Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bee-Happy

Though I have a surprisingly good track record of not crashing my bike, that does not mean I haven't gotten hurt cycling. And for whatever strange reason, the main cause of that hurt has been bees. That's right, bees.

For the record, until 5 years ago I have never had a problem with the stripey, fuzzy, industrious, winged little creatures. They are handsome. They are useful. And they make delicious sweet honey. But no sooner had I put foot to pedal than our relationship soured.

In Spring 2009 I was cycling along the Danube Bike Path outside Vienna, when a whale of a bumble bee flew directly into my face. When our worlds collided, I was going 12mph on an upright bike and it was going full bumblebee speed. It didn't sting me. It sort of bounced off my eye, just beneath the right brow bone. But the impact had such force, that I walked around with a black eye for a week. This was back when I had a 9-5 job, with an office and Important Meetings and everything. Explaining this incident - in English and German and sometimes other languages too - never failed to delight, especially when I had to resort to pantomime. Pedal-pedal-pedal... bzzz... smack, I would gesture. My audience would positively beam with understanding. Aaaaaah, yes-yes, oop-pa!

I submit to you some statistics. Before I began cycling, I'd only been stung by a bee once, maybe twice in my life. Since I began cycling? At least half a dozen times. In fact the number might be closer to 10. The first time was a shock, the second time an annoyance. After that I began to take it in stride. Still, there are a few memorable stings. Like that beautiful spring day on which I first exposed my ankles, donning 3/4 shorts instead of full length tights, only to be stung in one of said ankles, causing a baseball sized swelling. Or that time I first rode to the Fruitlands with Pamela, and, just before reaching the top of the big climb, was stung in the fold between thigh and crotch. Or the time I was stung on the palm of my hand whilst holding the handlebars and wearing cycling gloves. I admit that continuing to hold the bars for the last 20 miles home caused some whimpering.

And then there was yesterday. Just 4 miles into a 40 mile ride, I am bombing (well, okay - proceeding cautiously) downhill, when smack! A bee flies directly into my sunglasses, bouncing off the lower edge of the right lens, then off my cheekbone, before falling to the ground. At first I don't even bother slowing down. But then I realise that the creature managed to actually sting me whilst performing its death throe acrobatics. The pain is sharp, then piercing, then downright unbearable. Finally I pull over and get off the bike. By this time the right side of my face feels like it's going numb. Of all the symptoms I know associated with bee stings, this one surprises me and I calmly wonder whether Something Bad is Happening. I pull out my phone and send a text message to my husband (who has ER experience and is great for quick unsentimental feedback). I try to be precise: "stung by bee below right eye. side face numb. keep riding or seek med help?"

Unfortunately this happens in a spot with poor cell phone reception and I am not able to send the text. Or search for "bee sting, numbness" on the internet. So I decide to keep riding until I find an establishment with a bathroom where I could clean the sting and get a better look at it. This does not take long, as the area is chock full of ice cream shops and lobster shacks placed every 2/3rd of a mile or so along the coastal roads. Despite the morning hour, the nearest lobster place is already open. They have not only a bathroom but also one of those first aid ice packs that doesn't become an ice pack until you activate it. The waitresses observe with interest, elbows on the sink, as I luxuriate in their cool bathroom, washing the sunscreen and sweat and grime off my face, then applying the ice pack to the now-swollen area.

At length the numbness wears off and now only the pain of the sting remains. I reason this means I'm okay and decide to keep riding. Maybe the pain of the sting and the pain of the cycling (I plan to practice standing again - hoping to beat my 1/2 mile at a time record) would cancel each other out. This proves a good strategy and I proceed to have a lovely ride. Later in the day the swelling and pain subside and by the time I go to bed the incident is nearly forgotten.

Alas this morning I open my eyes and discover I cannot open the right one completely. The area beneath it looks like a misshapen tomato. Apparently this is pretty normal for a bee sting under the eye; it can take up to a week for the swelling to go down. Bees!

But you know how the song goes... "when the bee stings/ my favourite things" and all that? So I went on a squinty early morning bike ride and didn't feel so bad. The Advil probably helped too.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Angie, Angela

The beach closest to the house is a small and rocky one that all but disappears at high tide. But I know a spot - behind all the rocks, in a little hollowed out nook in the side of the cliff - where I can sit on the wet dark sand, hidden, reading. Well I call it reading. Only half the time I am lying face down, my cheek pressed into the open pages of the book.

Once in a while a noise prompts me to look up. Few people come here, most preferring the main beach down the road. But now I hear the unmistakable sounds of flip-flops.

There are three of them, making their way along rocks half-submerged in water. The man is athletic and agile, with a deep tan and spiky brown hair. Close behind is an equally lean and tanned woman, blond ponytail swinging as she hops from rock to rock. The couple moves with the lightness of teenagers, and only when I catch a glimpse of their faces do I see they must be in their early 50s. They could be professional athletes. Runners maybe.

As I contemplate this, they pause, waiting for the person some distance behind to catch up. It is an elderly female form: soft, hunched-over body, sagging chest, thinning hair, unsteady mincing gait. The mother or aunt of one of them, I decide, and go back to my book.

Then I hear the blond woman’s voice and look up again. “Come on honey,” she says - in the sort of firm but gentle tone used to encourage children. “Come on honey, give mommy your hand.”

I see now that she is a girl of around 14, though it is difficult to tell for sure. She stands awkwardly on the uneven rock, her shoulders hunched forward stiffly, hands at her sides, fingers fanned out, slack mouth emitting a low pitched moan.

I feel a jolt to my system that I am instantly ashamed of. But it is the unexpectedness, the contrast of it. The couple's effortless movements and their beautiful, youthful bodies, each stretching out a perfectly formed hand toward their child.

“Angie! Angela” says the man now, trying to get her to look at him rather than down at the water. There is a big gap between the rock she stands on and the next one, and she is terrified to cross. Her moans grow louder. “Angie! Angela.” The man’s tone is even, patient but not exaggeratedly so, almost matter of fact.

When she still does not respond, both the man and woman step down into the water and, in what has the look of a practiced maneuver, pick her up by the upper arms and swiftly move her to the next rock. She is large, and at once so limp and so stiff, it is as if they move a life-sized ragdoll. And then they go on with their trek. 

Soon they are gone from my field of vision, but I continue to think of them. Their light, graceful limbs and her heavy, awkward ones, the sun lighting up her sparse wisps of hair.

In my younger years, I could dwell on such a scene indefinitely, crying over it without really knowing why. But now I am better at willing myself to forget, at removing thoughts and images from my mind, almost surgically. Eventually I go back to my book - reading it, then lying face down on it again.

It is not until three days later that I see her. A girl in a halter dress, riding her bike along the tiny main street. Her left foot is missing a sandal. And she is coasting, round shoulders relaxed, head tilted back, short sandy hair ruffled by the breeze. She is squinting into the sun and smiling so broadly, I cannot help but grin back reflexively.

In that moment I recognise her. I look around for the tanned athletic couple, half expecting them to be following on bikes or watching from the sidewalk. I don't see them. But the girl is unmistakably her. The face, the body, the hair, the way her clothing does not sit quite right. It is all there and it is all perfect, in the utter abandon of her posture and smile.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Post-Flickr Blogging: Thoughts on 500px

For the past couple of months a portion of my energy has been dedicated to the back end of this blog. Namely, I am working on redesigning the layout and restructuring how my content is stored and organised – something I should have done earlier, and can't put off any longer. It’s a huge project, but once it’s done, the blog should be cleaner, more visually current, better suited for browsing content by topic, and easier for me to maintain. 

While it wasn't the main impetus, one thing that finally nudged me to get on top of the blog revamp was the "demise" (okay, redesign) of flickr. Like many bicycle bloggers and photographers, I've been relying on flickr for years to host, display and share my (thousands of) images. As someone with more than a rudimentary knowledge of the internets, I was aware of the risks of hosting images via a 3rd party provider. And even though I paid for a "Pro" account, I knew that I paid too little for the services I was getting and that the other shoe was bound to drop sometime. I expected this other shoe to come in the form of changes in pricing structure. Instead it came in the form of flickr, without a word of warning, dispensing with its Pro accounts altogether and turning into a dramatically less elegant, slower and harder to use version of its former self. I will not go into an anti-flickr rant here. But I will point you to this eloquent summary that reflects my own disappointments. To be clear, flickr still exists and my pictures remain on it, for now. But the service is not the same and I am seeking alternatives. 

One site that's come up in flickr refugee chatter has been 500px. Having met a couple of Irish photographers who use it, I finally gave it a try. I know that many visitors here are into photography and also seeking flickr alternatives, so I hope my feedback is useful.

A Canadian startup, 500px is a photo sharing site aimed specifically at aspiring and professional photographers. The design prevents users from dumping entire folders of images straight from their camera cards, encouraging instead a more thoughtful, selective approach. The layout is (for the most part) clean and portfolio-like. Users can organise their images into sets. They can also control which images show up in their photo stream/ entry page. This is a really nice feature, not available on many other photo sharing sites (which usually simply display your latest uploads first).

Uploading to 500px is a rather involved process. The system resists batch uploads, wanting you to describe and label each image individually before posting. This is fine if you are using the service as a portfolio of only your finest work, not so much if you want to upload your work in sets (as bloggers and event photographers tend to do).

Embedding pictures into web pages and blogposts is straightforward, with the code easily and obviously accessible from the main image page. However, it is not practical to use 500px for hosting images if your site receives heavy traffic, as the system limits users (even those with professional accounts) to 10GB of transfer per month. In layman's terms: If your blog is picture-heavy and receives over 100 unique visitors per day, you will likely exceed this limit. For comparison, this blog receives over 5,000 visitors per day, so hot-linking my images via 500px is out of the question.

As far as a professional portfolio display, 500px is great to use with one glaring exception: The intrusive likes/favourites/voting/comments system. Whether they want to or not, every user receives an overall "affection" rating that is displayed prominently in their header and is calculated based on the activity their pictures generate from other users. Every single image is likewise rated based on the likes, favourites, votes, and comments it receives. Aside from these ratings being distracting in of themselves (and, in my view, at odds with the otherwise professional feel of the site), they also invite spam and generic comments fishing for return likes. Such comments can be flagged (and moderators do remove them), but they cannot be deleted or disabled by the user directly, as far as I can tell. In fact, I would love to disable the entire "affection" system, but 500px does not allow it. Many others have echoed my concerns, and there is chatter of the ranking system being toned down in the future. I will wait a bit to see whether that happens before deciding if I keep my account (definitely not if the "affection" and spammy comment stuff is there to stay).

In short, I find 500px to be a mixed bag. As far as exhibiting photographic work, it could be a brilliant service if it weren't for the intrusive rankings system. It is also odd that the wonderfully easy to use marketplace makes it possible to sell downloads and "prints on canvas"(!) but not prints on paper.

As far as being of use to bloggers for embedding images into their posts... err, only if you have a lightly trafficked blog which you do not anticipate growing. Otherwise, no, 500px is not the right platform for that.

I will continue to explore other possibilities and report if I find anything interesting. But most likely, I will host images on my own server and may try to set up my own portfolio-type system for browsing (and possibly purchasing) interesting images. Flickr was good while it lasted - in particular for the online cycling and bicycle enthusiast community. Alas, nothing lasts forever. I thank you for your patience as this blog goes through its own changes, and, as always, thank you for reading Lovely Bicycle. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Riding and Writing: Meeting Malachi O’Doherty

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
It is a clear afternoon after a long spell of rain, and I am sitting in the front room, trying to work. Although really I am looking out the window as I wait for my guest. He is taking the train from Belfast, then riding his bike the rest of the way to my rural dwelling. I have given extremely detailed directions and hope he finds the place okay. The kettle is on. I compose myself. I will keep it cool upon meeting him, and by no means will I act like an excited 12-year old. As I tell myself this one more time, I hear the unmistakable ring of a bicycle bell. 

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
Last year I posted a review of the book On My Own Two Wheels by Malachi O’Doherty - a Belfast writer who rediscovered cycling in his 6th decade of life. As part of his plunge into all things bicycle, Malachi had been reading my blog. Unbeknownst to him, all the while I had also been reading his writing - on the conflict in Northern Ireland. His books on the subject are a unique mix of personal and political, morphing effortlessly from sharp social commentary to novelesque memoirs, complete with details of his sex-life. Starting with I Was a Teenage Catholic and The Trouble with Guns, I went through the books one after another. I was drawn to Malachi's writing not only by the topic, but also by how organically he intertwined such seemingly disparate genres. I have done some political writing in the past, including co-authoring a (tearfully dry and boring) foreign policy book. But more recently, I've been working on some fiction/memoir type writing, which has been profoundly messy and frustrating. Reading Malachi's work helped me see that what I thought was impossible to write about, on my own terms, was in fact possible. Of course I never dreamt of approaching the author to discuss any of this... until we "met" through Lovely Bicycle. Life indeed can be stranger than fiction.

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
Now I'm in Northern Ireland, and Malachi O’Doherty is outside - in person. He looks friendly, simultaneously distinguished and youthful, and slightly out of breath. He is wearing a leather bomber jacket over jeans and a flannel button-down, an outfit in which he'd cycled 15 miles in the heat. At this moment I forget he is a writer whom I am eager to meet, and relate to him as cyclist to cyclist. I come out to greet him and examine the bike so vividly described in On My Own Two Wheels. It does not disappoint. Decked out in all manner of commuter and touring accessories, the steel blue Ridgeback stands out from the sleek racing bikes that fill the country roads around these parts. 

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
There are lights on every braze-on, and racks galore.

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
There is a handlebar bag, strategically positioned above the external cables of the Shimano shifters (notorious for interfering with handlebar bags).

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
There is an adjustable stem.

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
An enormous roadster-style bell is mounted to the drop bars

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
A heavy duty foldable lock graces the downtube in leu of a 3rd bottle cage.

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
An invisible ink security system provides extra theft protection.

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
A bar-end mirror is mounted so low I am compelled to ask whether he can actually see out of it ("Nah, not really" Malachi laughs.)

Malachi O'Doherty and His Touring Bike
But the pièce de résistance is the forward-set saddle - which lends the modern touring bike an air of an antique pathracer. Malachi explains that, after some time, the bike's fit felt simultaneously too big and too relaxed. So he simply reversed the seatpost to solve both issues. 

Overall, the bike comes across as both amusing and somberly dignified - which I suspect is how the owner intends it. For over tea I discover that Malachi is one of those rare people capable of being both intensely serious and intensely funny, switching between these modes seamlessly. His speaking voice is that of a natural story teller. And there is also something of the “seen it all, heard it all” country doctor about him. I get the impression there is little one could say to shock this man: that whatever shameful thing you have to reveal, he will just chuckle and nod, as if it is perfectly matter-of-course, in the scheme of things. I imagine all this is a useful toolkit for a journalist, dealing with such a touchy topic as the socio-political climate in Northern Ireland. 

Bikes and Binevenagh
On me Malachi's manner has an immediate disarming effect. I feel at ease, and also like a younger, less jaded version of myself. We talk for several hours, and none of it is bike related. Then we go for a ride, continuing the conversation. Malachi is quite good to ride with. We meander easily as we talk, synchronisng speeds and weaving around each other. At one point a dog leaps out from a farmer's yard and, to my horror, goes for my companion's ankle. This does not seem to phase him in the least. "He's got my trousers!" Malachi remarks with a laugh as he shakes the angry little creature off. Then he continues with his train of thought. It occurs to me that this is how he's learned to deal with life's problems - and, more specifically, with being threatened, as a journalist writing about sensitive topics. 

Malachi O'Doherty, Limavady
We talk about writing, and how doing it every day becomes addictive, like cycling. You don't feel right if you don't ride. And you don't feel right if you don't write. It almost doesn't matter what and for how long, as long as you write/ ride something that day. In that vein, we also talk about "real" writing versus writing you do because it is easy, or a change of pace, or a tactic to deal with writer's block - filling those gaps when the real stuff does not flow. Lately Malachi has been submitting stories to an erotica magazine (here is one about cycling, if you're curious) that are exactly that. The stories flow easily and he has fun writing them. But he wonders about the relationship between these pieces and his "serious" work. I nod. As I see it, there is nothing wrong with erotica per se - except that it's a closed genre, that once a writer settles into, can be difficult to escape. A bit like vampire stories, or murder mysteries, or ...bicycle blogs for that matter. 

Before heading off, Malachi gives the Binevenagh climb a try - curious after reading my description. He tells me it is steeper than the Torr Road near Ballycastle I would not even consider the previous year. I am surprised to hear that, and now I want to give Torr Road a try. Riding, like writing, does grow easier over time.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Bike Shop Next Door

Bicycle Belle, Boston
It is the hottest day of the summer when I visit the finished space - a space I have watched transform from a dusty vacant storefront around the corner from my house, to Boston's only transportation-oriented bike shop. Carice and the Small Brown Dog are basking in the morning glow of the homey sun-drenched interior. The newly installed air conditioning is blessedly strong. The phone rings, and it appears that someone wants to order a bike. It is official: Bicycle Belle is open for business. 

Bicycle Belle, Boston
I have known Carice for about 4 years now - an architect, local bike blogger, DIY addict and lover of vintage 3-speeds. On occasion, we would meet for tea. Funny to think it was only months ago that, engaged in that very activity, we discussed taking the cargo bike plunge. She was considering buying a Dutch bakfiets. I was leaning toward an Xtracycle Radish. We debated the pros and cons of each. 

Bicycle Belle, Boston
Now both cargo bikes stand side by side in her very own retail space. It was that quick: from idea, to decision, to action, to completion, in just a couple of months. And yet, what happened felt neither hasty nor impulsive. Sometimes an idea develops dormantly, swirling around under the surface for years, ripening, just waiting for something to crack that surface open. In the Spring of 2013, Carice felt that something and the idea became reality. And once the decision was made, her organisational skills, work ethic, and industry contacts from years of bike blogging, made everything happen swiftly. A bit of luck with the retail space cinched the deal. 

Bicycle Belle Opening
The retail space had several compelling qualities to recommend it. First, the address. Situated on the border of Somerville and Cambridge (quite literally: half the building is on one side of the town line, half on the other), it sits at the start of Beacon Street - a bicycle super-highway through two of Boston's most bike-friendly boroughs. With its triangular footprint, the structure is distinct and no doubt an architect's dream. Windows on all sides, the interior is penetrated by gorgeous natural light. The wrap-around storefront also makes the wares on display highly visible to local traffic. 

Bicycle Belle, Somerville MA
Finally - and rather remarkably - the space was available for immediate occupancy. Carice saw an opportunity and took it.

Bicycle Belle Opening
At the start of July Bicycle Belle was soft-launched under the slogan "cycling for city life." At present, the core collection includes transportation bicycles from Bobbin, Papillionnaire, Beater, Paper Bike and Soma, cargo bikes from Workcycles, Xtracycle and Kinn, and a slew of accessories from the likes of Basil, Brooks, Cleverhood, Vespertine, Yepp, Burley, Iva Jean, Velo Orange, et cetera. With utility/ transport/ city/ family bikes (circle your preferred term) more popular in North America than ever, there is nothing unusual about the inventory - save for the fact that a store with an exclusive focus on this market did not already exist in Boston, a major US city teeming with bicycle commuters.

Bicycle Belle Opening
Over the years, many of us have wondered why that was so. Not only was there no transportation-specific bike shop, but many shops that did try to carry some of that merchandise would often drop it after only a year or two - citing lack of local interest. "Boston is too aggressive of a city for these types of bikes" bike shop owners have told me - meaning cargo bikes, utility bikes. And yet, more and more of "these types of bikes" kept filling the streets. Clearly locals were buying them, and they were traveling out of town to do so - or else ordering online. Bike shops in places as remote as Oregon, Florida, California and Washington State have reported routinely selling bikes to customers in Boston.

One possible explanation for the discrepancy, is that the shops citing a lack of local interest have not been sufficiently "into" utility bikes to successfully sell them. When you don't fully believe in a product, customers sense that and failure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By committing wholly to the utility bike target market, Bicycle Belle hopes to experience a more positive response.

Bicycle Belle Opening
Will the approach work? After only weeks in business, it is far too early to tell. It's worked for a dozen or so successful city bike shops that have sprung up throughout the US. But there are also those that have failed. Since opening its doors, Bicycle Belle has received a healthy amount of orders. But initial buzz does not mean long-term success. In other words: Let's wait and see.

Bicycle Belle Opening
Last Thursday night, Bicycle Belle held its official opening party. Due to limited space, it was intended to be a semi-invitational, low key affair. Yet the turnout was impressive and the atmosphere charged with excitement.

Bicycle Belle Opening
It was good to meet local activists, such as Jessica Mink.

Bicycle Belle Opening
And local bike bloggers, like Bike Style Boston 

Bicycle Belle Opening
and Car Free Cambridge.

Bikeyface! Bicycle Belle Opening
There were also plenty of familiar faces, including cartoonist Bikeyface and fashion model Vorpal Chortle.

Bicycle Belle Opening
Many of those in attendance were dressed up - lots of skirts, heels, suits - all arriving by bike of course.

Bicycle Belle Opening
At first I thought they'd dressed up for the party, but actually this was simply what people had worn to the office, since the party was immediately after many finished work.

Bicycle Belle Opening
Another trend of the evening was pregnancy - I spotted at least half a dozen pregnant cyclists in attendance. (Perhaps a future group ride theme?)

Bicycle Belle Opening
It was a good evening of wine, food and sparkly conversation, that showcased Boston's utility and family bicycling scene. 

Bicycle Belle Opening
And all the while, outside, a steady procession of cyclists could be observed through the storefront windows.

Bicycle Belle Opening
Business as usual for the end of the workday commute down Beacon Street. 

Bicycle Belle Opening
Local reactions to Bicycle Belle have been mostly positive, of the "It's about time!" variety. As anyone in the industry knows, a bike shop is never a get rich scheme - not even close. But the business must prove sustainable, and I sincerely hope this one does. Boston has been crying out for a resource like this for some time, and it's exciting that we finally have it - in my very own neighbourhood, no less. If you're in the area, drop by and pay the Bicycle Belle a visit! More shots of the space and opening party here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Other Side of the Road

Back in Boston for a few days, I am in re-adjustment limbo - feeling tentative, not altogether present. Everything here is so familiar - the roads, the sounds, the smells, the people. And at the same time it all feels utterly strange, as if replaced with a hologram of the real thing. A muggy heat engulfs me when I exit the airport, giving the landscape that hazy, blurry, flickering look.

In this disoriented state, I decide to join my cycling club's Tuesday morning 100K ride. I need to feel more solid, planted, integrated into reality - and I realise this is the best way I know how. The thought irritates me. Since when did cycling turn into this? This... defining thing, this part of my chemical composition?

In the morning, logistics are irrelevant. I pull together a mismatched outfit from the hamper. I don't have my roadbike, so I grab the cyclocross bike that still lives at my house. And then I push off - on the right ("wrong!" my brain screams) side of the road, in morning commuter traffic. On autopilot, I weave my way to the Ride Studio Cafe and the miles between us disappear.

No one knows I am coming, not even Pamela. Reluctant to admit to myself that I miss her, I nonetheless watch the door in anticipation, until there she is - platinum braids thick as ropes, tanned slender limbs, Southern accent and all. She is duly surprised by my presence and we talk in bursts, in the way of friends who have not talked in some time. "You think I'll be okay on this bike?" I point to the fat all-terrain tires. Pamela waves it away nonchalantly, as if to say "Bikes! What do they matter. Let's go."

Of course everyone but me is on skinny tire racing bikes. The thought that this might be brutal drifts through my mind. The Tuesday rides are described as "social pace," but of course for me that means "best effort pace." My eyes are swollen from lack of sleep and my legs ache from the sum of all earlier rides. I realise that brutal might actually feel good right about now. Again, I am irritated at the thought. Now why would brutal feel good, what on earth is wrong with me?

It is obscenely hot and the turnout is low today. The 5 of us set off in a single file and stay that way for most of the ride. Remarkably, I am in the middle of the group, rather than struggling behind it. My legs turn the pedals as I play a little game I learned in Ireland, called "same cadence, bigger gear." It is a fun, but painful game. I have played it for 10, 20 miles at a time before. Today I would play it for 60.

We arrive in Harvard, MA, eat lunch, then climb to the Fruitlands. On top, we stop at the side of the road to take in the view of surrounding mountains. After Northern Ireland, this strikes me as funny, that there is a specific destination with "the view." Over there, the landscape is so open that the view is everywhere. As you're riding, you can see for miles and miles - undulating glens, the sea, the entire Sperrins mountain range, even the hills of Donegal across the water. By contrast New England is so woodsy that you seldom see beyond your immediate surroundings; it is as if you are riding through a tunnel the entire time. Psychologically this feels very different. Riding through forests turns me inward; riding through glens opens me up.

The descents here feel tame compared to what I've been doing in previous weeks. On the other hand, the condition of the roads is even worse than I remembered - enormous cracks, ridges, gaping ditch-sized holes in the crumpling pavement - stunning when you're not used to it. But the texture of the pavement itself is smoother. In Ireland, the tarmac is a sort of chipseal, its surface nearly as rough as gravel at times.

By the afternoon, the heat has reached its apex and we all feel it. We start to take breaks now. We groan, we pour water over our jerseys. I am drained, but also lulled into a pleasurable trance by the intense scent of pine trees in the heat - this is something I've missed. My legs are leaden and I am caked in salt, but I give it one last push, inspired by Scott's relentless pace. Scott is a strong rider, whose compact, muscular body looks like a purpose-built machine when he pedals. I focus on staying on his wheel. Even though I know he is controlling his speed for my sake, just being able to follow him like this feels unreasonably good. Then I push further still and lead for the last couple of miles.

Back at the club house I hear "Hey, you're back!" The familiar voices are as welcome as the blast of air conditioning that greets us. Suddenly shy from the attention and the disconcerting sense of ...what's the word I'm looking for, belonging? I mumble "Yes... Well no, I'm only here for a couple of days." But with my legs weighing me down, Pamela sipping iced coffee at the bar, and the jungle of bikes suspended from the ceiling, I do start to feel more grounded, and Boston starts to feel realer.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Pedal and Coast

Tyrone Flyer, Ulster Gliding Centre
A friend of a friend flies gliders at the Ulster Gliding Centre down the road. I was encouraged to visit. "He used to race bikes. He restores old planes. The place is amazing, you'll love it."

Terrified of flying and armed with only the vaguest notion of what gliders actually are, I nonetheless head over there one evening. The phrase "restores old [fill in the blank]" proves to be excellent bait. In honor of the occasion, I ride a 1938 Tyrone Flyer, handmade in Northern Ireland.

Ulster Gliding Centre
Astride the 75-year old machine, I race down the winding coastal road, at length turning onto a narrow lane toward the Lough Foyle. I ride past pastures, chicken coups, a thatched cottage, and a field of parked caravans, until finally a meadow comes into view - spread out along the water's edge and littered with small aircraft. From a distance the scene resembles a vegetable patch.

Bike and Glide
By the hangar, Owen waves me through, bike and all. We exchange greetings and straight away his eyes are on the bike.

Owen
Owen used to race 100 mile time trials. He was good, right up there at the top. Then he stopped. But I can see the cycling has not left him. If he sees a bike, he can't not look at the bike. Then it's my turn to look at the planes.

Hangar, Ulster Gliding Centre
A hangar is basically a garage for aircraft. This one is dome-shaped. The interior is well illuminated. There are little planes everywhere and I wander through them as if through a forest, stepping over tails and wings as if they were felled tree branches. Some planes are colourful and others are white, some fairly new and others quite old. Owen restores the old ones.

Small Vintage Plane, Ulster Gliding Centre
I ask about the materials, the paint, the provenance. Most of the machines are British or German, WWII era. We talk about plastics, and how they've changed over the years (a topic I'm familiar with from my fountain pen collecting days). Then he shows me the cloth used for wings - stretched so tautly and painted over so smoothly, I would never have guessed it was cloth. 

Gliders!
The planes are so light and small, they seem toy-like. "I could take you up in one of these if you like?" I shake my head in horror, which I quickly try to disguise as a polite "I wouldn't want to impose."

Ulster Gliding Centre
So what exactly is a glider? Put simply, it is a small airplane without an engine. A non-motorised plane. Visually, gliders can be distinguished by their lack of propellers (although there are also motorised gliders, which do have propellers) and their unusually long wings. 

Tug Planes, Ulster Gliding Centre
Because a glider does not have an engine, it cannot take off under its own power and relies on a tow-plane to bring it up to the desired height, then release it. 

Ulster Gliding Centre
Once airborne, the glider uses streams of rising air (thermals) to prolong the flight, as the pilot steers it. In this manner, the glider can stay up in the air for hours and even travel cross-country. "Cross country without an engine?" I said, growing interested in the mechanics of the thing.

Ulster Gliding Centre
Long story short, I ended up in the glider. Owen - as most of the pilots there - has such a steady, reassuring manner about him, that the more we chatted the more it began to seem like a good idea - just a normal way to spend an afternoon. "There's no engine, so nothing can go wrong, you see. It's a bit like cycling really. Take your camera!" Yes, it would be like cycling. 

I was feeling pretty good as I approached the glider, until another pilot - Gary - handed me a parachute. "Here, put this on." I must have turned white and begun to inch my way backward (OMG why do I need a parachute??), because Gary sort of held me in place and swiftly began to put the parachute on for me, cheerfully instructing me on its usage while gently nudging me into the glider. "There. It's like getting into the bathtub." 

In fact, the thing is sort of canoe-shaped. The pilot/instructor sits behind the student/ passenger. There are duplicate controls. There is very little room, and once the top is down, you feel sealed off from the rest of the world. Once I was in it, my attitude was - If you're gonna do it, do it. Otherwise don't do it. No point being scared now.

Gary, Ulster Gliding Centre
As Owen began to rattle off a series of mysterious control-check messages into the radio, Gary grabbed the rope attached to the glider's nose and connected it to the tow-plane.  

Being Towed in a Glider
This is what it looks like to be towed along the grass runway. We are taking off toward Lough Foyle. 

Glider Being Tugged, Ulster Gliding Centre
Here is the rope.

Being Towed in a Glider
The take-off is quick and painless. Before I know it, we are being towed through the air.

Glider and Tug Plane, Ulster Gliding Centre
View from the ground.

Glider (I am in It), Ulster Gliding Centre
Finally, the rope is released. The tow-plane returns to the ground and the glider - well, it glides. I am in a small plane. Everything is completely silent. We are floating, coasting really. I am feeling fine. Calm, downright serene.

River Roe and Lough Foyle, Glider View
The landscape spreads out beneath. Familiar places from an unfamiliar vantage point. In that sense, it really is a bit like cycling. In an abstract sort of way.

Binevenagh, Glider View
We fly along the coast, then turn inland and head to Binevenagh Mountain. Owen explains how to work the controls to make the plane bank, turning it around. It makes sense and I give it a try. The plane turns. And there is Binevenagh, half submerged in shadow from a low cloud, half illuminated by intense sunshine. It looks quite tame from here, flattened out against the landscape. My heroic climbs and descents hardly seem like an accomplishment now.

On the very top of Binevenagh is a mysterious lake. It is up a rough gravel road and I've only made it up there once so far. The lake is eerie, prone to mists and unusual growths around its edges. When you're standing next to it, it looks as if it is about to pour off of the edge of the mountain.

Binevenagh Lake, Glider View
But what you don't see from the ground, is that the lake is distinctly heart-shaped. It is also nowhere near the edge of the mountain when viewed from an aerial perspective.

Glider, Observation Window
My camera is with me in the glider. There is a small window that slides open to stick the lens through. I've no experience composing aerial photos, and my 50mm lens is all wrong for the task. Even as I take them, I know that my pictures will look generic, uninteresting. But they are mine and I take them with the same genuine enthusiasm as anyone would.

Magilligan Point, Glider View
The sun fades gently in the silence. Over Magilligan Point, we see another glider in the distance and wave to them. Everything is beautiful. "You all right?" Owen asks. Yes! This is wonderful. "Want to try a Chandelle?" he says. "Oh. What's that?" It's a maneuver. A bit of fun. Not quite aerobatics, but almost. "All right!"

The glider does something that is part spin, part freefall and part loop. I see clouds. I am not sure which way is up. I feel pressure in my temples and my vision starts to go dark. A split second later, I am drenched in a cold sweat and hit with a wave of nausea. I sit very still and take deep breaths. "How was that?" Owen asks from the back seat. "Mmm hhmm hhmm!" I reply, mouth closed, worried I will puke all over the nice glider if I try to form sentences. Point taken. No more aerobatics. As the sun sets, we descend.

"Like Getting Out of a Bathtub," Ulster Gliding Centre
On the ground, I am soaking wet - hair, clothes, everything. Weird, the physical reactions we have. I don't remember feeling scared, but my body must have decided otherwise. We have a laugh about it. Then we steer the plane down the grass runway toward its next tow.

Ulster Gliding Centre
Is gliding anything like cycling? Hmm, I don't know. Maybe the feeling of landing is similar to that of a long descent. The view can be similar too. But on a bicycle everything feels open, whereas in a glider you are closed in, closed off - a bit claustrophobic for me. Not that I don't want to do it again. But perhaps no Chandelles just yet. It could be a useful skill, knowing how to fly light aircraft. 

Tyrone Flyer, Ulster Gliding Centre
Some day. But for now I get back on the Tyrone Flyer. I pedal uphill, coast downhill. That is more my style of gliding.