Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Apres-Cycling: the Wine Bottle Massage

I know what you're thinking. "What, don't you own a rolling pin?" Well of course I do. But I use it for printmaking, so it lives in my studio. Luckily, what I lack in baking paraphernalia, I make up for in empty wine bottles. It's not that I drink a lot of wine, but that I tend to keep the empties for years - using them as flower vases and such. So when I came home holding my thighs today and my eye searched for something rolling pin-like, a tall bottle from a Spanish red fit the bill.

It's been a while since my legs felt this tight after a ride; I have low gears on my bikes and use them. But after two long, climbing-intensive rides a couple of days apart, a massage was in order.

There are different ways to go about doing this on your own, and here is what I do: I sit on the floor with my legs stretched out in front of me. The massage can be done on bare legs or over clothing, such as loose pajama bottoms (just not anything made of thick fabric, like jeans). I hold the bottle firmly, in one or both hands (there is no second handle as you would have on a rolling pin, but it still works okay), and move it in a gentle rolling motion up and down whatever muscles feel tight, in long strokes, at an even pressure. I use light to medium pressure, but others press harder - whatever feels right. Also, some prefer to sit on a chair, rather than stretched out on the floor. Try it both ways and see what feels better. If you need to do the back of your legs and don't have anyone to help, you can do it yourself standing up. A little awkward, but doable. Either way, this simple leg massage technique works surprisingly well on stiff, achy, or even just tired leg muscles in a fairly short amount of time. I have even seen cyclists do this during rides - using their mini bicycle pumps.

Of course if you have an unopened bottle of wine, you could combine the bottle massage with a glass of its contents for that extra bit of relaxation. A versatile product to keep on hand.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Monday Mailbox: What is a High Nelly?

VCC Northern Ireland Ride
Monday Mailbox is a weekly post dedicated to questions received over email. Here is one, for a nice change of pace:
It's been fun discovering what to call different styles of bikes through your blog... diamond frame, step-through, loop frame, mixte, truss frame, Frascona curve! But what exactly is a High Nelly?
I have wondered about this myself, especially about the term's origin.

Used predominantly in the UK and Ireland (and not very common anymore), in a general sense "High Nelly" describes upright bikes. More often than not, the term refers specifically to women's bikes, and particularly to vintage ones. So, for instance, an old fashioned loop frame with swept-back handlebars up higher than the saddle might be called a High Nelly - similar to what an omafiets is to the Dutch. 

VCC Northern Ireland Ride
But in Northern Ireland last summer, I was treated to a more detailed explanation. I was told that originally, "high nelly" referred to a specific style of a woman's bicycle frame, where the head tube was extended considerably past the height of the seat tube. This ensured that the handlebars could be set up as high as possible, for a fully upright and ultra-ladylike position. Apparently, only frames thus constructed are true high nellies. 

1970s and 1930s Raleigh Tourists
Interestingly, in manufacturing its popular Lady's Tourist model, some time in the 1940s Raleigh switched from the original extended headtube design to one where the headtube was more or less level with the seat tube. The measurements of my 22" 1973 DL-1 frame are almost identical to the measurements of my 22" 1936 Lady's Tourist frame, save for this aspect and the resulting difference in posture. So, going by the explanation above, only the very early Lady's Tourists can be considered high nellies, whereas the later DL-1s (as well as most other post-war English 3-speeds) are not. And according to the same definition, lots of modern bikes can be considered high nellies, since extended headtubes are now quite popular.

Unfortunately, I cannot find any written information about the origins of the term, so I can't cite my sources beyond "conversation with collectors." And sadly, who exactly this Nelly was, for whom I assume the style of bicycle was named, remains a mystery. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Wham Bam Thank You Lamb!

So, did you know that Mary had a little lamb? No, seriously. That there once was an actual girl, named Mary, who kept a diminutive pet sheep? The girl in question (Mary Sawyer, to be precise) lived in Sterling Massachusetts in the 1800s. And according to historical scholars, some time in 1830 she brought her pet lamb to school - an act that caused such mirth among the other children, that a local poet was inspired to immortalise it in verse. On the Sterling Town Green, a statue now stands commemorating the event.

This statue also marks the halfway point and only control stop of the New England Randonneurs Populaire - a timed 107 km ride that heralds the official start of the local brevet season.

"But at least take a picture next to the Lamb!" someone exclaimed when I mentioned there would be no pictures on this ride. A kindly volunteer did the honors. My few lucid memories of the Populaire revolve around the stone rendering of the famous Victorian pet.

Having already done two "Permanents" earlier this month (this one and this one), I hoped the official Populaire would not be anti-climactic. I needn't have worried.

Some notes, while it's all still fresh and I am too tired to feel self-conscious:

I must remember that rides with similar overall elevation gain can be very different. The climbing on this one was intense and draining, even though the elevation gain (3813ft over 68 miles) was the same as in the previous (easier!) 100Ks I did this year.

But perhaps much of that had to do with how I did this ride. Straight through, minimal stopping, really pushing myself to get it done. Particularly on the return leg, I just basically raced through the course, inasmuch as I am capable of such a thing. I do not know what possessed me to do it this way; I certainly did not have to as there was plenty of time left before the cutoff. But it felt in the spirit of the event: Everyone seemed focused on making good time. I finished well (for me), certainly better than expected. But it was tough. At some point, everything was a blur, attempts at conversations became babbling nonsense.

For some of the time I rode in a group. This proved a novel experience compared to previous group riding. While the group's average speed was similar to my own, their rhythm did not match mine - a situation I found extremely difficult to deal with. I tried a few times to cycle ahead of the group, so as to go at my own pace. This did not work, as they'd always catch me. Falling behind did not work either, as I'd eventually catch up, yet again be unable to pass them. I seemed destined to ride in this group and adapt to its rhythm; it was as if a magnetic field held us together!

The start of the Boston brevets is in a middle-of-nowhere location - an airforce base some distance from my house. By the time I got home, I had ridden 105 miles, and felt every single one of them. A Century is not quite a casual distance for me, yet. This is disappointing.

Because of the Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath, the Populaire took place one week later than initially planned. The 200K brevet is next Saturday, not leaving much time for further training. Considering how I feel after this ride, I am not sure it is a good idea to embark on the 200K so soon. But I will see how I feel mid-week.

Finally... Despite this depriving me of photo opportunities, it felt good to put in an effort and try to make decent time. By mid day it was all over, and afterward I felt oddly over-emotional. I wasn't happy, or sad, or proud or frustrated exactly. Rather, it was as if so many miles and so much intensity packed in a fairly short time was too much for my system to cope with. But in a good way... I think.

My thanks to the New England Randonneurs for putting on this event, and to the wonderful volunteers who made it happen. I hope to see you again this summer.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Dabble in Route Planning

Blossoming Trails
The past year has been a great eye-opener for me as far as finding new places to ride in an area I thought I'd exhausted. In particular, I've been impressed by local randonneuse Pamela Blalock's ability to design routes entirely along back roads, with minimal motorised traffic. This style of route involves more climbing than typical, and, at times, some intense navigation. But having gotten used to both, I've come to appreciate the opportunities routes like this provide: to travel on my bike largely undisturbed by cars, and to truly get to know an area, with all its hidden scenery and useful shortcuts. I also appreciate that Pamela's routes are not a matter of luck or psychic powers, but of dedicated research and strategic exploring. 

Reliable Navigation
Until recently I did not feel sufficiently confident in my navigation skills to try this myself, but now that is changing. I am planning a ride heading North, and getting out of Boston straight up the coast is a thoroughly unpleasant business. There is no good way to do it; for the first 10 miles it is all dangerous roads and lots of congestion. So I wanted to plan a route that would swing out west and come around from there, connecting to the northern route at a point where it calms down. This adds about 30 extra miles to the start of the trip, but I will take 40 pleasant miles over 10 unpleasant ones any time. 

Bedford Narrow Gauge Rail-Trail
In planning the westward route extension, my goal was to try and do it along lightly traveled back roads, possibly with some unpaved stretches. I started by studying similar routes that go through the area, combining and modifying them based on personal experience, maps, and educated guesswork, until I'd strung something together that went where I needed it to go. I loaded the route onto GPS, printed out a cue sheet, and got on my bike to test out my handiwork.

Billerica
For my first time trying something like this, it wasn't bad. There were lots of turns that would drive some people nuts and a few awkward climbs - the kind where a climb starts right after a sharp turn, catching you by surprise, so that you're downshifting madly from a high gear. This I didn't mind, particularly since I was the only vehicle on the road much of the time. But there was also a couple of mistakes/ surprises - not necessarily bad, but educational.

Blossoming Trails
My route included a few unpaved trails, all except one of which I was already familiar with. The one I was not familiar with turned out to be more technical than I'd expected. 

Blossoming Trails
A shortcut through the woods, the narrow bumpy trail wound its way downhill between trees rather tightly. I was able to ride it, but made a note to avoid it on skinny tires, in wet weather and in the dark. Looking at the map, I saw there was a way to circumvent the woods on the road, so I then went back and tested that stretch to make sure it was a sufficiently traffic-free alternative. 

Blossoming Trails
While not ideal for all bikes and all occasions, this trail proved to be incredibly scenic this time of year. For much of it, I cycled under a canopy of budding magnolia blossoms. The sun brought out their colours against the blue sky, and the warm weather brought out their scent.

Blossoming Trails
Riding here, I felt as if I'd been gifted a rare glimpse into something special and rare. Only for 2 weeks of the year do these flowers blossom. And all it takes is one windy, rainy day, for all this tentative pinkness to be stripped off its branches before the flowers even fully open up.   

Blossoming Trails
Spring is such a delicate time of the year. The greens are pale, the tangled trees are transparent like lace. In the summer this will all become fuller, heavier, thicker - a dense fabric. 

Bedford Narrow Gauge Rail-Trail
Even moss is paler and softer. I love coming back to the woods season after season and seeing it all change.

Near Nutting Lake
Further along, I found myself on a stretch of road that was much busier than expected. So I changed course in hopes of finding a better alternative. On the map I saw a tangle of side streets that it looked like I could ride through to get to my next point, skipping the busy road. So I did just that, and found myself in a cul-de-sac neighbourhood situated on a substantial hill. Looking for the best route, I ended up going over this hill several times from different directions, until I found the sequence I was happiest with. 

On one of the streets I passed a group of small boys with their kids' bikes. The poor things could only ride them up and down short stretches in front of their house before the road became too steep. Seeing me continue all the way up the hill, the boys stopped what they were doing, stood still and stared, saying "Whoa, I want to do that!" and "That's a nice bike, lady!" They had not reached that age yet where youthful mockery becomes hard to detect; it was clear their delight was genuine.

Walking the Llama
Later, I encountered a woman walking a llama, as casually as if she were walking a dog. Normally I am not good at making quick u-turns, but this time it was no problem (llama!).

Bedford Narrow Gauge Rail-Trail
Heading home along a quiet trail, I realised that in the course of the past 50 miles there had only been a few stretches with noticeable car traffic. And now that I had a better understanding of the neighbourhoods around those stretches, I could make changes to improve those parts as well. It wasn't perfect, but I am pretty happy with my first serious attempt at backroad route planning. Even the parts that did not go as expected allowed me to explore and discover interesting pockets I would have otherwise missed.

Having a network of new, "secret" as some locals refer to them, routes through familiar areas is extremely exciting and a great way to travel. I am looking forward to doing more of this!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Showers Pass Women's Portland Jacket

Showers Pass Women's Portland Jacket
When offered to review some products from the rain gear company Showers Pass, I immediately chose the Portland Jacket. Endowed with the technical features Showers Pass rain gear is known for, the Portland has the look of everyday apparel, while steering clear of extra frills and over-the-top urban stylishness. The combination could be just the thing for many bicycle commuters - particularly those whose definition of commuting involves spirited riding and roadbike positioning. Available in men's and women's versions, this review is of the latter.

Showers Pass Women's Portland Jacket
The Showers Pass Portland is made of a proprietary synthetic 3-layer softshell material with a waterproof breathable membrane and box fleece lining. It is made in Vietnam. The fabric is waterproof, but the seams are not sealed. 

The hem of the jacket hits around the widest part of the hips. The sleeves extend a couple of inches past the wrists. The stand-up collar zips up to the chin. The fit is quite slender, almost like "racing fit." If you want a relaxed fit for layering, I would suggest going up a size. The model pictured is a US Women's Size 4 and she is wearing the Portland in a Medium (over a t-shirt and a sweater). Branding on this jacket is minimal. 

Showers Pass Women's Portland Jacket
The light gray exterior features a subtle glen plaid pattern, with reflective piping along the seam at the shoulder blades in the back and above the chest in the front. The silver Showers Pass logos on the back of the collar and on the chest pocket in front are also reflective.

Showers Pass Women's Portland Jacket
The black fleecy interior has a soft, waffled texture to it that is pleasant to the touch. 

Showers Pass Women's Portland Jacket
The drop-down hem in the rear extends coverage and adds a wide reflective strip.

Showers Pass Women's Portland Jacket
A feature specific to the women's version of the Portland is the side zippers. The jacket can be unzipped to varying degrees on the sides to flare out at the hips. This is a clever and flattering solution to the problem of accommodating variety in waist to hip ratios among women. The wearer can unzip the sides a little, a lot, or not at all, depending on body shape, positioning on the bike, and the look they are going for.

Showers Pass Women's Portland Jacket
In front, there are two side pockets, tilted for ergonomic comfort, and a hidden chest pocket (with "audio port"). There are hidden armpit zippers for temperature regulation, which is also helped by the two-way zip feature of the main zipper in the front.

Showers Pass Women's Portland Jacket
The small interior pocket will fit a wallet or phone.

Showers Pass Women's Portland Jacket
Zippers at the wrists accommodate for variations in rider arm lengths, ensuring that the sleeve does not constrict the hand. 

Showers Pass Women's Portland Jacket
Prior to passing on the Portland to the model, I did a few commutes in it myself. Personally, I found the jacket not ideal on an upright bike, since it provides no leg coverage (as a trench-style raincoat would). But on a roadbike it made a lot more sense. I will sometimes commute on this bike when I want to combine roadcycling with photography work, and a jacket like the Portland is a good way to still "look normal" while dressing comfortably for a leaned over position and spirited riding. The fit and all the zip features accommodate road positioning excellently. Having worn the jacket in the rain for a prolonged period, it was indeed waterproof - though missing a hood. Possibly it is assumed that a helmet will be worn, with its own rain cover contraption. The internal soft fleeciness makes the jacket quite cozy to wear on those raw chilly drizzly days. Unlike many other rain jackets, the Portland breathes well and is fine to wear when it's not raining. I would basically call it an all purpose Spring/Fall jacket. Possibly it is also suitable for cold summer evenings in the North, but not so much for a New England winter. Having worn it once on a 35° F day with "only" two layers underneath, I felt underdressed for the cold. Worth noting is that this is not a pocket stow-away jacket; its folded-up size will require a bicycle bag or rack-strap system.

The model pictured is a cyclist who usually commutes to work on a roadbike in street clothing (typically stretchy jeans and sweaters). Like me, she finds the Showers Pass Portland jacket waterproof and breathable. And she agrees that the fit is ideal for road positioning. Even with her aggressive posture, the front of the jacket does not feel like a weight pulling down. Neither does it fold to dig into her middle section uncomfortably, or pull at the shoulders. The stretch of the fabric and strategic zippers make for a comfortable and flattering fit. The look of the jacket suits her casual personal style. 

The Showers Pass Portland is an attractive, functional and practical bicycle commuter jacket for cool and rainy conditions, priced at $200. It will likely be most appreciated by those who prefer a leaned-over posture on the bike and feel constrained by longer, trench-style designs. Personally, I would prefer this jacket with a hood and wonder whether a detachable one could be included in a future iteration. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Monday Mailbox: Cycling with Men vs Cycling with Women

Finish Dinner, D2R2
Monday Mailbox is a weekly post dedicated to questions received over email. Here is one that taps into a popular topic:
Until now I've been cycling on my own, but I am considering club rides. I see that most cycling clubs in my area offer women's rides in addition to their regular [mixed gender] rides, with the idea that this helps women feel more comfortable. [Also,] talking to women [cyclists] I get the sense that riding with men is not such a nice experience. What are your impressions of cycling with men vs other women? Is there an advantage to women only rides?
From personal experience (as opposed to stories others tell me), I have not formed any generalised impressions of gender as tied to specific cycling behaviours. 

For background: I occasionally take part in women-only club rides, as well as in mixed gender club rides. I also do lots of informal riding with 1-3 cycling buddies at a time, and the gender split there is roughly 50/50 (meaning, roughly half of my cycling buddies are men and half are women).

Among the people I ride with, I cannot say I notice a difference in riding style based on gender. Possibly this is because other differences are more prominent. For instance, there are experienced riders versus inexperienced ones. There are competitive riders versus non-competitive ones. Some riders are aggressive and take risks, while others are mellow and risk-averse. There is a category of riders who only talk about cycling while they're cycling (technique, nutrition, bikes), versus those who talk about anything but (philosophy, politics, gossip). I can think of other classification systems before gender starts to seem relevant. 

As far as advantages to women-only rides... As I understand it, the assumptions there are that: (1) women enjoy the opportunity to socialise with other women, and (2) women feel less self-conscious without men around. If this applies to you, then that would certainly be the advantage. However, it does not apply to all women, including myself. Men don't inherently make me nervous, and women don't inherently put me at ease, it's really more about the individual. I'll join a women's ride if I want to ride that day, but not because it's a women's-only ride.

Judging by how often this topic comes up, I recognise it as a serious issue and don't mean to be dismissive. For women who, for whatever reason, feel uncomfortable riding with men, women-only club rides are a valuable resource. In that sense, I am glad that more of them are appearing all over. 

But me, I'll ride with anyone. As long as they ride predictably and I can keep up. Conversation optional.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Art of Exuberant Subtlety

JP Weigle Randonneur
Squinting in the harsh mid-day light and holding my breath, I rolled this rare machine I had been entrusted with across the grassy clearing. I leaned it against a tree. I arranged it amidst some flowers. I positioned it this way and that, in the sunshine and in shadow. With the camera to my eye, I crouched, I kneeled, I loomed, I stepped back. And yet, the bicycle refused to draw attention to itself. It was as if in his quest to achieve harmony - a harmony of proportion, colour and form - the builder had gone one step too far. So harmonious was this bicycle, so perfectly at home in these woods on this beautiful spring day, that it was in fact part of the scenery. 

JP Weigle Randonneur
To appreciate a JP Weigle, one must appreciate this level of subtlety. There is no Weigle website. Just some flickr pictures, minimal publicity, word of mouth, and one of the longest wait lists in the business. Because to those in the know, the builder's name is synonymous with randonneuring machines in the classic French tradition, made to the highest standards. Today this style of bike is not as rare - and, by extension, not as striking - as it was just a few years ago. There are fewer heated debates about its low trail geometry and 650B tires. There are also fewer oohs and aahs about its integrated fenders, racks, lighting, handlebar bags and other iconic features. But a Weigle machine is not so much about these things in themselves, as it is about how they are done. They say that Weigle is the master of the thinned lug, of the French-curve fork blade, of the sculptural, minimalist front rack, of the near-invisible internal wiring, of the perfectly installed fenders. Hardly anyone uses the word "beautiful" to describe his work, although it is assumed. The words used are: meticulous, impeccable, flawless. It is by design that no part of a Weigle calls attention to itself. 

JP Weigle Workshop
In his rural Connecticut workshop, JP (Peter) Weigle has a presence that is as quietly compelling as one of his creations. Dressed in gray on gray and of serene disposition, he is easy to miss in a room full of colourful jerseys and animated conversation. "But where is Peter?" visitors ask. Eventually he is spotted, in a corner, speaking in a muted yet impassioned tone as he points to some tiny detail on either his own frame or a vintage one in his custody. On my visit I was treated to a Jo Routens, stripped of paint, its brazed joints exposed to be studied. And beside it was the yet-unpainted bike I was trying to photograph now - nearly ready. 

JP Weigle Workshop
The future owner, Elton (second from the left), left the paint colour up to Peter, confident that whatever the builder chose would be right for the bike.

JP Weigle Randonneur
The racing green frame with nickel-plated fork blades and stays is a congruent combination of darks and lights, of matte and reflective surfaces.  

JP Weigle Randonneur
The embellishments - such as the lug cutouts filled with tiny bursts of red and the golden box lining - are noticeable only on close inspection, but are so numerous and discreet that one could spend hours looking over the bike and still miss some.

JP Weigle Randonneur
The lugs are thinned out to such an extent, that they are almost flush with the tubes. It is difficult to get their intricate shorelines to show up on camera. No doubt it is to highlight this aspect of the construction that lug outlining has been omitted. 

JP Weigle Randonneur
In addition to the frame and fork, Peter made the canti-mount front rack

JP Weigle Randonneur
which features a left-side light mount extension 

JP Weigle Randonneur
and sits low and stable on the bike, the platform secured to the front fender.

JP Weigle Randonneur
He also made the rear rack, 

JP Weigle Randonneur
which attaches both at the dropouts and at the canti bosses.

JP Weigle Randonneur
The custom cable hanger and tail light are also his own work, as is the reworked ("Special OH-HEC") pump - poorly pictured here, but lovely.

JP Weigle Randonneur
The internally routed dynamo-powered lighting was set up in collaboration with AT √Člectricalit√©s - aka "Somervillain," who now moonlights as a bike electrician of renown skill. He explains how he set up the lighting step by step here. Examining the bike in person, the entry and exit points of the wiring are extremely difficult to spot even if you know where they are. 

JP Weigle Randonneur
The rest of the build the owner put together himself. It included a Grand Bois stem and decaleur,

JP Weigle Randonneur
modern Rene Herse crankset,

JP Weigle Randonneur
Shimano Dura Ace rear derailleur and cassette,

JP Weigle Randonneur
9-speed Campagnolo ergo shifters,

JP Weigle Randonneur
vintage Mafac brakes

JP Weigle Randonneur
Handbuilt wheels around Pacenti rims, with a Chris King hub in the rear and a Schmidt SON dynamo hub in the front, and of course Grand Bois Hetre (extra leger!) 650Bx42mm tires,

JP Weigle Randonneur
Gilles Berthoud touring saddle,

JP Weigle Randonneur
Berthoud handlebar bag,

JP Weigle Randonneur
and long coverage Honjo fenders, which Peter Weigle installed using his own special method prior to Elton doing the rest of the build.

JP Weigle Randonneur
The elegant Nitto bottle cages are a nice complement to the build,

JP Weigle Randonneur
as are the two-tone Crankbrothers pedals and Wippermann chain.  

JP Weigle Randonneur
Even after such a long description, there are many details I've missed. I need a clearer background and softer lighting to really do justice to it all. The curve of the brake bridge, the hidden lug cutouts, the pump peg, the delicate little braze-ons... this is a bike whose beauty "unfolds" the more closely you look at it. But standing there in a patch of woods, it makes you think about cycling rather than its own self. And Elton surely has plans to do some brevets on this beautiful machine this season. In the meantime he has been commuting on it to work.

JP Weigle Randonneur
Living in New England, I've been lucky enough to encounter a few Weigle bikes "in the wild" (for example, this one), made over the span of several decades. Like a number of other well known American builders, Peter Weigle got his start at Witcomb Cycles in London, UK in the early 1970s. And while today he is best known for his low trail randonneuring machines with 650B wheels, he did not begin working on such designs until 2005-2006. Before then there were Weigle racing bikes, mountain bikes, touring bikes - all showing the fashions of the times, yet also his distinct brand of elaborately subtle detail. I feel fortunate to have seen some of these bicycles and spoken to their owners. 

Peter Weigle's small workshop in the woods is neat and tidy when visitors appear. The builder's friends tease that he never allows anyone to watch him work, his technique being top secret. Whatever the secret is, the results continue to entice bicycle lovers to dream of his machines, whether admiring them from afar or putting their names on the years-long wait list.