: With the fourth and last pass behind, this is the closest I could get to a “finish photo”.

But there was no need to worry. With the air pressure now properly adjusted, the absence of time pressure allowing for extended breaks for cooling the rims and admiring the landscape, and a comparatively easy descent, I 40min later pulled in at the parking lot in Selva and turned off my GPS at 60km and 8h 52min total. And we were still plenty early to pay the fancy spa of our hotel an extended visit before dinner.

Image caption: With all the hard work behind, and nothing else ahead than a sauna, a jacuzzi and a five-course dinner, the final downhill into Selva was pure bliss! Also nice: by this time, traffic – both cars and bicycles – had died down enough to provide for long stretches in solitude.

This was my second alpine “bike day” adventure. Again blessed by perfect weather conditions, this turned out to be slightly more challenging than I expected. While I somehow had thought that doing four shorter climbs with downhill sections in between would break up the otherwise almost similar amount of ascent meters into easier parts, the opposite was the case. Mechanical concerns aside, the final climb in particular turned this into a more taxing experience than the Stelvio where, once the climbing work is done in one chunk, the remainder is a sheer endless joy ride back to the start.

I also found that the Stelvio event was slightly better organised, from traffic signage and parking arrangements in the valley, to the arranged water supply and free apples, to the fact that the road closure is long enough to ensure everybody can finish their ride before it is reopened. And both the bike day jerseys as well as the professional photographs were more reasonably priced at the Stelvio. Those critical comments aside, the Sellaronda Bike Day is an extremely well-organized event, with a very positive spirit (in people as well as signage and communications); it is absolutely amazing that days like these are arranged, and it is more than obvious that a lot of effort and work goes into welcoming tens of thousands of cyclists into an area for one day. Maybe also the fact that the Sellaronda extends over three Italian provinces adds to the organisational challenges?

Here’s what I would do different next time – my “lessons learned”:

  • Take more than one spare tube, just for the peace of mind; with 16 inch tires, chances are almost zero that anyone can help out with an extra.
  • Reduce the tire pressure before any long downhills, to avoid blowouts from too high pressure as the rims heat up the air within.
  • Start earlier – with the road reopened at 3.30pm, an army of drivers and motorists who had to wait out all day make for very busy road traffic; while the roads are only closed off at 8.30am officially, I am pretty sure that starting the ride before that will be on an almost empty road regardless. If I ever did this again, I would aim to set out around 7am.
  • Avoid having to find a parking spot; this is something we had covered, only torpedoed by the unforeseen construction work on our shortcut (and of course, starting earlier would reduce this issue significantly).

And what would I not do different?

  • Stay in a local hotel the nights before and after the event (we really liked the Sporthotel Monte Pana, including their absolutely fabulous kitchen)
  • Have friendly conversations with others
  • Apply plenty of sun protection
  • Bring wind-proof clothing for the downhill parts
  • Carry more quick energy sources than I believe I will need

…and most importantly: Enjoy the day to the fullest! Want to try it yourself? The next Sellaronda Bike Day is on 22 June 2019, and it gets my fullest recommendation.

From Selva da Val Gardena, in the upper left, counter-clockwise over Passo Sella, Passo Pordoi, Passo Campolongo and Passo Gardena - a 60km loop with 1.980m of ascent in four chapters.

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Cranespotting in Nauen and Linum

Linum, about 50km north-west from Berlin, is a small village famous for its role as a “pit stop” for tens of thousands of cranes as they migrate from Northern Europe to the South in fall – and vice versa in spring (and, but this is not what this post is about, during the summer as a paradise for nesting storks).

As weather this Saturday proved to be a significant improvement over the rainy and stormy beginning of October, we finally got a chance to go on a long-planned bike trip to visit Linum and its feathered visitors.

Cycling from Berlin to Nauen is a pleasant ride, as small side roads and cycle paths loosely following the main highway B5 allow for swift and peaceful travel. About half way from Spandau to Nauen, the bike route crosses right through the main plaza of a rather bizarre “Designer Outlet” in Elstal. After riding our bikes through the most beautiful fall landscape, it is quite a stark contrast to pass through a shopping street where thousands of tourists and Berliners engage in discount fashion shopping, but at least this provided us with a convenient location for visiting free washrooms and have lunch at a take-out place selling delicious fish sandwiches.

Passing through Nauen an hour later, we – in true bike touring tradition – decided it was time for dessert: stopping at a local bakery we treated ourselves to a piece of cake and took some more along for later.

Image caption: First indication that we are entering the Nauen/Linum crane rest area: a small flock of cranes passing over the calm and peaceful alley street just outside of Nauen – these roads are an absolute delight to cycle on.

It was only about 15 minutes after Nauen – yet again riding one of the sheer endless tree-lined alleys Brandenburg has so many of – that we would encounter the first cranes. First up, just a few birds grazing in the fields here and there.

Image caption: A small formation of cranes, on their lookout for the next corn field to eat up the remainders of the harvest.

But it wasn’t long before we came to a spot where several hundreds of cranes had found a harvested corn field to feast on leftovers on the ground. It was a fascinating view. Yet after a while, the calmly standing birds all of a sudden started to take flight. It is obvious that they were disturbed by something, maybe a big flock of starlings that had just flown into the same field (ourselves, we took great caution to keep our distance way above the recommended minimum of 300 metres, as cranes are very easily disturbed and every time they get scared and fly up they use up valuable energy they should preserve for the long continuation of their migration ahead).

Nonetheless, seeing these hundreds of birds taking flight, with their characteristic trumpeting sounds, was a sight to remember – we both would later agree this encounter was  the highlight of the day.

Image caption: And then, they all took flight. Our camera equipment is sadly underpowered for this kind of situation, but this shot still gives an indication of just how great a show we were presented with.

Static preview image for embedded contentClick to view video from Vimeo

We pushed on after our little bird spotting break, continuing our travels along the beautiful and utterly flat country roads of Brandenburg. The destruction from storm “Xavier” a good week ago, however, was disturbing the otherwise settled nature: almost constantly, we would see trees down by the road, often with the traces of their obvious removal from the street in those days after the storm. It must have been really difficult to move in this area after the storm, probably every single road had been blocked by several fallen trees, the remains of which now remind the passer-by of the force these winds had brought over Northern Germany. 2 million trees, it is estimated, had been destroyed in the state of Brandenburg alone – the scars of Xavier will still be seen for a long time.

Image caption: Just one of many instances where fallen trees have simply been cut up to make the road passable again, now waiting at the roadside to eventually be picked up. The traces of storm Xavier from nine days ago can literally be seen everywhere.

We had chosen to approach Linum on a slightly more western route than “as the bird flies” (pun intended, if admittedly a bad one) to visit one of the more extraordinary sights the Brandenburg countryside holds for its visitors: not far from Linum, a the Hakenberge victory column commemorates the great victory of the Brandenburg army against the Swedes in the outgoing 17th century. The monument itself, erected for the 200 year anniversary of that victory, feels utterly displaced here in the middle of forests and farmland, but this also makes it a wonderfully quirky location for eating up any cake leftover a cycle tourist may still find in their panniers. Which is, you guessed it, exactly what we did here (and we did not share any with the annoying black cat begging for food).

Image caption: The war memorial in Hakenberg does remotely resemble the victory column in the centre of Berlin – different artists but from the same era, and both featuring the goddess Victoria.

Just a good ten minutes down the road and we entered what turned out to be a bit of a tourist circus: the tiny village of Linum was filled with parked cars and tour buses, crowds were checking out small shops and cafes, and this somehow felt like it would be a bit less of a romantic nature experience than one could expect.

We soon found the information centre run by the nature protection NGO NaBu, where people were assembling to take part in one of the “sign-up required” walking tours to watch the nightly arrival of the cranes. Obviously, by the time we had called to inquire for free spots three days earlier all tours were already full – but actually this allowed us to just briefly wait for their departure and only then explore the interesting small exhibition accessible for a small donation.

A nature photographer selling postcards here was kind enough to point us to a few good locations for watching the cranes’ arrival, and after short deliberation we decided to head for a slightly less crowded location accessible only by foot, as compared to what apparently is the most popular spot right down the road from a big parking lot. We really had not biked all these kilometres to hang out with hundreds of car tourists fighting for a few front-line positions in an overcrowded viewing area.

Image caption: Even without many cranes, this view easily wins over a crowded public viewing area by some parking lot, doesn’t it?

The photographer had already warned us that on weekends the cranes often assemble on more remote locations than normal, due to the tourist circus in the village. From what we could observe, this is exactly what happened. We still got a decent view with the binoculars, but the close-by experience we had hoped for did not materialize. Instead we got to witness a magical sunset, as the sun finally started to peek out after a day of overcast, and in addition to large groups of cranes in the distance, we got to observe geese, swans, starlings and other birds.

Image caption: No bird photos from the evening, but we got plenty of shots like these instead!

After the show was over (both with the arrival of the cranes and the departure of the sun), we decided it would be a good idea to have some food before returning to Berlin. The small restaurant in the centre of the village was all full, but we comfortably got a table at a quirky little fish restaurant not far from where we had been standing during the evening. We refuelled on delicious veggie/fish paddies with rosemary potatoes – and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere at the place – people were even sitting outside by a bonfire, and one could hear the cranes creaking from their sleeping areal on the other side of the water.

Refuelling was an important task since we would once more encounter the aftermath of storm Xavier. As is quite obvious when watching a nature event taking place at sunset, the way home would inevitably coincide with nightfall. For cyclists, this usually means an 11 km ride on a calm country road (with the only traffic pretty much that of motorized visitors heading home from Linum) to Kremmen, from where a train takes bicycles all the way back to Spandau or central Berlin. The storm, however, had damaged parts of this train line so badly that it hadn’t been reopened yet. And since the workaround option of taking the train from Kremmen but switching three times to get anywhere near our final destination, we instead opted for the 22 km ride back to Nauen – this time on a more direct route – from where an hourly train connection reaches Spandau in less than 20 minutes. We came well prepared, of course: decorated with reflectors like xmas trees and with powerful head- and rear lights this actually felt even safer than riding these same roads during daytime.

Opting for this 90-minute night ride, it turned out, was a brilliant decision. With the streets being almost completely deserted (and drivers being able to see us from hundreds of metres away, as we could judge from oncoming cars dimming down their headlights and those coming from behind slowing down long before they would come anywhere near us), this was a great experience. Just rolling through the pitch-dark night on mostly super-smooth asphalt, above us the stars and around us endless fields or forests, this definitely was the second highlight for me after our first bird encounter earlier. For about half of the way, there would have been a separate bike path following the road as well, but – you guessed it – this is where broken-off branches and fallen trees from the road had been stored to await their pick-up, rendering it useless in large stretches.

Image caption: Not so easy to take photos in the dark, but this street lamp at an intersection at least provided a backdrop for a silhouette shot. To showcase the reflectors, we would have needed another light source from behind. But, believe us, when your headlights hit us, there is no way to mistake us for anything but cyclists.

We arrived at Nauen station with a good 20 minutes to spare (always good to have a buffer in case of mechanical issues), the train was perfectly on schedule, and by 22:30 we were back home, where we had set out from some 12 hours earlier.

Total moving time 5h 55min, 88km in total at our usual average touring speed of 15 km/h. Most notably, apart from a few rolling hills between Spandau and Nauen, this tour is almost entirely flat. If you are looking for a shorter loop, consider starting from Nauen and return to Berlin from Kremmen, 11km east of Linum.

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How to repair the clips of an Ortlieb bag (Front roller and similar)

After two of the closing clips on my 2012 Ortlieb Front Roller* bags broke at the end of last summer’s touring season, I finally got around to contact Ortlieb and figure out how to fix them.

I somehow had expected a complicated repair since at least the main (“roller”) clips are sewn in, but a few days later the always friendly and responsive Finnish distributor had sent me the required spares (E146 and E187) along with detailed instructions. It turned out to be the easiest repair imaginable.

Since it was such a revelation to me, I took a few photos in case somebody else, too, is wondering how is it done:

* As I just learned from the new 2016 catalogue, the bags formerly known as “Front Rollers” are now marketed as “Sport Rollers” to reflect the fact that they are brilliant bags also for rear rack use, as by yours truly (avoiding the “Back Rollers” both to encourage light travel and because the chain stay of my cyclocross frame is a bit of a tight fit with bigger panniers)

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#cargobrompton

From the beginning of looking into getting myself a Brompton, I was fascinated by the versatility of those little bikes. Having read from people doing extended ’round-the-world tours on them (like Russ Roca and Laura Crawford or Heinz Stücke), these little engineering wonders combine the flexibility of taking them anywhere with a “cargo capacity” that is not apparent at first sight.

In two years, I have already taken El Brommito to all kind of not-so-obvious places – most prominently the Passo dello Stelvio. But as I yesterday picked up my touring bike’s rear wheel from truing at the bike shop and was asked whether I’ll be able to carry it, I remembered I have also transported all kind of loads in these years – some of which I snapped a picture of.

Hooray to the “Cargobrompton”:

Transporting a 28" wheel on the 16" bike - no problem (the bag is to protect the T-bag from dirt; I might have reconsidered if I'd had a head- rather than a tailwind)
Image caption: Transporting a 28″ wheel on the 16″ bike – no problem (the bag is to protect the T-bag from dirt; I might have reconsidered if I’d had a head- rather than a tailwind)
Picking up our plants from various friends' places after the summer vacation.
Image caption: Picking up our plants from various friends’ places after the summer vacation.
Going camping...
Image caption: Heading out of town for a S24O camping microadventure.
Buying new tyres for the touring bike.
Image caption: Buying new tyres for the touring bike.

It requires a bit of creativity sometimes – and usually a piece of string or two – but once you get the hang of it is hard to imagine anything that could not be transported on my commuter ride! …and as a matter of fact, the odd geometry actually makes it sometimes easier than on a “regular bicycle”.

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Movie: Inspired to ride (2015)

After the previous film tip from the self-documentary category, today’s recommendation “Inspired to ride” is a professional production, with two camera teams documenting the first Trans Am Bike Race (kind of the North-American counterpart to the pan-European Transcontinental Race) in what makes for an amazing cycle touring movie …if from the rather extreme end of the spectrum.

Static preview image for embedded contentClick to view video from YouTube

Unscripted, the makers of the film portray the individuals taking part in this self-supported race across the USA, at the same time building up several narratives around the protagonists – most prominently Mike Hall and Juliana Buhring (the respective male/female holders of the world record for cycling around the world). The film transports the joy, the challenges, and the suffering from the event right into the living room. And it has beautiful (cycling) cinematography.

I wish I had the time to watch it a second time, but in the meantime, here are three quotes that spoke to me the most (in addition to the intense context of the filmmakers’ random encounter with Trans-America cycle tourist Joanna Abernathy which won’t leave any fellow cyclist – or human for that matter – untouched):

It just kind of settles in that you got to realize you got to run your own race. And it’s between me and me you know, me and my thoughts. (Brian Steele)

There’s the watchers and the doers. The watchers criticise the doers, because the watchers never would do anything themselves. It’s just the way it goes. (Juliana Buhring)

Everyone suffers. It’s just a matter of degree – just like love and happiness. (David Goldberg)

The film is available from Vimeo on Demand, among other outlets like Amazon, Netflix or VHX; make sure to also watch the bonus recording of the premiere’s Q&A session which among others enlightens on the first post-race encounter of the Italian racers, and the question of how to keep all those devices charged.

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Movie: Free as a kangaroo (2016)

Less than a week on Vimeo and already clocking up 1,300 views, Florian Schmale‘s cycle touring documentary “Free as a kangaroo” about his 3,000km ride across Australia rightfully gathers praise – in my books, this hour-long flick goes straight to the top of the charts of self-documentary bike travel films:

Static preview image for embedded contentClick to view video from Vimeo

While preparing for the next bicycle adventure ourselves, watching this film brings the feeling of being out touring on the road right back into the living room (though I’m not sure would I be up for such an extreme trip).

The way the author uses the camera as his diary device works really well: it seems that all the loneliness described in the film served as a great catalyst for creative camera work and a well-developed story that is hard to stop watching after the first few minutes.

Can’t wait to get out on the road again!

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Algarve: A taste of spring on the Brompton

Back in February, winter in Finland seemed to never end. So, with a conveniently sized gap between projects, I jumped at a cheap Lufthansa offer and went for a week-long bike tour around the Algarve, the southernmost part of Portugal.

Getting an early start into cycle touring season.
Image caption: Getting an early start into the cycle touring year. With the tourist season still a few weeks away (most locals would call what qualifies as perfect t-shirt weather for a Nordic resident: “cold weather”) roads were empty and not many other travellers to be seen.

Travelling from one corner of Europe to the other fully delivered on what I had been hoping for: sun, flowers, green trees (some with lemons and oranges), and most importantly wonderful weather for bike touring. Let’s face it: Finnish midsummer has seen worse than what you get in Southern Portugal in early March!

Getting there

The trip to the airport went fine, and to my happy surprise me initially forgetting to deflate my tires didn’t cause a major repack: I was able to reach both valves by just opening the suitcase. A passing-by toddler could just not believe there was a bicycle in my suitcase – and neither did his father; the random conversations this bike triggers just keep amusing me. Check-in went smoothly, and then I had to wait an extra hour for the delayed departure (heavy snowfall in Munich, so aircraft came in late).

This is all a Brompton tourist needs for a week of cycling abroad.
Image caption: This is all a Bromptourist needs for a week of cycling abroad. Waiting for the metro at home in Helsinki.

After a pleasant six-hour stopover in Munich, the Bavarian security officer made me unpack my entire carry-on, as they wanted to separately see all electronic devices (it was only then I grasped how many little gadgets I tend to carry). Also my allen keys caught their interest, but despite curious inspection I got to keep them.

Setting up shop in a quiet corner of Lisbon airport. Reassembling the Brompton takes about 20 minutes, including pumping up the tires.
Image caption: Setting up shop in a quiet corner of Lisbon airport. Reassembling the Brompton takes about 20 minutes, including pumping up the tires.

I reassembled El Brommito at the airport and filled the tires at a gas station I had pre-scouted on the Internet, then rolled to the nearby Lisbon Cozy Hostel to get a few hours of sleep!

Day 1: From Lisbon to Santa Clara to Monchique (30 km)

I had a most wonderful first morning in Portugal. Hostel staff and breakfast were lovely, and I got my big bicycle suitcase safely stored at their office. Topped up the tires at another gas station, bought some snacks (and a Sumol, the Portuguese pop I have had an addiction of ever since my first visit to the country) and then sat on an 80s style Intercity train for 2.5 hours. Pro tip: pre-booking your train ticket online gets you to the Algarve for just about EUR 12.

Off the train in the middle of nowhere, and ready to embark on the first cycling adventure of 2016!
Image caption: Off the train in the middle of nowhere, and ready to embark on the first cycling adventure of 2016!

As I have stated before, the Brompton really is an awesome little climbing machine! Admittedly, I felt somewhat overconfident with this plan at first, but getting off the train in the middle of nowhere at “Santa Clara – Sabóia” and starting the 2016 cycling season with a rather ambitious “mountain stage” turned out to be great (as a matter of fact, I had redesigned my itinerary just a few days before, based on the weather – and most importantly – wind forecast).

This should be enough energy to get me up that hill, no?
Image caption: This should be enough energy to get me up that hill, no?

After enjoying a delicious lunch of grilled pork with the first 12 km of a flat country road behind, the workout part began. From here on, it was a 20 km long more-or-less constant ascent, covering some 400 m in height. The landscape was at first mostly forest, then more and more sunny – and with stunning views on the mountain range around. A lot of the forest seemed to be for wood farming, as an unfortunate amount of slopes had completely been stripped of all trees recently.

Between the blue sky and the asphalt taking me higher and higher into the mountains.
Image caption: Between the blue sky and the asphalt taking me higher and higher into the mountains.

In the end, the climb went so well that I arrived 2.5 h earlier than I had anticipated. And that is despite climbing about a third of the Stelvio’s ascent – which almost exactly 6 months ago was pretty much the last real cycling I had done. And oh, did I miss it! I felt like a cow on spring turnout – being let out from the stables and jumping around wildly.

Static preview image for embedded contentClick to view video from YouTube

Early-March Portugal literally was more summery than Finland at midsummer! This may be hard to understand for somebody who hasn’t lived through a Finnish winter, but even just walking over green grass when crossing a busy road first thing in the morning was almost overwhelmingly wonderful.

This giant eucalyptus tree greets the traveller on arrival to Monchique.
Image caption: This giant eucalyptus tree greets the traveller on arrival to Monchique.

After a slightly restless dormitory the previous night (some people just do not have any sense of courtesy, and digital devices only seem to make that even more common), I checked in at “Miradouro de Serra” in Monchique: a private room, at EUR 30 slightly at the upper end of my self-induced budget, but the only affordable option in town.

Monchique is known for its pittoresque town centre.
Image caption: Monchique is known for its picturesque town centre – note the obligatory cobblestone streets, aka. every cyclists dream pavement.
GPS track of day 1, from Santa Clara southwards to Monchique (jump in height at the beginning due to late altimeter calibration).

Day 2: Up to the Fóia and down to Aljezur at the coast (40 km)

While it may sound almost too easy, the 30 km on day one of course were hard work and some muscles were aching (to my surprise, mainly the arms!) as I looked at a beautiful sunrise from my balcony. Still, I could not wait for the next exciting leg.

The mid-stage goal in sight for the better half of the morning: the iconic broadcast stations at 909m.
Image caption: The mid-stage goal in sight for the better half of the morning: the iconic broadcast stations at 909m.

Day two of my Algarve adventure saw another significant ascent in the morning, as I intended to summit the Fóia, at 909 m highest mountain in Southern Portugal, by noon. It was a sweaty ride (starting at 470 m) and more challenging than yesterday’s ascent. More steep parts and crazy winds; I rode most of the distance, but a few short stretches I simply pushed the bike. Then again, absolutely stunning views compensated for the effort!

The surface on this (less popular) Northern road up the Fóia deteriorated over time, but remained rideable for most of the way - I am however glad my descent would happen on the better maintained main road.
Image caption: The surface on this (less popular) Northern road up the Fóia deteriorated over time, but remained rideable for most of the way – I am however glad my descent would happen on the better maintained main road.

I made it well before noon and enjoyed a breathtaking (yes, I had some left) panorama over the entire south-western Algarve. Had a plate of fries and then embarked on the fun half of the day: apart from a few rolling hills, cashing in all the height from the day before and the morning and sometimes zooming, sometimes cruising west towards the coast. Particularly memorable: the first kilometres with up to 50 km/h, and the final steep descent into Aljezur, a seemingly never ending 10% downhill on asphalt as smooth as a baby’s bottom!

Overlooking the Algarve on the way down - starting the tour with the Fóia was a great introduction to the area's geography.
Image caption: Overlooking the Algarve on the way down – starting the tour with the Fóia was a great introduction to the area’s geography.
At times, the slopes' angle was a challenge on the 16" wheels, but El Brommito and I made it down fine, thanks to some breaks to cool off the rims.
Image caption: At times, the slopes’ angle was a challenge on the 16″ wheels, but El Brommito and I made it down fine, thanks to some breaks to cool off the rims.
On this well-maintained main road, the 10% descent was a non-issue - I just let gravity do its thing and enjoyed almost xx minutes of non-stop downhill at up to xx km/h (it would be a major PITA to ride this road the other way, though).
Image caption: On this well-maintained main road, the final 10% descent of the day was a non-issue – I just let gravity do its thing and enjoyed almost 10 minutes of non-stop downhill at up to 50 km/h (it would be a major PITA to ride this road the other way, though).

The only problem I was facing was a positive one: I was 1.5h early for checking in at the Amazigh Design Hostel (dorm EUR 12e; and no, the name is not a typo, it refers to a local tribe of Arabs formerly inhabiting the area). So, obviously, I secured myself a sunny table at the Café da Ponte, ordered – what else – a Sumol and Pastel de Nata and spent the time watching ducks mate on the river under the bridge and just generally enjoying the outburst of nature around me. Such a contrast to the muted, dull greyness of February in Helsinki!

Reward at the end of the day!
Image caption: Reward at the end of the day!

The area is most obviously expat county – a lot of English and German to be heard. And of the very few cars I saw on the streets, there was quite a mix of nationalities, plus an apparent good share of rentals; at this time of the year either driven by elderly couples or young surfers.

The castle is the iconic landmark of Aljezur.
Image caption: The castle is the iconic landmark of Aljezur.

Aljezur is a quiet little town with an interesting history. After dropping my luggage, I went for a walk up to the old Arab castle which provided a comprehensive overview of the region.

Sitting in the green grass and looking out west towards the coast.
Image caption: Sitting in the green grass and looking out west towards the coast.
On day 2, I rode from Monchique westwards, first up to the Fóia and then all the way down to the coast in Aljezur.

Day 3: Aljezur – Sagres (65 km)

The hostel at Aljezur turned out to be an absolutely brilliant choice. It is run by some laid back surfer guys and the atmosphere was very welcoming.

The Brompton-sized locker under my dorm bed.
Image caption: The Brompton-sized locker under my dorm bed.

We were only five guests, all in the same dorm, and in the evening we sat in the common area for many hours chatting. Really sweet people, and funny enough all with some kind of connection to Germany.

Everybody else had left already...
Image caption: Everybody else had left already…

On this third morning, I took it easy: sleeping in and enjoying a relaxed self-catering breakfast.

...so all that was left to do was to enjoy a slow breakfast and get ready.
Image caption: …so all that was left to do was to enjoy a slow breakfast and get ready.

I then biked 50km with rolling hills and a prevailing tailwind, though I faced a few steep patches and some headwind in between as well.

A bit of overcast, but very pleasant riding on quiet roads.
Image caption: A bit of overcast, but very pleasant riding on quiet roads.

I stopped for a picnic with some locally bought bread and cheese from Carrapateira at the impressive Amado beach on the Atlantic ocean. There were not many surfers out, but sitting on the sandy beach and looking out to where America lies behind the ocean was the perfect setting for a mid-day break.

Amado beach, my lunch picnic spot.
Image caption: Amado beach, my lunch picnic spot.

Later, I stopped for a Pastel de Nata – this time with a mint tea – in the small town of Vila do Bispo on the way. Later, again way early for check-in, I killed some time hanging around on the cliffs in Sagres for a while.

Eventually, upon reaching xxx, even the sun came out.
Image caption: Eventually, upon reaching Vila do Bispo, even the sun came out.
I've been forced to kill time in worse place than overlooking a landscape like this!
Image caption: I’ve had to “kill time” in worse place than overlooking a landscape like this!

As the day approached its end, I biked some 7 km straight into the wind (the adjective “fierce” would be an understatement) to visit Europe’s most south-western end at Cabo de Sao Vicente; a sign even declared it “the end of Europe”. I was now officially at pretty much the opposite end of Europe from home.

Approaching Cabo Vincente, into an insane headwind and with rain clouds approaching fast from thee Atlantic.
Image caption: Approaching Cabo de Sao Vicente, into an insane headwind and with rain clouds approaching fast from the Atlantic.
Waiting for the sunset, surrounded by stunning cliffs.
Image caption: Waiting for the sunset, surrounded by stunning cliffs.

Having just barely dodged the only rain shower of the day by a few seconds, I hung around the cape until sunset, which was rather pretty, then zoomed back – 35 km/h without any pedalling – to check in at my BnB.

Almost there...
Image caption: Almost there…
...and then the sun disappeared behind the clouds on the horizon.
Image caption: …and then the sun disappeared behind the clouds on the horizon.

I got another warm welcome at the PuraVida Divehouse, where for EUR 20 I had a dorm, or actually an entire house, to myself tonight. First I took a really hot shower to warm up and then cooked myself a pile of pasta again, having an interesting dinner conversation with an entrepreneurial young woman from Poland. Then, headed pretty much straight to bed as my body was seriously craving some rest.

The main heading of day 4 was south, except for the short excursion to the beach in Carrapateira and the lighhouse at Cabo de Sao Vicente. NB. This looks much more hilly than the days before, but from this day on, the scale of the height profile is different as the top height is only about a quarter of the days before.

Day 4: Sagres – Lagos (41 km)

I had a rather easy day on day 4. As the distance from Sagres to Lagos is only 32km, I was hoping for a less exhausting day after two mountain stages and one 65km day so far. And it seemed the wind gods at least partially agreed to that. Thinking of the head wind out to the lighthouse the night before, I feared I might not be able to keep up that pace forever this early in the season.

The PuraVida Surfhouse at Sagres turned out to be a lovely "family stay" with most hospitable owners and staff.
Image caption: The PuraVida Surfhouse at Sagres turned out to be a lovely “family stay” with most hospitable owners and staff.

I enjoyed a slow breakfast in good company on the terrace and then embarked on the first 10km of full-on headwind. At the Lidl in Vila do Bispo I ran into one of the Germans from two nights ago. And I was blown away by the discovery that Lidl is carrying Sumol here! Un-be-lievable.

A morning view over the local harbour.
Image caption: A morning view over the local harbour.

The rest of the trip was mainly on the big main road with a wide shoulder, rolling hills and mostly a 70% tailwind. Comfortable.

Following the main road may not sound most appealing, but with its wide shoulder and low traffic made for a very comfortable and safe ride.
Image caption: Following the main road may not sound most appealing, but with its wide shoulder and low traffic made for a very comfortable and safe ride.

I had now arrived in the much more “touristy” area (and this was likely to get worse the further east I’d proceed), lots of older folks from Germany and the UK on the roads, and some restaurants don’t even have a menu out in Portuguese! Drivers are mainly courteous, except for the random eldermen from England who obviously don’t have much experience with driving on the right side. Or then, actually more likely, they just don’t bother.

Having a break by the beach at xxx.
Image caption: Having a break by the beach at Burgau.

I did two small detours to check out some beaches; clocking up 41 km in total.

Yet another nice lookout spot for a break in the sun.
Image caption: Yet another nice lookout spot for a break in the sun; Praia da Luz.

I checked in at my hostel at 3pm sharp and had a shower. It was a strange place: I had booked a dorm but it was apparently being renovated, so instead staying in what usually is the “family apartment” – crammed up with six beds. Luckily there was nobody else booked for the night. And it was only EUR 8 for a night, so I am not complaining. And sunny patio and all…

Downtown Lagos; "Happy hours" and "Premier League on big screen" abound.
Image caption: Downtown Lagos; “Happy hours” and “Premier League on big screen” abound.

Lagos was the biggest town I had called at so far, and I went out to explore it by foot …to give my bum a rest; all the “old town centres” with their cobblestones started to take their toll. As much as I like to praise my beloved travel machine: tThe 16 inch Brompton is really not ideal for this kind of streets.

Notwithstanding some worthwhile sights, the city generally turned out to be a bit of a tourist trap, and after being offered drugs on every corner I soon left the historic centre (with its British pubs and British tourists) behind.

Leaving the drug dealers behind, I enjoyed walking around the marina.
Image caption: Leaving the drug dealers behind, I enjoyed walking around the marina.

I hiked all the way out to a little lighthouse with spectacular rock formations, being there all by myself for sunset…

The reception desk of this hotel has been closed for quite some time, apparently. I saw quite some hotel ruins all along the Algarve.
Image caption: The reception desk of this hotel has obviously been closed for quite some time. I saw quite some hotel ruins all along the Algarve coast.
The Grotto, a spectacular nature sight. It is apparently even more impressive during certain tidal phases, but having it all to myself was rather nice.
Image caption: The Grotto, a spectacular nature sight. It is apparently even more impressive during certain tidal phases, but having it all to myself was rather nice.

On the way back I stopped for dinner at a Chinese place, the only place that didn’t look like catering just for tourists.

Despite my negative first impression, I enjoyed the more hidden parts of Lagos; like a little alleyway featuring this giant mural.
Image caption: Despite my mainly negative overall impression, I enjoyed the more hidden parts of Lagos; like a little alleyway featuring this giant mural.
Day 4: heading back east, in order to make it to the train line to Lisbon in a few days.

Day 5: Lagos – Albufeira (45 km)

Despite having the entire “dorm” for myself, I got up early and headed out at 9am, picking up breakfast at a grocery store’s deli counter and enjoying it roadside.

A little detour along a side road led to a typical Portuguese village.
Image caption: A little detour along a side road led to a typical Portuguese village.

Most of the day I followed rather big roads, as they have good shoulders and are safer than the narrow side roads; traffic is quite busy here even off-season – mainly tourists.

Sharing the road with other slow vehicles in Portimao.
Image caption: Sharing the road with other slow vehicles in Portimao.

I stopped for lunch at the bigger city of Portimão, treating myself to grilled cod, which unfortunately ended up being a disappointment. Bad choice of restaurant, but at least it had a nice view and I was sitting in the half-shade.

The view from the terrace - here with the local train passing by - was about the only positive aspect of the fish restaurant I had lunch at.
Image caption: The view from the terrace – here with the local train passing by – was about the only positive aspect of the fish restaurant I had lunch at.

It might be due to being on the bike for the fifth day in a row, but somehow the more commercialized the tourist industry became the less I enjoyed myself. I started to miss the calm and beauty of the first three days of my tour, when I experienced what seemed much more authentic to me; that said, I still much preferred being here over my “everyday life” back home, so these were negative vibes with only very minor impact on my overall joy of being out on the bike.

Monuments of Algarve tourism: a pretty excessive water park...
Image caption: Monuments of Algarve tourism: a pretty excessive water park…
...the King of Rock'n'Roll carved into sand stone...
Image caption: …the King of Rock’n’Roll carved into sand stone…
...and a beer garden serving Bavarian beer.
Image caption: …and a beer garden serving Bavarian beer.
But even in the villages with their high-rise hotels, I found some very beautiful beaches.
Image caption: But even in the villages with their high-rise hotels, I found some very beautiful beaches; here hanging out for a while in Armacao de Pera.

I reached my hostel (single room, EUR 20) by 15:30 and after a shower and a bit of chilling walked down to a nearby beach for a sunset picnic with – the careful reader guessed it already – a bottle of Sumol.

Fascinating rock formations for my final sunset of the trip.
Image caption: Fascinating rock formations for my final sunset of the trip near Praia do Evaristo beach.

After sunset, I returned to the hostel and watched some German cable TV (obviously!) and went to sleep soon after.

Day 6: Making my way through the densely built areas east of Lagos.

Day 6: Albufeira – Tunes (27 km) and back to Lisbon

My hostel was only 15km away from where my train would leave in the early afternoon and with the weather gods sending a rain shower, a decision had been made on my behalf: an easy-going morning it was to be! By the time I checked out at 11:30, the rain had stopped and the sun was shining again.

I decided to not pursue any touring goals any more as my body and mind were a bit exhausted after so many days on the road. Instead I cruised up and down the coast strip near the hostel’s village (and up and down a decent amount of hills) to visit four different beaches, one nicer – and more empty – than the other…

Beaches and hotels.
Image caption: Beaches and hotels.

Then I embarked on the final push inland, to catch my train at 15:30. Despite stiff headwinds and steep ascents, I arrived with an hour to spare, only to find a totally dead little village. So a bun and a thick slice of sausage from the local convenience store had to do for lunch.

Waiting for the train to Lisbon at the station of Tunes.
Image caption: Waiting for the train to Lisbon at the station of Tunes.

The train ride was most comfortable, as I had a soft chair in 1st class – thanks to an online bargain offer. Beautiful landscapes outside, complimentary camomille (!) tea and Portuguese newpapers inside. Very nice train as well!

Enjoying another long train ride through the South of the country.
Image caption: Enjoying another long train ride through the South of the country. It slowly started to set in what a good overview of the Algarve region I had gotten and just how much I enjoyed being out on the bike under the comforting spring sun.

Back in Lisbon, I quickly checked in at my hostel a short ride away from Oriente station to pick up my bicycle suitcase and then headed straight on to the nearby airport to do the disassembly work on-site. I’m starting to get a good routine with that, as it was a rather smooth and focussed operation. Made it back to the hostel minutes before the local grocery store closed and cooked myself fresh ravioli with a red pepper – dining in nice company by a retired Scotsman, a middle-aged German guy and a young Japanese girl on a walkabout who spoke almost fluent German.

With El Brommito safely stored at the 24/7 left luggage desk, I went to bed knowing I can just walk the 2 km to the airport at 5am to catch my early flight back to Frankfurt (and on to Helsinki).

The final ride on day 6: Away from the shore, to the train station at Tunes.

Epilogue

In retrospective, I look back at a wonderful week under the sun of the south, discovering a brilliant place for cycle touring. I particularly enjoyed the early days in the back country, passing over the mountain ridge and the Fóia, and along the west coast – from Aljezur to Sagres. I found some beautiful landscapes, challenging but manageable cycling terrain and reserved, yet most friendly, people. I also lucked out with the accommodation in Aljezur and Sagres (along with the hostel in Lisbon, not to forget).

One last self-portrait to capture the spirit of the trip on my trusty 16-inch steed.
Image caption: One last (double) self-portrait to capture the spirit of the trip on my trusty 16-inch steed.

The latter part of the loop, with the high-rise hotel complexes, the supercommercialized tourist centres and at times heavy traffic were not to my best liking – but even there I found beaches, back roads and people that added to an overall highly positive spring adventure on the Brompton.

The entire 255 km tour in one map. Total cumulative ascent 3500m, so it was a rather hilly ride in total.

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Spotted: Brompton family van

A heavily loaded Brompton in Stockholm.
Image caption: A heavily loaded Brompton, spotted in Stockholm: a child seat mounted to the rear rack, a kid balancing on the main frame and an unused foldable trailer strapped to the front carrier bag (unfortunately, this is the best shot I could get of it after digging out the phone but it was a deeply fascinating view!).

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Movie: Flintoff’s Road to Nowhere (2014)

I had never heard about this documentary before, but since it is currently available on the Finnish national broadcaster’s online streaming service, “Flintoff’s Road to Nowhere” was a sensible choice for a Saturday movie night.

The two-episode documentary is a fun to watch production. Rob Penn, veteran bike tourer, is joined by an English celebrity cricketer, Freddie Flintoff (I had never heard of him, either), heading out for an epic ride across the Amazon rainforest; on their way, they dig into the realities of rainforest destruction, showing how it is connected to everybody on the planet, both for causes and consequences. I particularly enjoyed the combination of a serious environmentalist cause and the protagonist’s British humour.

It might be hard to get access to watch the full thing (Sky only provides a trailer on their website), but if you have a chance to see it, it’s a highly recommended feature-length documentary to spend one of those cold and dark winter nights.

In an article on the Independent Rob Penn provides some background on the production, including the rationale for choosing the no-suspension 29ers used – he is, after all, the author of “It’s all about the bike”.

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First bike commute of 2016

Provided with a beautiful sunny morning, even the bone-freezing -16°C could not stop me from riding to work today! Painful at times, and technically challenging, it was such a pleasure to be out on the two wheels again...
Image caption: Provided with a beautiful sunny morning, even the bone-freezing -16°C could not stop me from riding to work today! Painful at times, and technically challenging, it was such a pleasure to be out on the two wheels again…

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Please do not attach your bike here

"Per cortesia non attaccare bici a questa grata grazie"
Image caption: “Per cortesia non attaccare bici a questa grata grazie” – if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing (seen in Bologna, Italy)

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Bookmarked: A professional display of “No Handed Bike Moves”

Just rediscovered one of my all-time favourite cycling videos on Vimeo – perfect for a Friday:

Static preview image for embedded contentClick to view video from Vimeo

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Watching the Northern Lights

The night 7./8. October featured a very strong aurora display, with Northern Lights dancing about Helsinki in an intensity I had never seen before this far down in the South. A good excuse to drop everything and rush out to a dark spot:

As usual, the battery of the unprepared photographer of course died just before the most intense phase – then again, what’s better to just lie on your back on a rock and look straight up, into one of the most amazing spectacles nature has to offer, and not worry about exposure times?

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Stelvio Bike Day (Stilfserjoch Radtag) on my Brompton

A few winters ago, I read about the Stelvio Bike Day, an annual event in August where the Alps’ second highest paved pass (the Stelvio pass, at 2,757m just 13m lower than the 2,770m Col de l’Iseran in France) is closed for motorized traffic. Usually extremely popular with motorcyclists, being able to ride such an alpine classic without noise and traffic around is a tempting opportunity for every cyclist.

Since it so happened that I could arrange for a long weekend in August – and encouraged by being in reasonably good shape after a multi-week cycling holiday during the summer – I decided to give it a go this year, for the 15th edition of the event.

Considering that packing my touring bike for air transport and hauling it around airports is a significant effort, the idea was born to take my Brompton folding bike instead. As a matter of fact, its lowest gear is lower than that of the big bike, so while it may sound a little strange at first, the six-gear Brompton (an M6R model, with the -12% lowered gearing option) is actually not a bad choice for the task. And it made getting myself to Germany and from Munich airport to the foot of the mountain in Northern Italy the night before very simple.

A compact bike in a compact car.
Image caption: A compact bike in a compact rental car.

The forecast had been rather promising for many days, but based on the mountain weather report the day before, Stelvio Bike Day 2015 would see the best weather possible, maybe even a little too good. Others had obviously noticed that as well, as organisers would later report a record-breaking 12,000 cyclists to have conquered the Stelvio.

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Image caption: “Extraordinarily warm”, blue sky, sunshine, and no risk of rain or thunderstorms – this is a truly exceptional forecast for a cycling event in the Alps; just a few years ago the Stelvio Bike Day saw the peak closed due to fresh snow!

It was still well before sunrise as I woke up at the hotel in Sulden, 15km from the official base of the event in Prad. Driving down into the Venosta valley, the early bird cyclists were already on their way up the road to the pass.

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Image caption: The first rays of sun hitting the Venosta valley in South Tyrol, as I am parking the car in Prad, at the foot of the Stelvio pass.

Once down in Prad, finding a parking spot was not an issue at all; quite a few people just crawled out from their camper vans. The town clearly has some experience with this event, and the arrangements are very good, from signage to the availability of services. Getting up early paid off, not just in terms of parking in walking distance from the town centre.

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Image caption: Having taken the white Brompton (center front) out from the white rental car (front left), ready to conquer the white peak of the Stelvio pass (center back).

At 7.30am, the major influx of traffic just started and it was easy to find a seat at the breakfast table in the sun on the central square, where food and warm beverages were served by a bunch of joyful volunteers.

Image caption: “Breakfast party” at the centre square of Prad.

It was 8.15am as I set out to climb the 1,850m up the mountain (Prad is at 907m, the pass at 2,757m). The stream of cyclists had now intensified from the loose groups I encountered on the way in from Sulden, dozens of cyclists hitting the road every minute.

A good night’s rest, the fresh air in the valley and the energising atmosphere made for an easy start, raising the importance of constantly remembering to take it easy and always go a tad slower than one feels like – preserving energy is the most important virtue on an endeavour like this.

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Image caption: Riding in the shade, with the mountains illuminated by the sun – the first 10 km have a slightly below-average incline of 4-7% and provide the perfect warm-up for the challenge ahead.
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Image caption: Just after the Sulden intersection at Stilfs, the road passes through a half-open tunnel. Usually filled with the noise from motorcycles and sports cars, all that could be heard was the humming of bike tires and friendly chatter.

Up until the village of Gomagoi, the road runs in parallel to the Solda and Trafoi streams, which – thanks to the complete absence of any artificial noise – makes for a very pleasant aural experience. All you hear is the river, the bicycles around you and your own, deep and rythmic breath.

Despite repeated conversations with riders who were wondering whether such a “small bicycle” would be capable to reach the col, I soon realized that there were actually a wide range of interesting rides on the road. I saw quite a few special needs bicycles such as those propelled by hand. And during the obligatory roadside break at “Tornante 48” (1,360m), the first of the 48 numbered hairpin turns up to the top, I was even passed by a skater on roller skis while admiring a beautiful Italian-built folding bicycle which apparently did not have any gears at all.

This fellow was riding a Graziella (the Bolognese version of a folding bike), which...
Image caption: This fellow was riding a vintage Graziella (an Italian folding bike classic), which…
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Image caption: …in contrast makes this little masterpiece of British engineering look like a mobility device from the future (picture taken at the village of Trafoi at 1,547m).

I later learned that there were even a few unicyclists and tandem riders on the Stelvio that day. A handful of fully loaded touring cyclists and some parents with child trailers also stood out from the mountain/road bike crowd.

Soon after the village of Trafoi (1,547m, after 11km and one third of the total ascent), two guards secured the official start of the road closed for motorized traffic. I got laughed at by them …in a friendly way. Even though it was still early, they’d probably already seen all kind of strange contraptions going up that road.

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Image caption: Car traffic had already died down after the intersection to Sulden at the village of Stilfs, but from here on there officially were no combustion engines allowed.

After leaving the valley and stream of the first third behind, the second third of the ascent runs through a light forest along the side of the mountain. Most of the time, the turns only come into sight shortly before and the occasional view of the opposite mountains are the only indication of actual vertical progress (apart from heart rate and sweat, obviously). You just take it one stretch at a time.

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Image caption: The hairpin turns both visualize well the constant incline of the road – around 7% on average, and 14% at the steepest points. There is not a single metre of downhill or flat terrain between Prad and the peak.
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Image caption: Some cycling websites describe this part as a dull stretch, but in this brilliant weather, even just riding long straight uphills in a forest make for a great ride.
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Image caption: At times, it was hard to decide where to look. The fascinating crowd of cyclists, the peaceful forest around or the majestic Ortler massif which came back into sight every few turns.

Finally, at turn 31 (remember: this is a count-down!) I reached the first of two support stations. Locals were handing out free apples and the fire department had parked a big tank with “aqua potabile”, which given the high temperatures was met with high demand.

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Image caption: High demand for water and a logistical challenge with so many cyclists trying to park their rides. Good for those who were with somebody, to hold the bike.

It was a bit of a crowd scene, so I actually moved on a few hundred meters to have my own snack break – now with refilled water bottles – at the roadside. This also had the benefit that I could pick a spot in the shade.

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Image caption: Occasional views down on several stretches of the road made for an almost mesmerizing sight. So many cyclists zig-zagging up the mountain.
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Image caption: The landscape at this height is just absolutely stunning! And stopping to take a photo is always a good excuse for a little break.

Normally, going up a mountain this high, temperatures keep dropping. But with the sun at full steam and not a single cloud in the sky, it actually got warmer and warmer. I had long dropped the thermal shirt from under my jersey, but a sweaty exercise it remained. And the trees were getting more and more sparse.

People took their breaks wherever they needed one or felt like enjoying the landscape for a moment. Apart from the more sportive participants who pushed longer stretches at higher cadence, this made for a funny “group experience”. No matter how many or how long breaks I took, I always ended up meeting the same people again. Now, obviously there is no way to remember everybody, but previous small talk, a particular bicycle or attire, or other particuliarities helped to recognize people – after all for most of the time there was not much more to do than slowly inch up the road, one pedal stroke at a time.

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Image caption: A first view towards the iconic upper third of the Stelvio pass.

I decided to take a longer break by the Hotel Franzenshöhe at 2,188m, just around the tree line. Not so much because I needed recovery, but just because it seemed a convenient place to find a nice spot to sit and just take in the atmosphere. And with 2/3 of the height done, this is a good moment to reward oneself. Unforgettable: the impressive view up all the way to the pass – quite literally a postcard view.

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Image caption: Crowd scene at the hotel and its terrace. But overall, there was always just the right amount of people around and the atmosphere was anyways totally stress-free.
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Image caption: Giving man and machine a little break; time to take in the landscape and some delicious cake baked and sold by a local association raising funds for the victims of a farm fire down in the valley. In the background, the remaining 570m of ascent with its 21 turns and the buildings on the saddle of the pass.

I had a nice conversation with a young couple from Northern Germany as we shared the shade of a building to just sit and look at the neverending queue of cyclists inching up the pass in what most likely is the best weather such event could possibly see.

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Image caption: The two last turns before Franzenshöhe (numbers 24 and 23), and there was even a small service station carrying out emergency repairs on the go. This is actually one of my favourite photos of the day – summarizing the whole awesomeness of this masterpiece of civil engineering that is the Stelvio pass.

The longer I looked at it – down the slope and up – the more surreal this whole event made me feel. Not just the insane luck with the weather and the positive surprise about my own fitness and the Brompton’s suitability for this endeavour, but just seeing that thousands of people had made their way here to enjoy what must be one of the greatest cycling events I can think of.

Moving on, the goal was now almost constantly in sight. With no more trees around, it was easy to see how far I had come from Franzenshöhe and how far I’d still have to go. Not to mention the now unobstructed view on the Ortler massif – what an awesomely beautiful landscape.

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Image caption: How far have I come? A view down from the side of the road gives a very precise answer (Hotel Franzenshöhe afar in the centre of the image). And the snow-covered peak of the Ortler in the background reminds just how high up we are here.
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Image caption: A closer look back shows that the flow of cyclists continues uninterrupted also behind me. At the lower right end: the fire department’s second water truck at turn 14.

The air gets thinner as you climb a mountain, and while altitude sickness should not be a major concern (even though it is commonly observed from 2,400m up), I did develop a bit of a headache – usually a first indication of being affected by the reduced amout of oxygen in combination with physical exercise. I made sure to remain well hydrated and, just to be on the safe side, popped a 200mg Ibuprofen to reduce the symptoms. It is well possible the headache may have just come from the neck muscles, this being quite an extraordinary exercise.

Photo by fotostelvio.com, used with permission
Image caption: I had not planned to purchase any of the commercial event photos, but this shot is just too hilarious! Photo by fotostelvio.com, published with permission.

And then, faster than anticipated as the distances between the turns get shorter as one approaches the peak, “Tornante 1”, the final turn, was in sight. A sign wishes farewell from South Tyrol, as the pass marks the border to the next Italian province, Sondrio.

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Image caption: You are now leaving South Tyrol, at the peak entering Sondrio. The final turn and the long stretch to the saddle of the pass.
One last view back at the Ortler before heading over the saddle of the pass.
Image caption: One last view back at the Ortler before heading over the saddle of the pass.

It was good to take a breath at the last turn. A few hundred meters later (as a special service, a distance countdown is painted on the asphalt every 100m), I entered a crowd scene of cyclists celebrating their achievement, queueing for sausages and drinks, buying souvenirs and taking the obligatory photos.

Riding up the Stelvio pass from Prad had taken me 5.5h, including all breaks, which makes for a rather moderate 4.5km/h average. Or 330m/h in vertical direction, which means climbing my own body height every 20 seconds for over five hours. Needless to say I was, beyond pretty exhausted, deeply impressed by the Brompton’s performance. And my own, if you allow!

Despite the amount of people, the atmosphere was again most relaxed and joyful. Personally, I was pretty amused that not just one but three Italians independently approached me within a few minutes, looking at the bike, then at me, saying some friendly (Italian) words of appreciation and then shaking my hand. Considering the fact that I had seen many road bikes with less suitable gearing than my ride, I replied in German that they probably had a harder time than I did, but I guess it’s just the appearance of my “clown bike” with its 16″ wheels that fascinates people. And there is nothing wrong with that – I’m always happy when my Brompton entertains others.

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Image caption: The tourist market at the peak of the pass, crowds of cyclists rightfully proud of their achievement, and once again the 3,905m high peak of the Ortler overlooking it all.

Frankly, after the great workout in the nature, the circus on the top did not appeal to me all that much. I had my photo taken by the iconic “Stelvio” sign (plastered with stickers, so the text is actually not readable), ate a snack in the shade and engaged in a brief conversation with a friendly Swiss couple riding a device called the Elliptigo – a crosstrainer on wheels which in its quirkyness made my ride appear much more normal again.

During my break, I started to mentally prepare for what I anticipated to be the most difficult part of the trip: riding down 1,800m while controlling my speed with rim brakes on 16″ wheels. These tiny wheels (the rim circumfence is about half that of a road bike) tend to heat up fast – and on 8-14% declines, an exploding tube would definitively be a ticket to the hospital. A rescue helicopter was on stand by for the event, but I had no intend to return to the foot of the mountain but on my own two wheels.

As I started rolling towards the Umbrail pass, the recommended and generally opted-for route back down via Switzerland, my strategy was to combine a braking technique of short, hard deceleration followed by no braking until necessary, with regular breaks to cool the rims. Which was a bit annoying at first – with everybody else speeding down on their “big” bikes – but soon turned out to be just a wonderful way of enjoying the landscape without constantly just looking at the road.

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Image caption: Different landscape on this side of the mountain; view back up to the pass from just behind the Swiss border.

The environment of this side of the mountain is a little different, and for sure deserves to not just being raced through. And even with my slow approach, getting down the mountain took well less than an hour in total.

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Image caption: These are the moments where you really wish to have disc brakes!
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Image caption: The route also featured some less steep stretches, where the Brompton reached up to 55km/h – big fun!

My stop-and-go strategy provided opportunities for more random interactions, such as with the two Italian guys who insisted to take a photo with me. Evenly hilarious was the guy who decided to check his disk brakes’ temperature and almost burnt his fingers! (Lesson learnt: Thou shalt not touch your brake surface when racing down the Stelvio!)

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Image caption: Since this year, even the last few hundred metres of gravel have been replaced with shiny and smooth asphalt.

I took my time, enjoyed the fruit of my hard labour the hours before, and eventually arrived safely down in the Swiss valley, where staff guided all cyclists onto the route back to the Italian border. From here on, it was just joyful riding on roads, with the only tiny uphill waiting on the last three kilometres before Prad.

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Image caption: Once back in the valley, just follow the signs…
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Image caption: …back to Italy.

Personally, I would have appreciated another opportunity to refill my water bottles, but given the otherwise flawless organisation of the event, this was a minor issue. There was a big party going on in Prad, with live music and a beer garden.

Overall, a mindblowing experience that I warmheartedly recommend any cyclist to add to their bucket list. Your next chance is on 27 August 2016 and despite the sound of it, I believe it is very much doable for everybody with reasonable fitness and a bit of stubbornness.

From Prad in the upper right clockwise up to the saddle of the pass and back via Switzerland - a 65km loop with 25km of very hard work, follwed by 40km of almost no work at all...

And if you happen to own a Brompton – don’t be shy to consider it as your ride for conquering the Stelvio. At least with the -12% 6-gear setup, I deem it more than suitable for crossing an alpine mountain pass. (And it had been done before!)

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  • Dayna:

    What an awesome ride! I'd heard about the Stelvio, and seems a couple of pics, but your post has really brought it to life. Congratulations on a fabulous ride and great photos! Thanks for sharing ?

    2015-10-03

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Autumn sun

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Image caption: At Vuosaari in Eastern Helsinki, on a Sunday afternoon ride in the warm autumn sun.

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A little morning detour

With my current office located about 1/3 around an inlet of the Baltic Sea, I chose the longer route this morning (2/3 around said inlet, the other way around).

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Image caption: Viikki nature reserve, entering from Herttoniemi.

What better to make use of an early wake-up than to enjoy the beauty of a nature reserve from the seat of a bicycle while others grow grey hair in traffic jams or squeeze themselves into crowded buses?

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Image caption: Headless rider? Must be related to the early morning… (It has to be said: the Brompton makes for very weird shadows sometimes)

With autumn around the corner, these last few days of late summer once more show the awesomeness that is Finnish nature.

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Image caption: It doesn’t get much more stereotypical than this!

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An attempt at “mountain training” in Helsinki

In preparation for a bike event in the alps, I tried my best to find a suitable terrain to test my fitness on uphills. Not an easy task in a place like Helsinki… In addition to the Velskola hills in Espoo (part of the annual Tour de Helsinki), the only place I could think of are the rolling hills of Immersby in Sipoo, a rough 15km from Itäkeskus.

Finding the nearest hills for a bit of uphill training.

Frankly, these are not much of a terrain to train for an alpine workout, but it was a beautiful evening and at least reassured me of decent fitness that may well be enought to tackle the second highest paved mountain pass in the Alps a week later.

Not much of a training terrain, but comes with beautiful sunsets!
Image caption: Not much of a training terrain, but comes with beautiful sunsets!

And riding the hills twice – returning the same route – I at least got almost 350m of climbing out of that evening.

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Elk spotting at Porkkala

Porkkala, a peninsula in the municipality of Kirkkonummi, has long been in military use and today serves – along with few remaining public functions – as a recreation area with lots of untouched nature and a fascinating, rocky coastline.

Located only 30 km southwest from Helsinki, it is the perfect destination for a day ride. It was a week after midsummer last year, when I hopped on my bike in the afternoon and went to explore the area. Besides sitting in the sun and looking out to the calmingly wavy sea, spotting elk on almost every single field on the way back made this a ride to remember. In the end, I cut it short by taking a train back from Kirkkonummi – why go exhaust yourself after such a great outing?

Obviously, riding out all the way from Helsinki adds a lot of kilometers; taking the bike on the local train to Kirkkonummi is free and cuts the dull suburbian part out from the trip:

It's a nice trip, but beware the hilly parts in the southern part of the peninsula!

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Spring bliss in Viikki

If you need any more arguments why running errands by bike is bliss: it's moments like this, when a 9 pm sunset combined with the fresh green of early spring create an almost magical atmosphere (taken in the Viikki nature area, Helsinki).
Image caption: If you need any more arguments why running errands by bike is bliss: it’s moments like this, when a 9 pm sunset combined with the fresh green of early spring create an almost magical atmosphere (taken in the Viikki nature area, Helsinki).

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Parking your bike with style

Bold parking at Tammisto.
Image caption: The commercial area of Tammisto/Vantaa has one of the most car-centric layouts imaginable. I can’t help but see a political statement in the bold way this cyclist has parked their ride.

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After-work workout to Helsinki airport

Helsinki-Vantaa airport is just the right distance from downtown for an after-work workout ride.
Image caption: Helsinki-Vantaa airport is just the right distance from downtown for an after-work workout ride.
Up north through Keskuspuisto park and along the Silvola water reservoir, back via Malmi and Viikki; with a little detour through Herttoniemi (avoiding steep hills due to a snapped gear cable).

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A Kivinokka sunset

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Stopping at Tervasaari to enjoy the sunset

Communting by bike means: the freedom to do a loop through Tervasaari island to admire the spring sunset over Merihaka and Kallio.
Image caption: Communting by bike means: the freedom to do a loop through Tervasaari island to admire the spring sunset over Merihaka and Kallio.

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Bookmarked: An engine-powered Brompton – why not?

YouTube never ceases to amaze me, and this time the “Recommended videos” sidebar led me to a video clip that made me gasp – this fellow mounted a 125 cc engine on his Brompton:

Static preview image for embedded contentClick to view video from YouTube

So while some Brompton owner communities are speculating about whether and when an e-bike version of the folding classic might be announced, others are already speeding along on a combustible engine? Needless to say, this is probably not recommended to be done at home – and apart from that it somehow takes the fun out of riding a bicycle, no? Impressive creativity, nonetheless.

PS: This is the DIY video – don’t miss to watch the 125cc Brompton in action.

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Movie: Breaking Away (1979)

While this is not a cycling film per se, but more a story about adolescence, “Breaking Away” from 1979 is not just an Oscar-awarded coming-of-age movie, but a comical, while serious story developing around a young man obsessed with cycling.

Static preview image for embedded contentClick to view video from YouTube

After winning a Masi bicycle, lead character Dave develops an obsessive interest in competitive bicycle racing and anything Italian, the country of great cyclists. While struggling to find his place in the world, he slowly transforms into a “real Italian”, which inevitably is to come to an end once reality hits. After all, he lives in 1960s Bloomington and he is from Indiana, not Italy.

This is a hilarious movie, if you can get hold of it (Helsinki City Library has a copy, listed under the Finnish title “Fillarijengi”).

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Autumn has arrived: Gritty gears on the Brompton

It’s October and the dirt season has begun in Southern Finland. We get a lot of rain and wind, making for very dirty road conditions. I recently, for the first time since starting to use the Brompton back in March, encountered some issues with the gears not shifting properly in wet conditions. A view to the moving parts revealed the likely reason for that:

The "derailleur" (actually more a chain guide) does not do its job when gritty.
Image caption: The derailleur (officially: “chain pusher”) does not do its job when gritty.

Turns out that the design of the plastic chain guides is prone to collect all kind of dirt, which then negatively affects the shifting between the small and the large sprocket.

Lots of sand and dirt accumulates in the little chain wheels.
Image caption: Lots of sand and dirt accumulates in the little chain wheels.

Cleaning this out was quite a bit of work, as just using a brush was not enough; I had to peel the sand out of all kinds of little openings and edges. But now the gears are working fine again – until the next rainy day, I presume. (I might also try to use a dry chain oil instead of wet lube, which always tends to collect more dirt.)

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Exploring Saaremaa and the West of Estonia

After our big Japan expedition in late 2013, there were too many work and other obligations to schedule a longer bike tour in 2014. But with two touring bikes standing around, and the Nordic summer being short as it is, we obviously had to get out on the road for at least a week or so.

It was already late July when we came up with the idea (and the sudden opportunity) to go explore Finland’s southern neighbour Estonia. With the two capitals only a two-hour ferry ride apart, getting to Tallinn was easy. Roll on, kill some time, roll off. And then lunch.

Approaching Tallinn on the Eckerö M/S Finlandia; first thing after arrival would be to wait out that mid-day thunderstorm brewing up in the picture.
Image caption: Approaching Tallinn on the Eckerö M/S Finlandia; first thing after arrival was to wait out that mid-day thunderstorm brewing up in the distance and soon after flooding the streets downtown.

Estonia does not have an excessive railway network, but there are some interesting connections from Tallinn, mostly operated with brand-new commuter trains that have plenty of space for bicycles. Which travel for free, by the way.

We aimed to ride the train to the western terminus at Riisipere and then cycle towards the island of Saaremaa. Despite some minor roadblocks on the way – namely the train was replaced by small buses for a few kilometers – we made it just in time for our first campsite in the Matsalu national park.

Eventually, a bigger bus showed up and - despite the lack of a cargo bay - we were admitted to the ride.
Image caption: Eventually, a bigger bus showed up and – despite the lack of a cargo bay – we were admitted to the ride.

During the next days, we made our way from Matsalu via the tiny island of Muhu (with a very nice, if wasp-infested, campsite and a wonderful restaurant at the outdoor museum of …) and the eastern parts of Saaremaa to the island’s main town of Kuuressaare.

On the way, as we were looking out for a good spot for stealth camping, we discovered the newly opened Kõiguste Marina which catered to campers as well. The opportunity of a nice shower at the end of the day made it a no-brainer to pay the few euros to stay. Which turned out to be a great decision, since coincidentally friends from Helsinki were mooring here for the night and so we even got some surprise company – here and the next evening at Kuuressaare. Sometimes it is amazing how small this world is!

A most peaceful marina with, according to the owner, the most beautiful sunset in Estonia. Only the wind put our tent pitching skills to the test.
Image caption: A most peaceful marina with, according to the owner, the most beautiful sunset in Estonia. Only the wind put our tent pitching skills to the test.

The days after Kuuressaare – where we spent our only night not camping, in the hostel inside the airport terminal building – we then went down all the way to the southern tip of the island. Besides being beautiful landscape, this part of Saaremaa testifies for the tough history of this area, and Estonia as a nation, as it has been over and over occupied by various forces – most notably this was the site of severe battles between the Soviet army and Nazi-Germany’s Wehrmacht in the final phases of WWII.

The lighthouse at the southernmost tip of Saaremaa, Sorve. This place has seen a lot in history, when for example Hitler's troops evacuated to the Latvian coast.
Image caption: The lighthouse at the southernmost tip of Saaremaa, Sõrve. This place has seen a lot in history, when for example Hitler’s troops evacuated to the Latvian coast.

Well rested after two days on a well-maintained and peaceful camping area near Tehumardi, we then made our way back via the northern neighbouring island of Hiiumaa. On the way, we discovered a windmill museum, a former Soviet farm transformed into a hostel (with attached camping facilities, which we made use of), a bird tower in a nature reserve and a wool farm selling self-made wool products. The latter felt a little excessive – buying wool socks on day eight of a bike tour during a heat wave – but once again reassured us why the speed of cycle touring is just right: fast enough to get to places, slow enough to get to see them.

The typical windmills in this area are ingenious in their design.
Image caption: The typical windmills in this area are ingenious in their design. If only it wouldn’t have been quite as hot to enjoy the visit a bit more.

The final leg of the tour was the rail trail following the former train line from Haapsalu (featuring a nice railway museum) to Riisipere. A dusty, but well-prepared surface, though riding in the July heat was made a little tricky because there were so many bugs it was almost impossible to stop for a rest.

Cycle touring the western islands of Estonia involves a lot of boat rides. Which is great fun, and provides for some time to cool off in the breeze.
Image caption: Cycle touring the western islands of Estonia involves a lot of boat rides. Which is great fun, and provides for some time to cool off in the breeze.

Looking back, we were stunned to realize what a cycle touring gem has been existing a few hours journey away from our home without us being aware of it. Interaction with the locals was limited (not so much a language issues, as Finnish is very close to Estonian, but probably more a cultural trait), but the infrastructure was good and the landscapes most beautiful.

Oh, and not to forget: this part of Estonia is almost entirely flat. Even just going through an underpass in Kuuressaare felt like hard work after riding in the flat for so many days. Winds can be fierce on the coast at times, but at least in the summer of 2014, that was only a welcome opportunity to cool down a bit.

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Vytautas – a salty suprise

The exceptional heat wave during the second half of July added a surprising challenge to our 10-day bike tour in Western Estonia: on the small islands we were traversing, many of the stores had run out of bottled water. Smaller village shops in particular often had nothing else than soft drinks to offer.

As we stopped at the small grocery store in Risti, half way on the rail trail between Haapsalu and Riisipere, we to our great joy found several bottles of a reasonably priced carbonated water.

What we thought to be just regular carbonated water.
Image caption: What we thought to be just regular carbonated water.

The first taste however left us no longer wondering that there was such a fair amount of these bottles left on the shelves: we had just bought the most salty water imaginable – probably, the surprise made it even more intense, but it literally tasted like bottled sea water.

Only a few days later did we find out that Vytautas is actually a famous source of mineral water in Lithuania (“The biggest amount of useful minerals”), with a very particular mix of minerals that makes it both very salty, but – supposedly – also very healthy.

And, it turned out, we were not the only ones to have made fun of it – as we found this hilarious fake advertisement video, which had apparently been a great viral hit in 2012:

Static preview image for embedded contentClick to view video from YouTube

The raw asomeness of minerals …and no fish have pooped in it!

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An outline of downtown Helsinki

In the beginning of August, the nights up here in the North are still very light, even though in the middle of the night it already starts to get properly dark. One evening, as it was still warm enough to go for a bike ride in shorts, I headed downtown for a bit of exercise and on the way it occurred to me that it would be an interesting experiment to “draw” a GPS track along the shore line of the city.

42 km and 2 hours later (excluding the obligatory ice cream break at a 24/7 gas station on the way), this is what my tracker had recorded:

Following the Helsinki shore line as closely as possible.

It was an interesting ride, with many sights along the route and there just is no better way to enjoy a summer evening in the city than on the bike.

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First 1000km on the Brompton

Ever since I got my Brompton, I have been running every single errand on the new bike. And I even managed to squeeze in a few longer day trips. So it comes to no surprise it took only slightly more than three months to reach the 1000 km mark.

As I was on a evening ride the other day, I decided to play around with the arrangement from the Brompton logo by the shore downtown.

Image caption: Playing around with a reference to the Brompton logo at Kaivopuisto in Helsinki.

Lessons learned: Trying to do a multi-photo montage of an object in front of water with waves (or probably any kind of water) is a bad idea. It doesn’t matter at this size, but erasing the overlap of different wave structures was hard work. And a low-sitting sun is a bit of a challenge, as it causes reflections as on the front tire on the leftmost third of the image.

Next time, I’ll try to find a better background for this. The Suomenlinna sea fortress in the background just seemed like such a great idea when I was on site.

And I really need to take the cyclocross bike out for a few longer rides soon; it has been terribly neglected as I was just too busy having fun crusing around on the 16-inch wheels.

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An evening ride in Helsinki

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Fitting Ergon BioKork GP1 grips on a Brompton M handlebar

The only truly disappointing part of a mint Brompton as it is delivered from the factory in London are its cheap foam handlebar grips. Even after riding only short distances of the rough asphalt, used to withstand the cold winters up here in the North, my hands got sore and I got some nasty nerve pain.

I really wonder why a bike of such overall quality is being shipped with such a poor “user interface” – as much fun riding the Brompton has been from day one, these grips seriously had the potential to take the joy out of it at times.

Luckily there is a proven solution for the problem – if you browse around Brompton owner’s websites, you will see that the majority is using what is claimed to be the most comfortable handlebar grips available – the Ergon BioKork GP1 (or GP3 for those who like to have bull horn ends).

Now, the only way to get the old foam stuff off is to cut it into small slices with a razor blade or carpet knife. The grips are glued to the handlebar for safety with a very strong adhesive, making them practically immovable.

Cutting off the original handlebar grips.
Image caption: Cutting off the original handlebar grips.

While the cutting is the easy part – and trust me, I did not feel any sadness about “ruining” those stock foam grips – the next step is the most time-consuming part of the process: getting of the remains of the glue is hard work.

Getting off the glue residues is a major PITA.
Image caption: Getting off the glue residues is a major PITA.

Eventually, after a lot of scraping and brushing, it was time to unpack the BioKorks from their environment-friendly cardboard package and fit them on. This is, after loosening the brake handles to be able to push them inward towards the centre of the handlebar.

Information on the web had been inconsistent on whether or not the M handlebar, with its distinct curves in the centre, would provide enough space to fit the full size GP1 grips. Some Brompton owners posted images of Ergons cut to fit or using the much shorter Grip Shift version.

IMG_3217
Image caption: The big question was: would the Ergon grips fit without cutting? By my definition: yes, if barely!

I found the grips to fit just fine, without any cutting (NB. this is valid for the GP1, your mileage may vary for the GP3). After a lot of turning and squeezing, the grips eventually moved far enough for the outer clamp to get a good hold around the end of the handlebar (not 100% according to Ergon’s instructions, but with a good 2/3 of the clamp holding on to the handlebar, I do not see any issue here).

According to the official Ergon instructions, the grips' clamp should not extend beyond the end of the handlebar. In my books, this 3/4 overlap is fine for holding them firmly in place [Update 2016-08-17: Over two years and thousands of km later, the grips have never moved].
Image caption: According to the official Ergon instructions, the grips’ clamp should not extend beyond the end of the handlebar. In my books, this 2/3 overlap is fine for holding them firmly in place.
The space on the handlebar was just enough for the brake/shifter handles to fit into the edge of the bar’s bend down towards the stem, moving them as far inwards as possible:

IMG_3221
Image caption: The brake/shifter combo can be moved just far enough towards the bend of the M bar to make space for regular Ergon GP1 grips, without the need to cut them.

I turned the brake handles down to the same angle as they were installed before, as to not interfere with the fold, and after about an hour of work I was able to declare the operation a success: the Brompton now had grips that felt worthy of such a high-quality bicycle – and the cork finish actually looks pretty nice on the otherwise black and white bicycle.

The first test ride, and several long days of commuting and leisure ride since, have proven the investment worth every euro – I have never again experienced numb hands, and the thick grips with their ergonomical shape have been a true joy to use. Two weeks after its delivery, the Brompton is finally delivering the experience I had been expecting.

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  • Fred:

    Hi,
    just found your blog and i'm interested in installing ergon gp1 on my M6L Brompton bike (new from last month, 07/2016).
    I read many times that the grip has to be cut before installing and it seems that you did not. That sounds great to me.
    is it possible to have a bit more explanations and pictures about this please ?
    thank you for your help.

    2016-08-17

  • Sebastian:

    @Fred:
    I can confirm that I was able to made the Ergon GP1 fit without any cutting. The brake/shifter handles have to be moved towards the curve of the handlebar, which is a bit tricky, and they can just be moved far enough to allow the GP1 to fit on. I added one more detail photo above that illustrates that the tightening clamp of the grips do extend about 1/3 beyond the handlebar, but in practice - speaking of thousands of kilometers in my case - that is not relevant. The grips hold well and have never moved nor turned on my bike. I highly recommend this solution, especially with slightly bigger hands it is extremely comfortable to have such big and comfortable grips.

    2016-08-17

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Bookmarked: Bobby Gadda – touring on a tallbike

As we are approaching the shortest day of the year, this hilarious presentation is just what the doctor ordered to remember why it is worth waiting for the next summer and make plans to get out touring again:

Static preview image for embedded contentClick to view video from YouTube

Personally, I would be terribly scared to ride such thing in traffic (even though I fully buy that it is actually a stable ride with great passive safety by being so extraordinary) – but the tallbike itself is not the point here anyway… It’s about getting out of the door and do it. If you need a great primer to see that it is easier than you may think, check the comprehensive article “It’s ALL about the bike” by Leo Woodland.

On a side note, I have seen some pretty extraordinary tallbikes in the city every now and then, but I never knew that they originally were invented for very serious purposes: Practical Origins of the Tall Bike: gas lamp lighting & flood travel

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Cycle touring in the shadow of Mount Fuji

Japan – densely populated megacities, overcrowded commuter trains, narrow roads with tiny cars, the constant risk of devastating earthquakes and a distinct typhoon season. As we first started our research, we did not dare to believe when most sources kept telling that bicycle touring in Japan would be easy.

Yet, we decided to give it a try and make it the destination for our first long cycling holiday. What we found is a country built on convenience and courtesy, paired with a cultural and geographical variety that provided for a cycling adventure to remember.

Mt Fuji from lake Yamanaka.
Image caption: A last view at Mt Fuji from lake Yamanaka, before starting our 120km downhill ascent into Tokyo for the final day of the tour. Fall colours were at their best, and the weather could not have been better to send us off.

It is Tuesday evening 8pm as we dismount our bicycles at Ikebukuro station, in one of the busiest shopping districts of Tokyo. Behind us a long 120km day on the road, almost like a final summary of our 2.5 week trip through Japan: In the morning, we started out from the beautiful lake Yamanaka by Mt Fuji, from where we climbed a steep uphill to the highest pass of our tour, 1000m above sea level. Then, we cruised along small country roads through orchids and forests, with the occasional pit stop at a convenience store or road station, until hitting the outskirts of Tokyo.

Overcoming the constant challenge of navigation, we eventually found our way through rush hour traffic and, jumping back and forth between riding on three-lane highways and narrow sidewalks, reached our final destination.

Rush hour traffic as we are headed into Tokyo. Not much of a shoulder, but generally more safe than on the sidewalks.
Image caption: Rush hour traffic as we are headed into Tokyo. Not much of a shoulder along with very narrow lanes, but generally more safe than on the sidewalks.

16 days after our departure, after 950km on the road, we are back where our tour had begun. A tour that still half a year ago felt like little more than a crazy idea – to haul our bikes all the way to Japan and cycle through a volcanic and therefore mountainous country on infamously narrow streets while being unable to verbally communicate with the locals. Today, we could not be happier to have overcome our initial skepticism; in Japan, we found what we believe to be one of the most suitable destinations for bicycle touring.

Despite the narrow streets and mountainous areas, we found Japan to be a place that is amazingly easy to bike tour.
Image caption: Despite the narrow streets and mountainous areas, we found Japan to be a place that is amazingly easy to bike tour.

Initially planted into our heads by an online video of a couple cycling through the northern island of Hokkaido, the concept matured over several months and manifested itself in the plan to fly to Tokyo, take a ferry to the island of Shikoku in the west and bike back to the capital, passing through Kyoto and surrounding Mt Fuji on the way.

After months of research, and having read dozens of travel diaries from other cyclists, we had prepared a preliminary route that would lead us over the lowest possible mountain passes and partially following dedicated cycling routes. Based on the reports we read, bicycle touring in Japan sounded like the easiest and safest thing in the world. We were ready to give it a try, and soon booked the tickets for three weeks from late October to early November.

Great to see: Our bikes are on board as well. In 11 hours, we will be in Tokyo!
Image caption: Great to see: Our bikes are on board as well. In 11 hours, we will be in Tokyo!

As with any bike tour starting from elsewhere than home, getting there and back is one of the most troublesome parts of the trip. While getting a bicycle to the airport in Helsinki is easy, Japan brings along certain challenges. From Narita airport, neither taxis nor public transport accept luggage of the size of bike boxes, so the only options are to either forward them with a shipping company or to unpack the bikes and ride directly out of the airport or repack them into a bike bag as required by the Japanese railway companies.

"Economy class" accommodation on the 18-hour ferry ride from Tokyo to Tokushima - a cheap and convenient way to get to the starting point for our tour.
Image caption: “Economy class” accommodation on the 18-hour ferry ride from Tokyo to Tokushima – a cheap and convenient way to get to the starting point for our tour.

From our point of view, the railroad bike bag option is tricky for a fully equipped touring bicycle and therefore we opted to not use the train to get to the intended starting point of our tour and instead take an overnight ferry from Tokyo to Tokushima to get to the west.

A local contact in Tokyo eased our logistical challenge by picking us up from the airport by car and we rode the 40km from their home to the harbor the next day – a mind-blowing experience, navigating to a downtown harbor area in pouring rain under up to five levels of elevated motorways while still trying to adjust to the left-side traffic and fighting with jetlag. All exhaustion aside, would there be any better way to make yourself realize you just set out on a long bike tour in Japan?

Bicycles are always well secured on Japanese ferries.
Image caption: Bicycles are always well secured on Japanese ferries.

During our 17 days on the road, we became just as used to riding on the left hand side as we learned to not worry about the narrow streets – Japanese drivers are so courteous that we sometimes almost felt embarrassed to see a queue of cars kindly staying behind us while we were inching up a mountain road at under 10 km/h.

The biggest traffic hazard, to our surprise, is other cyclists. Not the friendly lycra crowd on their road bikes who during the weekends always threw us a “ganbatte” (godspeed!) when passing, but the common commuters on their “mamachari”. These omnipresent granny bikes, cheap and heavy single-speed steel machines that can carry up to three child seats, are being ridden in almost anarchical fashion. More than once we had near-miss situations with salarymen rushing to the train station on the wrong side of the road or mothers on a shopping run not watching for traffic when crossing a street. We soon learned that riding “mamachari style” was sometimes the safest option for us as well, and that a lot of what we perceived as courtesy from drivers might as well just be anticipation of cyclists being unpredictable in traffic.

A convenience store is never more than a few minutes away.
Image caption: A convenience store is never more than a few minutes away.

Touring itself turned out to be just as easy as we were told. Japan is so well adjusted to people on the move – even though usually, unless on a mamachari, the preferred mode of transportation is the train – that it is hard to imagine a place with a better touring infrastructure.

Even in the most remote countryside areas, the next convenience store would never be more than 30 minutes away and they all provide free washroom facilities and the possibility to eat a warm meal or refill on drinks. Also restaurants are in abundance, not to mention the beverage vending machines on literally every street corner, and on occasion we would take the opportunity to get out of the rain for a while and soak in a hot spa along the way.

Not the fancy sushi meals you see in the glossy "Visit Japan" brochures - yet, if you ask us, a bento in the shade on the parking lot of a conbini is one of the greatest lunches to have!
Image caption: Not the fancy sushi meals you see in the glossy “Visit Japan” brochures – yet, if you ask us, a bento in the shade on the parking lot of a conbini is one of the greatest lunches to have!

Apart from the ferry ride and our first hotel night, we usually booked our accommodation on the same day, using our smartphone’s booking application with a Japanese SIM card. Cheap business hotels are almost everywhere, often at rates that compete with European hostel dormitories (though, obviously, the weakness of the Yen contributed a lot to making this vacation affordable).

We also carried a tent and stayed on camping sites; once even in a public park by a river as we could not find a suitable place to stay otherwise. Wild camping, while not officially allowed, is easily possible in Japan and skilled stealth campers would rarely have to pay for a hotel.

Stealth camping - no problem in Japan.
Image caption: Stealth camping – no problem in Japan.

Also beyond the booking of accommodation, having a data subscription for the smartphone was of great value: while our Garmin GPS with preloaded Open Streetmap maps generally provided good guidance, at times we appreciated the ability to see complex traffic intersections on a satellite image for orientation or to find the nearest bike shop to replace a pair of worn out brake pads.

Most important, however, was the ability to check the weather situation, in particular since two typhoons were shovelling lots of wind and rain onto our tracks during the first week on the road.

Skipping this shrine and checking in to a nice spa hotel in the early afternoon was a no-brainer as we once again got rained on.
Image caption: Skipping this shrine and checking in to a nice spa hotel in the early afternoon was a no-brainer as we once again got rained on.

While we were aware of October being typhoon season, it was unusual at this time of year to have so many typhoons. Otherwise the weather was pleasant for riding, with temperatures feeling like Finnish summer. Although unlike Finnish summer, the sun, rising around 6am, sets abruptly around 5pm, which greatly influenced our choice of destination for the day, as we preferred to avoid riding in darkness, especially among busy narrow roads and “mamachari” bicyclists with no lights. In our view, seasonally, the only alternative for this sort of trip to Japan would be to go in spring (April/May).

Sometimes, we'd wished to be able to read the signs - in this case it would have saved us from an exhausting climb and backtrack to find a detour.
Image caption: Sometimes, we’d wished to be able to read the signs – in this case it would have saved us from an exhausting climb and backtrack to find a detour.

Maybe the biggest limitation of touring Japan by bicycle is that visiting the big tourist sites is not without challenges while having to care for a fully-loaded bicycle. Generally, we felt very safe to leave our bikes unlocked when stopping for lunch or at a store, but we did decide to skip a few sightseeing opportunities as we just couldn’t figure out how to safely leave our bikes at a crowded tourist scene.

We still believe that we got such an intense impression of Japan “off the beaten path” that missing a few major temples or shrines did not matter to us, and we definitely found some sites that no regular tourist would ever be able to discover.

We may have missed a few "must-see" sights, but got to know sides of Japan that the average rail pass tourist does not get to explore.
Image caption: We may have missed a few “must-see” sights, but got to know sides of Japan that the average rail pass tourist does not get to explore.

So here we stand, at Ikebukuro station on a Tuesday night in early November, and it is hard to believe that this trip has come to an end. All these days on the road, Tokyo always felt like a long ride away and our daily world consisted of small, 60km slices of a country that at the same time served us with a homogenous infrastructure to rely upon and surprising experiences to discover.

Wherever we came by, the two tall foreigners with their touring panniers were a little attraction and we experienced genuinely friendly hospitality, if often limited by the language barrier. We would never have believed, but Japan indeed is as close to an ideal bike touring destination as we can imagine.

Our route from Shikoku in the west, via Kyoto and around Mt Fuji back to Tokyo.
Image caption: Our route from Shikoku in the west, via Kyoto and around Mt Fuji back to Tokyo (colours indicate terrain height, with a mountain ridge after Kyoto and the 1000m high plateau around Mt Fuji).

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Bike parking as a statement

Municipal election candidate Otso Kivekäs has cycling as a top priority on his agenda - this is reflected in the way he parked his campaign cargo bike at the Greens' election party.
Image caption: Municipal election candidate Otso Kivekäs has cycling as a top priority on his agenda – this is reflected in the way he parked his campaign cargo bike at the Greens’ election party.

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Conquering Åland, after the tourists are gone

We refused to accept that summer was over. Even though the season had already clearly changed towards the common fall weather, we decided to arrange a long weekend to go for one more bike tour as long as it still was reasonable. The destination was chosen quickly: the Åland Islands half-way between the Finnish mainland and Sweden.

However, it soon became clear that bike touring in Åland, while one of the more popular forms of tourism on these islands, comes with some extra challenges after August. The tourist season has a very distinct end, after which many camp sites and restaurants are closing for the winter and the public connection ferries – inevitable for travelling in the archipelago – reduce their traffic to primarily serve the need of the locals.

So, planning the trip turned out a little more complex than we expected, but with the help of a few maps, timetables and booking websites, we soon were ready for our departure with the Viking Line ferry from Helsinki to Mariehamn, the capital of Åland, on Friday evening, 7 September.

Travelling to Aland from mainland Finland commonly involves a ride of one of these - the big car (and party cruise) ferries to Stockholm. Here, we are ready for boarding to the MS Gabriella.
Image caption: Travelling to Aland from mainland Finland commonly involves a ride of one of these – the big car (and party cruise) ferries to Stockholm. Here, we are ready for boarding the MS Gabriella.

It was a short night. Not only because of the scheduled arrival at 4:30am (the ferry boats between Helsinki and Stockholm only briefly stop at Mariehamn, primarily serving the longer route), but also because the cabins turned out to be the site of loud drinking parties on a Friday night. Boat security eventually managed to silence the neighbouring cabins and while not fully rested, we had gotten a few hours of sleep as we disembarked the car deck on our trusty aluminium steeds into the empty streets of Mariehamn. The 24/7 gas station downtown, our first destination, was crowded with party goers grabbing a snack on their way home, while we were probably the first customers of the day to buy coffee and fresh-baked cinamon rolls.

Sunrise, somewhere half way between Mariehamn and our first boat.
Image caption: Sunrise, somewhere half way between Mariehamn and the harbour at Vardö.

After a breakfast by the marina, we then set out on the country roads towards the north, since we had an archipelago ferry to catch, a mere 50km away. It was fun to ride in the almost total darkness in the center of the empty country road, and experiencing the slowly insetting dawn was an experience to remember. And while the schedule was tight and two short boat connections on the way added some insecurity, we made it to the harbour of Vardö, even with half an hour to spare.

Our ride, approaching the harbour of Vardö.
Image caption: Our ride, approaching the harbour of Vardö.

The next 2.5 hours were spent relaxing on the ship, sitting in the sun and gazing at the beautiful archipelago. After arrival at Torsholma, we had another 30km to ride – interrupted only for a few photo stops and for a traditional pancake snack at one of the few cafes open at this time of the year.

A traditional Åland pancake, at Trixie's cafe.
Image caption: A traditional Åland pancake, at Trixie’s cafe.

At the end of the day stood another 10 min boat ride, after which we checked in at the hostel of Brändö – which, to our great joy, we found to have all for ourselves. The keeper of the hostel even was friendly enough to briefly open the village store for us, so we were able to get ingredients for a delicious dinner.

Leaving the small island community of Brändö in the morning.
Image caption: Leaving the small island community of Brändö in the morning.

The next day, we had to backtrack to Torsholma, since we had reached the northeastern edge of Åland. We had pre-booked the short ride on the early morning boat from Brändö (since it only operates if there are any bookings) and followed back the same road we had already come the day before. The weather was at its best, and we did not mind seeing the same beautiful landscapes again. We even had time to hang out in a small harbour for a while, to get out of the sun.

From Torsholma, we took the same ferry back, but this time we got off on the island of Kumlinge, where the camp site with our reserved cottage was only 10km away from the harbour. We were once again the only visitors, so the entire camp site and all its facilities were opend only for us. Already on the way, we had found the local restaurant to be closed for the season, so we luckily were able to buy a few cans of food from the reception and cook ourselves a nice dinner at the well-equipped kitchen.

"Our" campsite for the second night - quite literally "ours".
Image caption: “Our” campsite for the second night – quite literally “ours”. Our overnight cottage “Harald” on the very left provided for a very good sleep.

Day three already was the last morning on Åland. We got up early again and rode the two km down to Kumlinge’s southern end’s harbour from where another ferry took us to Överö. We again had to call the day before and announce that we want to get off there, since at this time of the year the boat would skip Överö unless somebody wants to get off there. Not to our surprise, we were the only ones to get off, as everybody else where locals commuting to the main island.

Our boat, moving on after dropping us off.
Image caption: Our boat, moving on after dropping us off.

It was a joyful ride, again in the sun, and looking at the many orchards with apple trees we finally understood why so many of the apples back at our grocery store in Helsinki originated from here: this is a big apple-growing area! We had a nice lunch (surrounded by workers, as it was Monday) as we had good time to wait for the next, and final, connection ferry back to the mainland. This turned out to be the biggest and most modern on we had been on, and crossing path with two of the big cruise ships from Turku to Stockholm added to the experience.

Close encounter with the Silja Galaxy while our ferry takes us back to the main island.
Image caption: Close encounter with the Silja Galaxy while our ferry takes us back to the main island.

Back on the main island, we soon got on our way to ride the remaining … km to Mariehamn, not without enjoying a little picnic in the shade of a park half-way. Traffic was much more significant here than on the smaller islands, and we were happy when separate bike paths appeared at the outskirts of the city. We still had an entire afternoon and evening, so we did some explorations in the area, mailed our postcards from the local post office, soaked our tired bones in the local swimming hall and had a celebratory dinner at one of the nice restaurants downtown.

We visited an ancient stone circle from the iron age (ca. 400BC-400AD).
Image caption: We visited an ancient stone circle from the iron age (ca. 400BC-400AD).

Briefly before midnight, we then found ourselves back at the harbour where the tour had started, ready to board the big red ship arriving from Stockholm to take us back home.

Our ride back was the same MS Gabriella that brought us here on Friday. Luckily, the departure from Mariehamn is just before midnight, so we got a good eight hours to sleep before going back to work!
Image caption: Our ride back was the same MS Gabriella that brought us here on Friday. Luckily, the departure from Mariehamn is just before midnight, so we got a good eight hours to sleep before going back to work!

Åland is always worth a visit, and even more so a cycling trip, and even though the off-season challenges made this tour at time a bit too much of a schedule-hunting operation, we found September to be a wonderful time to be on these islands. We will be back, no question.

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