Thursday, May 31, 2012

Floor Pumps: What's Your Favourite?

Lezyne Bicycle Pumps
Occasionally I will hear from readers who are having trouble pumping their own tires, and inevitably the cause ends up being their bicycle pump. Sometimes it is simply a matter of the pump not accommodating their bicycle's valve system and the new cyclist not realising this. Other times, the pump's chuck (the part that fits onto the valve) is difficult to get on and off without causing damage. There are also those who lack sufficient upper body strength to operate their pump effectively. 

As someone who can pump my own tires despite poor upper body strength and poor dexterity, one thing I can say is that the pump matters a great deal. It surprises me how many cyclist initially plan to get by with just the hand-held pump they bought for their tool bag. Floor pumps are much easier to use than hand-held pumps, requiring considerably less effort to operate. 

But not all floor pumps are made equal. At home I use a Pedros Racing Service floor pump and have had no complaints about it over the years. However, this model is no longer in production and I've read mixed reviews about the current Pedro models. I have also tried enough floor pumps to know that some can be difficult and awkward to use. When readers ask for recommendations I am not sure what to suggest.

My general thoughts on what makes a good floor pump are that it ought to: 

. be sufficiently heavy so as to remain stable in use (steel barrel), 
. require a reasonable amount of force to operate, 
. have an accurate pressure gauge, 
. have a dual head to accommodate Presta and Schrader valves, 
. have a chuck that is easy for the average person to fit and remove. 

What is your favourite bicycle floor pump? Recommendations and suggestions are most welcome.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lucky

Ride Studio Cafe, Sunday Ride
Overheard while doing errands in a local suburb:
Woman Walking Out of a Gym: Oh, what a nice bike! 
Woman on a Roadbike: Thank you.
Gym Woman: How lucky you are to have time to bike. I wish I could, but after work and cooking dinner I'm just exhausted. 
Bike Woman: Oh I'm sorry. But it's nice that you get to go to the gym, isn't it? 
Gym Woman: Sure. But, you know, I have to. It's such hard work! 
Bike Woman: How often do you go? 
Gym Woman: Hmm... Four days a week I guess? 
Bike Woman: Oh wow. And how long is your work-out? 
Gym Woman: Usually an hour. Sometimes the pilates class is an hour and fifteen minutes. 
Bike Woman: That's impressive. And how long does it take you to get there and back? 
Gym Woman: What? Oh, I don't know. Let's see... maybe 20 minutes in the car? 
Bike Woman:  Each way? 
Gym Woman: Yeah, I guess so. 
Bike Woman: Well you know, my bike rides are only 2 hours long - you can ride a bike instead of going to the gym if you want and it would be the same. 
Gym Woman (giggles nervously): Really? No, that can't be right. I'm only at the gym for an hour. Plus I have to work out or else I gain weight like crazy... You're lucky you're so thin...
It's hard not to feel defensive when receiving backhanded compliments about how "lucky" we are to have all this supposed free time to ride a bike. I've gotten plenty of comments like this. But I have never, not once, heard the same reasoning applied to people who go to the gym on a daily basis. After all, the gym is "hard work" and going shows that the person is disciplined and responsible about staying fit. Cycling on the other hand, apparently shows that we have too much leisure time. It is not logical, and it is not "fair," but the perception is nonetheless there, and I think it goes a long way toward explaining why non-cyclists dislike cyclists - roadcyclists in particular. Lucky us indeed.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Velosteel Coaster Brake Hub

ANT Truss, Train Tracks
When I decided to build up an ANT Truss Bike as a single speed with a coaster brake, I soon discovered that the only commonly available hub choice was Shimano. I have ridden Shimano coaster brake hubs, and there is nothing wrong with them. But somehow having one on a bike that was otherwise so old-school and classic felt off. So I asked around and learned, via the ever-helpful bikeforums, about a small manufacturer in the Czech Republic called Velosteel

Velosteel Coaster Brake Hub
Velosteel focuses exclusively on producing single speed coasterbrake hubs. As I understand it, they took over the machinery that was used by the former Fichtel & Sachs company to manufacture the original Sachs hubs before SRAM bought them out. Therefore, Velosteel hubs are supposed to be identical to the vintage Sachs single speed coaster brake hubs found on many continental European city bikes made prior to the year 2000 - especially Dutch and German bikes. I have ridden a number of bikes with Sachs hubs in the past and I've always liked them, which made Velosteel an appealing choice. 

As of last summer, the way to buy a Velosteel hub was on ebay. I do not remember where I bought mine, but I am told this is a reliable source in the US. I am still not aware of any US bike shops that carry these hubs, but if you are please let me know and I will update this information. I bought the hub, and Jim at Harris Cyclery built me a wheel around it. 

Velosteel Coaster Brake Hub
While I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to explain why the Velosteel hub is more "old school" in its construction than a currently-produced Shimano hub, suffice to say that its overall form, its finishing, and the way the shell is put together all look distinctly different from modern hubs and distinctly similar to vintage ones. 

There is no branding on the hub itself, and the only mark of the manufacturer seems to be on the reaction arm, which is stamped with: "VELOSTEEL MADE IN CZECH REPUBLIC." There may be a serial number stamped somewhere indicating date of manufacture and such, but I have not noticed it.

ANT Pedaling
Having ridden the ANT over the past several months, I can make some observations about the Velosteel hub. My first impression was that it was too "soft;" I could not lock up the rear wheel without exerting a huge amount of effort. However, I wanted to wait before sharing this impression - thinking that it was possible the hub would "wear in" over time. And it did, after about 40 miles - during which I made it a point to use the brake often. Now the hub can lock up the rear wheel with reasonable effort. It also modulates braking power very nicely, which is something I love about a good coaster brake. I do feel that the Velosteel allows for finer modulation than the currently produced Shimano coaster brake hub. I get into the rhythm of using it, and it makes city cycling feel like such an organic, smooth experience. 

Last year I started a discussion about vintage vs modern coaster brakes and the amount of backpedaling "give" they allow before the braking mechanism is engaged. I noted that in my experience, older coaster brakes allow for more give, which I prefer. In the comments others reported this difference as well - but some suggested that it might be a function of the vintage coaster brakes being worn out with age, as opposed to differently designed. Well. My Velosteel hub started out brand new, and it has "give" similar to the old vintage Sachs coaster brakes I've ridden. This is just one piece of anecdotal evidence of course, but I think it's useful to offer it. 

Velosteel Coaster Brake Hub
Overall I like the Velosteel hub and have a feeling it will only improve with age - somehow, I feel as if it's still wearing in. I would love to get feedback from others who have used it, especially on a bike that's their regular commuter and for a period of several years. 

As with everything, I think it is good to have options. The Velosteel hub might be a welcome alternative to Shimano for those who prefer a coaster brake hub with a more classic look and feel. I wish more American bike shops carried Velosteel.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Cooler on a Bike

Summer Dress Cycling
There are those who dream of tropical climates and rejoice at summer's arrival. And then there are those like me, who shudder when the temperature begins to rise past 70°F. As May transitions into June, I am really having to give myself pep-talks to face the upcoming three months of scorching sunshine and suffocating humidity. 

But entering my 4th summer on two wheels, one source of consolation is that at least getting around by bike will keep me cooler than other means of transportation. To many non-cyclists this seems counter-intuitive, and I understand why: They can't get past thinking of cycling as strenuous exercise. "How can you bike in this heat when you can hardly walk down the block without passing out?" 

Well, there is no mystery. Part of it is simply that cycling lessens my exposure to the heat and humidity in comparison to walking, by getting me there faster. But more importantly, moving through space at cycling speed generates air flow that feels like a breeze and makes the weather easier to tolerate - something that does not happen at walking speed. The trick is to ride at a pace that is fast enough to result in this effect, but not vigorous enough to the point where cycling becomes exercise. Wearing flowy clothing that allows air to circulate enhances the breezy feel further. Over the previous years I have more or less perfected my summer cycling pace and attire, and don't even sweat that much when I ride for transportation. 

There are of course other forms of transport besides walking and cycling. But while modern cars have air conditioning, driving is simply not an efficient transportation option in most cities these days. There is too much traffic and getting around during peak commuting times is a nightmare. I know a local woman who regularly commutes to work for over an hour by car, when the same distance takes me a half hour to cover by bike. I don't have that kind of time to waste, and neither do I want to pay for the privilege of doing so. As for public transportation... First, you still have to walk to it. And if taking the bus, there is also a lot of waiting outside involved, often with no shade. Then inside it's hot and chaotic, with sweaty crowds pushing each other and standing nose-to-nose in stuffy buses and train cars. Maybe some can deal with it and are none the worse for wear, but I always emerge drenched in sweat and with frazzled nerves. 

Of all the methods of transportation I've tried in the summer, cycling gets me to my destination cooler, more composed, and usually faster. It might be counter-intuitive to some. But cycling does not have to mean exercise and exertion. It can mean moving around at your own pace, with your own personal cooling unit.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Leather Saddles from Cardiff and VO

A few years back, both Velo Orange and the Merry Sales/ Soma/ IRD group began releasing Taiwan-made leather saddles, which have been available as less pricey alternatives to the racing, touring and commuting models from Brooks of England. The saddles from Velo Orange are VO-branded, and the saddles from Merry Sales are sold under the Cardiff brand. Though both companies use the same manufacturer (Gyes) and offer equivalent models, they are not identical; subtle differences in specs are apparent. Still, the overall construction and design are the same. Since many have been wondering about the feel and quality of these saddles, I thought it would be useful to describe my experiences.

Velo Orange Model 3 Saddle
My first experience with a VO Saddle was when Velo Orange donated one for the vintage touring bike give-away I was doing last year. The model is what they call the Model 3 Touring and is equivalent to a Brooks B17 in width and general shape. The VO Model 3 features chromed rivets, side lacing, saddlebag loops, and a pebbled surface. 

Velo Orange Model 3 Saddle
When the saddle arrived and I took it out of the box, I was initially not impressed. I thought the feel of the leather was somewhat "cardboard-like." To the touch it felt both stiffer and more brittle than a Brooks saddle. The underside had a grid-like surface to it, almost as if the material was some sort of compound. I did not have high hopes for what something like this would feel like to ride.

Women's Touring Bike Project, VO Model 3 Saddle
However, my expectations proved wrong once I started test riding the bike on which the saddle was fitted. Saddle preferences are highly personal, so I can only say that I found the VO Model 3 extremely comfortable. It did not need breaking in. In action, it felt neither too stiff nor too soft. The width and shape felt just right for my sitbones on a roadbike set up with the bars level with saddle height. The nose did not dig into any sensitive areas. My first ride on the saddle was 20 miles without padded shorts and it felt great. It felt equally great on subsequent test rides. As this was not my own bike, I was not able to provide feedback as to how the saddle felt on longer rides and how it held up over time, which is why I did not post a review. But based on my limited experience, I was impressed and made a mental note to go for this model next time I needed to buy a touring bike saddle. The VO Model 3 is not as luxurious as a Brooks B17, but to me it felt more comfortable out of the box.

Cardiff Saddle, Soma Smoothie
When Soma offered to send me a Smoothie roadbike for review earlier this spring, we discussed specs and I asked them to include a green Cardiff Cornwall saddle. I was curious whether this saddle would be suitable for a more aggressive roadbike set-up, and I also wanted to see how it compared to the VO version I'd tried earlier. Overall, the Cardiff Cornwall looks very similar to the VO Model 3, except for the colour choices. Also, the Cardiff has a smooth surface, whereas VO's is pebbled. There might be other subtle differences in design, but I have not noticed them.

Cardiff Cornwall Saddle
Like the VO saddle, the Cardiff Cornwall features chromed rivets, side lacing and saddlebag loops. The width and shape of the Cardiff Cornwall saddle feels just as I remember the VO Model 3 - perfect for my sitbones. It needed no breaking in. Nothing hurts, the longest ride so far being 30 miles. The Soma Smoothie is set up more aggressively than the vintage touring bike I'd test ridden with the other saddle, with the handlebars 1" below saddle height. However, the Cardiff Cornwall does not feel too wide for the bike. The saddle feels great to ride on.

Cardiff Cornwall Saddle
As far as the quality, look and feel of the leather, my impressions are the same as with the VO: cardboard-like to the touch, with a general sense that the materials - including the leather, the rivets and the rails - are not as high-end as what Brooks uses. Additionally, the green dye on the Cardiff has begun to rub off after some use. Good thing I wear black cycling shorts. 

All things considered, my impression is that yes there is a difference in the quality of materials used in the Velo Orange and Cardiff saddles versus the equivalent Brooks models. However, the real consideration for me is how a saddle feels in action. While I have good luck with Brooks saddles on upright bikes, for some reason I have bad luck with them on roadbikes. On the other hand, the Velo Orange and Cardiff saddles work surprisingly well for me in that context. This, combined with the reasonable pricing, make them attractive alternatives to the other leather saddles out there. If you are having trouble with the fit of other saddles, these are certainly worth experimenting with. It is good to have options at different price points.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Traveling to Ireland with a Brompton

Brompton, DART Commuter Train
Over the past weeks, I have traveled to, from and around Ireland with my Brompton folding bike. Aside form flying from Boston to Dublin and back with the bike as part of my luggage, I also did a great deal of what I think is called "multimodal commuting" in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, making frequent use of local trains and buses. Overall I experienced relatively few problems and would certainly do this again. 

I flew Aer Lingus, and they treat bikes as any other piece of checked-in luggage. Passengers are allowed one checked bag as part of their ticket price. If they want to check in an additional bag (or bike box) it costs extra. The size of the Brompton - no matter what bag it is placed in - exceeds the size limit of Aer Lingus's carry-on luggage allowance and must be submitted as checked luggage. Knowing this, I decided to get a hard case for the bike. I needed to replace my old hard shell suitcase anyway, and figured it made sense to do it this way. 

Packed
The padded hardshell case is made by B&W (they call it the Clapton Box) and is not technically a Brompton-sanctioned product. However, it fits the bike perfectly and is sold by several retailers as a Brompton accessory. I bought mine from Clever Cycles, and I know NYCE Wheels sells them as well. There is some debate as to whether the hard case vs the Brompton B-Bag is preferable for airplane travel. Based on my own experience with international travel, I prefer to use a hard case.

The B&W case is nice in that it fits the Brompton so exactly that there is no room for the bike to move around inside. At the same time, the nature of the folded shape allows stuffing the case with other (soft!) items. I packed all of my clothing, as well as 2 pairs of shoes into this case in addition to the bike, rolling each piece up and stuffing it into a crevice. The total weight was just under the Aer Lingus checked baggage limit. The size of the hard case fits Aer Lingus's checked baggage parameters. 

The hard case with the bike and all my clothing was the only piece of baggage I checked in, thus managing to avoid extra fees. I also took a small rolling suitcase as a carry-on, and my Carradice bag as a purse/ personal item thingie. The airline had no problem with this. 

An Elegant Arrival
The problem I did have was with the TSA. When I checked in my hard case at the airport in Boston, the person handling the luggage pointed out that the closure seemed easy to open accidentally when left unlocked. She suggested I lock the case and attach the key to the outside, lest the TSA wish to open it. That is what I did. Once I landed, I was horrified to discover that the closure on the case had been tampered with and the key was no longer there, with no explanation as to what had happened. I had a spare key, but somehow it no longer worked. Trying not to panic, I arrived at my relatives' house, then looked for a locksmith at 7am as my first order of business in Ireland. There was one nearby and I rolled the hard case to them, close to tears at this point, imagining that the Brompton was all mangled inside as well. The locksmith examined the damage. Turned out, there was a piece if key stuck inside, which is why my spare key did not work. They used a pick to remove the piece of key and opened the case. Thankfully, neither my bike nor any other contents had been touched. And there was a note from the TSA inside, with the other half of the broken key taped to it. The hand-written part of the note said: "difficulty opening lluck." There was also a bunch of legal text saying that my case had been opened as part of standard procedure and that the TSA was not liable for any damage.

The lock on my case is still functional, but it is slightly mangled, and I will see whether I can get it fixed. On my return trip on Aer Lingus I did not lock the case again, but wrapped packing tape around it - in addition to the velcro closure strap the case already comes with. Not very elegant, but it did the job. The case was not opened on the return flight. 

Dublin-Belfast Luggage
My trips from Dublin to Northern Ireland and back were completely problem-free. I left the hard case at my relatives' house and traveled with just the small suitcase, Carradice bag, and the bike sheathed and folded. I got to the Antrim coast by train and bus via Belfast, and wrote about that trip here. That went well, but the way back was even easier: On the day I was leaving Northern Ireland a friend took me to see Derry, and from there a bus goes directly to Dublin. I stored both the sheathed Brompton and the suitcase in the luggage compartment on the side of the bus, and it was very simple. I have seen cyclists store full sized bikes in the luggage compartments on the sides of buses, though I don't know what the official policy regarding this is.

Having done both, I would say that long distance travel within Ireland is more convenient by bus than by train. The buses run more frequently, the stops tend to be more conveniently located, the platforms are easier to access when carrying luggage, and overall it was just a more straightforward experience whenever I opted to get somewhere by bus as opposed to train. In the US I do not like to travel by bus, as I get motion sick. Oddly I did not experience this on the buses in Ireland.

Waiting for the Train/Bus
Even when not traveling, I would sometimes take my bike on a local bus or train when visiting friends, or when doing a ride with a remote start. 

Ulsterbus Bus Stop
In Northern Ireland, I made use of the Ulsterbus, which runs frequently between the various towns and villages along the coast.

DART Commuter Train
In the Republic of Ireland, I rode the DART commuter train from  the seaside suburb of Dun Laoghaire, where I was staying, to Dublin a couple of time. All of this was extremely easy to do, with no one questioning my bringing a folding bike on board. I did not have to sheath the Brompton in order to disguise it, and in some cases did not even need to fold it.   

Brompton, Ulsterbus Bus Stop
I am happy with my decision to bring the Brompton along to Ireland, and with how I chose to do it. Traveling around with the bike and additional luggage was easy. The transportation system there is excellent compared to most parts of the US. I also enjoyed flying Aer Lingus. They have straightforard baggage guidelines and are pleasant to deal with.

As with any international travel from the US, the biggest risk factor is the TSA. Their behaviour is unpredictable and you just never know. In my experience, TSA-specific locks do not always help: Many of my colleagues have had these locks cut and their luggage damaged regardless. The best thing is not to lock your case, period, and to use extra velcro straps or tape for added security if desired. When it comes to bikes specifically, there is also some debate as to whether it is preferable to travel with the bike in "stealth mode" or to make it as obvious as possible that there is a bike inside. Based on the combined anecdotal evidence I've heard, I believe the latter is best when it comes to the TSA. If they don't know what something is, they are more liable to damage it in the process of trying to find out. Either way, travel insurance is a good idea when overseas travel from the US is involved.

Back in the US now, I may return to Ireland later this year - again with the Brompton in tow. Having my own bike at my disposal at all times was invaluable; I cannot imagine traveling otherwise from now on. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

N.O.S.

Sturmey Archer Quadrant Shifter
Oh, that sweet acronym that makes collectors tremble with anticipation! NOS stands for "new old stock." Parts that survived generations unused and untarnished. Parts that look and function now as they did on the day they were new. 

It is not often one sees the status NOS preceded by a date in the 1930s. But the things I have seen appear in the hands of collector Chris Sharp over the past week... new old stock chased rubber grips, rod brake handlebars, carbide lamps, original roadster bells, sculptural quadrant shifters... Stunned out of my wits I could only wonder where on earth such things come from 80 years past their hey day.

Up until a few years ago there were bicycle shops in Ireland and the UK that still had spare parts left from way, way back in the day. Usually these shops were run by generations of the same family, never changing owners or locations, which is what made such stockpiling possible. Bikes that went unsold and parts that went unused had been piling up in the cellars and back rooms of these shops for decades, undisturbed. Then one by one, these places closed. And when they did, they would liquidate. Local collectors would then buy out a shop's entire inventories of parts from specific periods or manufacturers. Some bike shops owners were themselves classic bicycle enthusiasts, in which case unsold inventories from decades past turned into personal collections. 

It was sad to learn about the last of the old bicycle shops closing in Northern Ireland. But also good to know that there are locals who are dedicated to preserving the things salvaged from them.  

I used to think that the purpose of the NOS market was to feed a collector's high, and did not really appreciate NOS bikes and parts myself. After all, I ride all my bicycles, so anything NOS would be wasted on me - its status immediately obliterated through use. But now I understand that new old stock has value: It affords a rare opportunity to appreciate vintage bicycles not just from our current perspective - as old, well-used things covered in mud and rust - but in their original splendor, as the highly coveted machines they once were. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Two Bridges

derrybridge2
It is exciting to see new things happening in an old city, especially when these developments change the dynamic of the landscape completely. The Peace Bridge in Derry/Londonderry is so named for connecting different parts of the city that have historically been divided due to the religious and political conflicts that have plagued Northern Ireland in years past. And the fact that it is a car-free bridge for walking and cycling adds an additional layer of symbolism: Unlike motorists, the pedestrians and cyclists crossing are unshielded by anonymity. It is the ultimate gesture of mutual trust and connectedness. Along the river bank, a new bicycle path is being built that will link this bridge to another further down the river for an even greater sense of unity.

derrybridge1
I have never been to Derry prior to the construction of the new bridge. But as a first time visitor I cannot imagine it not being there. Not only do the modern shapes of the contemporary structure harmonise with the historical buildings in the background (from some vantage points, the bridge even appears to "hug" the old city center), but its usefulness and influence on local culture were apparent.

derrywall
People walking and riding their bikes, some in a hurry and others strolling with newspaper in hand while enjoying the view - the city feels alive and my impression is that this liveliness is recent. Walking through the city center early on a Sunday morning, my impression was that the city was waking up in more ways than one.

derrybridge3
Being in Derry, I truly felt it as a living organism in the process of transition. The city wants to be vibrant, it is on the verge of it. The air is electric with change and potential. It is an exciting place to be while this development is happening.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
As a funny contrast to the Peace Bridge in Derry, I had earlier visited the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge on the Antrim coast. In decades past a precarious bridge built for for local fishermen to cross from a tiny rocky island to the mainland, it is now a tourist attraction. For a fee of £5.60 you can cross the bridge, circle the island and come back.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
The tug of war between this being a tourist attraction for which an admission fee is charged, while still being part of nature and therefore inherently dangerous, is interesting to observe.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Not all who attempt to cross the bridge are able to, as it sways and feels rather unstable. And so in a sense it is also a test of courage - accentuating differences between those who attempt to cross it. Some grasp the rails in a panic, others dance across mockingly. I am told that once the coast guard had to be called because a tourist had a panic attack on the other side of the bridge and could not cross back.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Most visitors get to the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge in a car. There is a huge car park by the road, next to it a tea house. From there a scenic path leads down to the bridge itself. The path is maybe a 15-20 minute walk, downhill, with beautiful views throughout. I had gone there in late afternoon and the last group of tourists was still about. Walking down the path, one woman said to her husband "My God, why couldn't they make this thing closer to the parking lot? This is ridiculous!"

That is my story of the two bridges. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Cycling Fever?

I had this question when I first began doing strenuous rides and recently someone asked me the same thing: Is it normal to run a fever after cycling?

The short answer is: Yes. It happens to some people. Not to all, but to some. I am one of them, and I now know a few others who experience this with regularity - always have. The evening after a strenuous ride, I will often run a fever and might even develop a sore throat. While it's happening it can feel very much like the flu. But the next morning all symptoms will be gone, so it is not a case of actually getting sick.

My understanding is that this is a normal reaction that some people simply have to certain types of exertion. It may have to do with how our bodies engage in muscle repair. Or it may have to do with circulation issues. No one seems certain, but it does happen.

Regardless of how or why it happens, I have noticed there are things I can do to alleviate it. For instance: taking a hot shower or bath after a ride, taking an NSAID or acetaminophen concoction, eating warm "comfort food" such as soup or scrambled eggs, drinking lots of fluids, and trying to get as much physical rest as possible. Basically treating it like the flu works for me. It dulls the symptoms while they are happening, so that I can still be productive with the rest of my evening. And the next day I feel good as new - only the muscle soreness remains.

If you experience fever or flu-like symptoms after strenuous cycling, how do you deal with it?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Off Road on the Edge of the World

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
A couple of days ago I accidentally completed a 6 mile off road ride along the coast of Antrim. Without question, this was the most challenging bike ride I have done to date. I would not have attempted it had I known what was in store for me. But it was also the most beautiful, breathtaking trail I have ever been on.

dunseverick
It happened like this: One morning I decided to ride to the Giant's Causeway, which is about 12 miles away. I took the direct route on the coastal road. The first part was a tedious climb, then a long descent - both with glorious water views. When I was almost at the end, I spotted a sign for Dunseverick Castle and stopped to have a look. The setting is very interesting, and I walked around a bit photographing it. The light kept changing every 5 minutes, so the colours in all my pictures from this day are crazy and I decided to leave them that way. The landscape here really can look neon green one moment, then golden or drab olive the next.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
Like most structures described as "castle" along the coast of Northern Ireland, Dunseverick Castle is actually a ruin. There is an overview platform from which visitors can observe it from the road (people do coastal driving tours here...). And next to this platform is a sign indicating that there is also a walking trail - leading down to the castle, then continuing right along the coast to the Giant's Causeway.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
I looked at the trail. It was grassy and appeared pretty tame. The Giant's Causeway didn't seem that far off. So I decided to go for it on the bike.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
The trail ended up being 6 miles long, with no exit points along the way. As far as cycling, I would describe it is as not for beginners. I spent maybe 40% of it on the bike and the rest walking, or crawling. The initial stretch of grass quickly narrowed to a rocky, twisty single track along the edge of a massive cliff overlooking the Irish Sea.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
There were also long stretches of loose, chunky gravel. There are no flat, straight sections along this trail - it is either uphill or downhill, and all twisty. Honestly, I found the terrain extremely challenging. Going toward the Causeway, the trail is mostly downhill and the ground beneath me was unstable due to the mud, roots, rocks and loose gravel. It was scary to experience this combined with constant twists and turns as I cycled alongside a cliff. Also, at some point the hub gearing on my Brompton started coming out of adjustment (now fixed), and I did not always have use of my lowest gear. This made some of the uphill sections on loose gravel impossible, so I walked them. I also walked a couple of the trickier downhill stretches. An experienced mountain biker could have maybe done 80-90% of the trail on a bike, but I am far from that status.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
It did not bother me to walk with the bike when that was what I had to do. I had a heavy bag with me, and I was glad to roll it along on wheels rather than carry it on my person, as I would have had to do had I chosen to hike this trail. Despite the stunning views along this trail, there were not many hikers around. Most of the time I was completely and utterly alone, with no other human forms visible in any direction. I encountered three groups of ramblers total, and they all expressed horror at seeing me with a bike. "You need to turn back," a German couple warned, "it is not bike territory ahead."  I knew exactly what they meant, because I had already gone through that kind of territory.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
Along this trail there are occasional stairs built into the hills. They look like this, sometimes worse (longer and steeper). There was one particular set of stairs where the grade was too steep to walk upright, so I had to sort of crawl up them with the bike on my back. 

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
Since the trail passed through farm territory, there were also occasional stone fences with stiles to climb over - essentially wooden ladders placed over the fence. These were a little shaky, so I had to hold on to a pole with one hand (taking care not to grab the barbed wire instead - of which there is lots) while carrying the bike in the other. All through this, it was of course freezing cold and raining intermittently. 

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
Well, what can I say. One must have a sense of humour about things like this. Sure, the description of the trail could have warned there would be crawling and flights of stairs involved. But that would have spoiled the surprise element, wouldn't it. Ultimately it was more engaging to "discover" the trail this way rather than reading all about it in a guidebook first. 

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
The day was hazy and my photos don't do the landscape justice. But this hidden gem of a trail showcases the raw beauty of the Antrim Coast better than any other site I have visited so far.  It is extreme. It is dizzying. And not just the heights alone, but the colours, the smells, the forms and textures.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
And it truly does feel like the edge of the world: The trail is set back from the road by endless glens. You cannot see civilisation; only the edge of a cliff on one side of the trail and pastures on the other.

Gorse Bushes, Antrim Coast
 Gorse bushes grow everywhere, their saturated yellow contrasting dramatically with the steel-gray sky.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
It took me over 2 hours to get to the end of the trail, including all the climbing over fences and stairs, as well as constant stops for photos. By the time I reached the end point, I was exhausted and badly in need of food. The funny thing is that when I got to the Giant's Causeway itself it was absolutely unphotographable: Every inch of the majestic formation was covered with tourists. How odd that people will drive to it just to get out of the car for 5 minutes and have their picture taken on the rocks, but ignore the stunning trail that showcases the full extent of this area's beauty. Also, the entire site next to the Causeway is covered in construction at the moment. They are building a new, enormous visitor's center and while this is happening the area is a chaotic tangle of construction crews and tour buses and hordes of disoriented visitors. Dust flying everywhere. Yikes. I quickly bought an ice cream and got the heck out of there, deciding that I'd come back to see the Giant's Causeway at 6am next time to avoid the crowds.

Dunseverick-Causeway Trail
The trail from Dunseverick Castle to the Giant's Causeway is technically a hiking trail, not a bicycle path. In truth, it is more suitable to hiking unless you have nerves of steel and serious cyclocross skills. Still, I am glad I did it this way and I admit that I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment (I also still feel wrecked 2 days later, but that is another story). As far as the bike's suitability, I find that the Brompton rides surprisingly nicely off road and is easy to control on downhill turns, so if anything I am more comfortable on challenging terrain on this bike than I would be on others. Another obvious advantage of the Brompton on a ride like this, is that it is small enough to carry when necessary. I would not have been able to drag a full-sized bicycle (especially a mountain bike) up and down those stairs and over those stone walls. Next time I visit this trail, I might hike - or I might do it exactly the same way but try to stay on the bike more. This was by far the most difficult ride I have ever done, but it was also the most rewarding. When the two go hand in hand, it is pure magic. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

In Defense of Bad Weather

All week long people have been apologising for the weather. It's been raining severely for at least a portion of every day that I've been here. But the thing is, I really don't mind. And it is certainly not ruining my stay here.

Consider, for instance, that some of the most dramatic scenery emerges in bad weather. The gathering of storm clouds. The mist rising over the glens. The waves crashing onto rocky shores. Tall grass windswept. These things cannot be captured - or seen, for that matter - without this so-called "bad" weather. In the rain, colours look brighter, more saturated. The smell of flowers grows more intense, Textures come out that are not otherwise visible.

In bad weather, you get to know a place better. Any spot can look charming in the sunshine and under blue skies. But how will it look in the rain and under the shadow of storm clouds? Some places are rather depressing as soon as the weather turns bad; others are breathtakingly romantic.

They say rain is good for your complexion, that it makes your skin radiant and restores elasticity. Just think: Every time you are out in the rain, you are really getting a beauty treatment.

In the rain the country roads are mostly empty - ideal for cycling in peace and tranquility while enjoying views unobscured by cars and tourists.

It's a  clichĂ© to say there is no such thing as bad weather, and I don't really believe that anyway. There are tornados, hurricanes, lightning storms, blizzards. But some heavy rain? I get my camera, check my brakes, wear waterproof clothing, turn my lights on, protect my equipment inside a bicycle bag, and enjoy the ride. No need to apologise, Ireland - the weather is lovely!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Through the Hedge Backwards

Lambs, Near Armoy
On Monday morning I went on a scouting ride to the Dark Hedges. The site is just outside the village of Armoy, about 10 miles inland from where I am staying. The inland roads here are flat-ish by local standards. The weather was looking good. It would be a nice and easy ride. And of course, I would finally see the mysterious old trees. I had elaborate photographic plans for them.

I set off after having breakfast in town. As a reader has astutely noted after a previous post, every exit from Ballycastle is uphill. I picked one that was relatively mild - though not the mildest, as I wanted to avoid the congested main road that leads out of town. The climbing began straight away.

Ballycastle to Armoy
The terrain in Antrim is difficult to describe to someone who has never been here. Coming from New England, it was a jolt to my system. We do have hills in New England of course, but they are "rollers" mainly - relatively short, if steep, ups and downs where the momentum from a descent can be used to get up the next hill fairly easily. If we want more serious hills than that - either steeper or more sustained climbs - we have to seek them out. And almost any route involves plenty of flat stretches as well, providing opportunities to rest from climbing and descending. 

Here in Antrim it is rather different. Most routes I have ridden so far have consisted of long climbs at a mild grade, punctuated by shorter but steeper climbs. There are almost no truly flat stretches, along the central part of the coast at least, no opportunities to rest. It is either a long up or a long down. Even at a mild grade, sustained climbs are draining for someone who is not accustomed to them. Being used to New England terrain, I have learned to "attack" hills, but that approach does not work here. When there is no end in sight, attacking just saps energy - it is far better to relax, get into a low gear, settle in, and spin while enjoying the view.

Ballycastle to Armoy
The landscape en route to Armoy is pretty enough. But on the coast of Antrim one soon gets spoiled with astonishingly dramatic views, and these were fairly plain in comparison. Farms mostly, stone walls, lots of adorable lambs basking in the sunshine.

The morning was a sunny one, but the skies were a dark slate-gray. The combination created a moody landscape that I kept wanting to stop and photograph. But I decided against taking photos until the return trip, because I wanted to make it to my destination while the weather was good. You never know here from one hour to the next.

Ballycastle to Armoy
Still, half way through I was seduced by a particularly fetching view of heavy skies over a dilapidated farm house. I could not help myself and stopped to take a quick picture. 

No sooner than I took out my camera and composed the shot, the sun disappeared. Now it was just the dark sky, and the scene looked rather dismal. As I debated whether to wait for the  sun to re-emerge or get back on the bike, it began to rain - so suddenly that I barely had time to shove my camera back inside the handlebar bag. 

And then I felt something sharp on my face. What the...? 

All at once, it was hailing. Hard. The morning light disappeared entirely as shards of ice pelted the earth - and me - with violent force. At first I was too stunned to do or even think anything. Then I began to panic. I had stopped in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest settlement 5 miles away in either direction. There was no shelter here - no trees, no canopy of any kind. The dilapidated farm house was separated by a barb wire fence, so I could not hide out in it. The temperature kept dropping. The hail kept falling. "Am I going to perish here?" I thought. I did not know what to do.

But then I realised... that I didn't really need to "do" anything other than pull up the hood of my raincoat. I had dressed warmly. I was wearing a waterproof coat and shoes. Everything was fine. I could simply enjoy this natural phenomenon... and hope there would be no lightning. 

Armoy, Northern Ireland
Thankfully, there wasn't. The hail soon let up and it was just the rain now. I got back on the bike and soon reached the village of Armoy. The Dark Hedges would only be a few miles from here.

I should mention that I had seen no other cyclists on this route up to this point, and very few motor vehicles had passed me outside of settled areas. It was just me, all alone, in what was now almost comically terrible weather.

Armoy, Northern Ireland
When I reached the village of Armoy, it looked eerily abandoned. Houses on the main street boarded up, shops and pubs closed. Finally I passed a small grocery store that was open and came in to get a hot coffee from the machine. Nine Inch Nails played on the radio, contrasting wildly with the quiet shuffle of the two elderly patrons. 

The pale, lanky teenager at the cash register (ah that explained the music) took an interest in my "wee folding bike" and confirmed the directions to the Hedges. He then refused payment for the coffee - which I have found happens here often. I left the money on the counter anyway, in case one of the other shoppers was short on change.

Ballycastle to Armoy
It continued to rain, though less violently, as I turned onto Gracehill Road, then finally Bregagh Road. On the corner an old man was sitting inside a bus shelter - a solitary figure in an otherwise desolate landscape. Simultaneously we waved to one another as I cycled past.

Now the road grew narrow and the vegetation wild. I began to climb a tedious hill as rain obscured my vision. I thought that I'd be able to see the famous trees in the distance by now and that this sight would at least encourage my progress, but the top of the hill blocked my view of what lay further. I realised how exhausted I was at this point from all the climbing I had done on this "flat" route, and from the rain, and from the cold. Honestly, I just wanted to get it over at this point and was no longer even excited about the Hedges. 

But just then, at long last, I crested the hill. And at that exact moment the sun came out. And the rain turned into hail again. And that is when I saw them.

Dark Hedges, Hail Storm
The Dark Hedges - in the hail, fog, and sunshine simultaneously.  Descending under the canopy of twisted  branches was like passing through a tunnel. I then turned around, propped the bike against a tree, took out my camera and spent the next hour taking photos - about 500 of them, capturing the ethereal sight in a variety of weather conditions. "Four seasons in  day," as they like to say here. 

I've since visited the trees again, and I might write about them in more detail later. But on this occasion it was really a matter of the journey more than the destination. The experience of seeing the long-awaited Hedges as I crested that hill... no photo can capture it. 

At the Dark Hedges, After Storm
It was not the weather for tourists, but at some point a car drove past and pulled over on the side of the road. Just as the rain finally stopped, a couple jumped out to take pictures. Seeing me there, they asked whether I could take one of them both. I did, after which they took one of me. Rather appropriately, I look like I've been dragged through the hedge backwards. What a ride this turned out to be.