Saturday, December 31, 2016

Old and New



Visiting the Gap of Mamore a couple of days ago, we intended to photograph the formidable pass in a way we had not had a chance to when transversing it on bicycles earlier this year. But before we reached the mountain road, we made a detour for a tiny hamlet by the beach at Tullagh Bay, having noticed something there that piqued our curiosity.



On arrival there we saw that a cottage, which had formerly been a crumpling ruin, was being renovated. A man was up on a ladder, laying down the thatch. Of course I could not resist and meandered toward him carefully to watch. Minutes later, we were inside the cottage, being given a historical tour and a telling of its repairs.

Thatched cottages, once iconic of the Irish landscape, had all but disappeared from existence in the past several decades. Unvalued, these structures were abandoned or knocked down nonchalantly by the thousands in favour of contemporary housing. Only in the past few years has an interest in the preservation and restoration of vernacular architecture appeared. Not only for historical reasons, but because, increasingly, it emerges that these structures can be made remarkably energy efficient, breathable, weather-resistant, and eco-friendly, whilst using natural and locally sourced materials - from the stone, to the paint, to the thatch.



The roof, the thatcher explained, was actually flax - harvested from a local field, pleasantly soft to the touch and flexible in its unprocessed state.  Excited, I told him I often use linen yarn for knitting but had never seen it in its raw form (the thatched cottages I know all use reeds). He then showed me how flax is turned into linen thread from the raw stalks. To my surprise, not much needs to be done to it. The inner stalk is removed and the outside is combed, until it becomes ever softer and more flexible, almost hair-like. You can get it to a rough, but never the less spinnable state by hand, if need be.

On the subject of spinning, it wasn't long before talk turned to the serpentine monster behind the cottage and the challenges of conquering it by bicycle.



One of the steepest climbs in all of Ireland, the Mamore Gap sits in the northernmost corner of the island, on the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal. When crossed from north to south, it is a 2 mile ascent with an average grade of 15%. I believe the maximum surpasses 30%, but my computer gets wonky at that point so I can't be exact.

For the first time, we crossed the Gap of Mamore last September, as part of an 80 mile spin around the peninsula. My husband went up it in 34/32t, all in one go. I dismounted and walked a couple of stretches - most notably the nearly vertical section pictured. And in honesty, I don't think my gearing was at fault. My nerves gave out merely looking at the slope. Its pitch seemed so implausible, my courage failed me.

Many years ago now, the thatcher told us, there was a man who lived in the stone cottage. He owned a horse and cart, as well as a bicycle. He alternated riding them over the Mamore Gap, on his way to the town of Buncrana (and back!) every weekend. The bicycle was, of course, a black 3-speed roadster. High gearing, chaincase, the works. I gulped, despite only half-believing this story, reliving again my own trek up Mamore.

It was the first time I got off to walk on a climb in over 3 years. This had upset me at first. But later, it cheered me. There are still bits of the landscape - and in my own back yard, at that - that can reduce me to a sniveling novice. And isn't that wonderful?

There is familiarity to cycling, but also a never ending capacity for novelty. And it is this which I think keeps so many of us coming back to it - day after day and year after year.

With the very best New Year wishes, I thank you all for reading.  


28 comments:

  1. Interesting how walking your bicycle makes you feel defeated. Like you're doing something wrong. The old man with his 3-speed bike probably walked his bike too but he certainly didn't have the feeling of that being wrong.

    Modern bicycles gave us more power and extended our capabilities but at the same time they made us more disconnected somehow. Now we think that when we are on a bike, we're always supposed to ride the bike, never walk it. It's almost like combining those two simple modes of transportation (even for a while) is a shame.

    Also, from purely practical standpoint it's often faster to walk uphill than trying to ride the bike there.

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    1. >"Also, from purely practical standpoint it's often faster to walk uphill than trying to ride the bike there."

      If the bike is geared appropriately for the hill, this rarely true. Riding up a steep grade isn't the most efficient use case for a bicycle, but walking up a steep grade isn't exactly fast either, and walking a bicycle up a steep grade is usually a clumsy worst-of-all-worlds situation.

      It's reasonable to have a bike that fails that .1% use case, although I'm surprised how often people seem to be badly overgeared for their typical local terrain.

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    2. There are a good few videos posted at YouTube of cyclists ascending Mamore Gap. Most show young racers struggling in high gears. Then there is one of two older gents, one quite stout, climbing steadily in appropriate gears. They are moving just as quickly as some of the strong young men. Definitely faster than the very overgeared. Very easy to see which style is effective.

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    3. The defeated feeling was situation-specific: I set out hoping to do it, but couldn't quite manage, so it was disappointing. Had the climb been part of my transport route, it would be a completely different thing.

      Of all the local racers and climbers-for-fun I know, only a handful have successfully climbed the Mamore Gap in one go from the north side (the other direction is easier, so not the same climb). None of them did it in a high gear. I will have to watch these videos.

      When I was walking the steep sections, my progress was molases-like; my husband was definitely faster on the bike (and he tends to climb slower than I do). So bike is definitely faster in this instance, as long as the gearing/power is there and the mind commits.

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  2. "...as part of an 80 mile spin around the peninsula." - like a spin around the block, right?..wonderful and inspiring blog, an antidote to the mostly wasteland that is the internet.
    Thank you, and Happy New Year!

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    1. Thank you - though in fairness, we planned the route so that aside from the Gap it was all gentle rolling terrain. The Inishowen Peninsula is great for that, in that unlike the rest of Donegal there is a lot of variety in the terrain, allowing you to choose between flat or rolling or knee-breakingly hilly routes according to taste. If you cycle-tour just one bit of the north west, Inishowen is the part I'd recommend exactly for this reason.

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  3. About that man who rode to Buncrana...

    Your friend Emily O'Brien has posted an amusing anecdote about breaking a chainring while attempting to climb overgeared. Her verdict was that one should fit a stouter chainring when attempting such antics. The ring she broke was already much stouter than what Nottingham supplied on a roadster. The more usual failure on a roadster subjected to such abuse would be sheared cotters, bent or broken crankarms. Also possible would be snapped pedal or chain, folded wheel, broken frame. I will suppose that the householder descended the Gap with one boot in repose on the fork crown while smoking a clay pipe. I am not sure if he would be working the crossword puzzle or reciting the poems of Yeats.

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    1. My mother in law (in her latter-mid 70s) is at the tail end of that generation who rode their innocuous looking bikes over the local Terrain. When I asked her how they managed the gulp-inducing climbs, she shrugged. They simply walked over the steep bits. Problem solved. I suspect the Buncrana thatched cottage man used the same tactic.

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    2. Yes but Emily O'Brien is exceptional!

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  4. A Happy New Year to the author and to all whom I have 'met' through this blog.
    May 2017 bring you many happy miles!

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  5. Happy New Year! My 2017 resolution is to finally visit Ireland. Thank you for the inspiring photos and please keep them coming.

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  6. Nice piece, inspiring. Meanwhile I was making a trip to Chick-king in Tottenham! http://humanbiker.blogspot.co.uk/2016/12/a-trip-to-chick-king-in-tottenham.html
    Happy new year

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  7. I think there is a never ending capacity for novelty in anything one is passionate about, which is why it remains a passion as one ages. You're still a newbie to cycling but I'm glad it has fueled your imagination and curiosity for these past few years and, hopefully, onward.

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    1. Funny this newbie talk. What defines one as a newbie? At 48 technically I can say Ive been cycling for decades! However most of that was messing around on and off and only for the past two years have I been a proper cyclist. On the other hand there are professional racing cyclists who started late and have been riding for only a few years, but their involvement is intense. So are they newbies? Or am I? Is the guy building my new frame, aged 28 and cycling fewer years than Velouria but knows a hell of a lot about racing and bikes, a newbie?

      Well I don't care if you don't. Happy New Year!

      -J

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    2. A newbie is one who is young in age and experience yet still thinks they've got it figured out.

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  8. on the theme of old and new…..i get that this is your blog and is all about your impressions and perceptions but there are many who comment with their insights, which are also interesting. what about having, maybe once a month, a guest (one who does not have a blog) post about their experiences or obsessions? spin-dizzy has his own but there are other consistent responders who may enjoy a featured space for photos and thoughts about their lovely experience.

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    1. I've tried this in the past and it doesn't work, on several levels. Neither do interviews. That's not to say I might not try it again though.

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    2. on the theme of old and new... (snip)what about having, maybe once a month, a guest ... (snip)other consistent responders who may enjoy a featured space for photos and thoughts about their lovely experience. "

      I had thought to suggest this to you myself, but more as a "who are the Lovely Bicyclist peanut gallery?" compendium. Of course, that almost certainly leads to the creation of a tableau (as you once put it), especially among those with a professional or public image...

      As for climbing the Mamore Gap. Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you. It looks like a rough one, and I say that having been a *sometimes-decent* climber as a young man.

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  9. There's a limit to how steep a paved road can be. Too steep and the pavement will sag, slump, slide down the hill. The usually given limit is 27% and that is hard to achieve if the paving is not directly applied to bedrock. Steep roads must be well engineered, well built, and they are expensive. There are other reasons not to go so steep. Few would want to use a road that severe. Commercial trucks can't use them at all. When the only safe vehicles that could use a road are mountainbikes and 4x4s with compound low gears then you have the situation that the only plausible users would prefer the road remain unpaved. At 30% dirt is a lot safer than pavement.

    All this is prefatory to stating Mamore has an average gradient of 12% and a maximum gradient of 22%. That is steep enough. Any climb that steep will generate stories and frequent exaggeration. One way to know for sure that it is remarkable is the stories. Methinks the wonky computer is wonky all the time and has been culpable for some exaggeration.

    For racing purposes Mamore is a Category 4 hill.

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    1. The stated gradients will depend on which segment you read; there is no official 'agreement' with these things as far as I know. I see it described as a Cat 3, which seems ridiculous but is probably because it is not very long. It is certainly more difficult than any Cat 2 climb I've done, or any of the half dozen local climbs with confirmed 20% sections.

      The road is indeed in bad shape, and can be described as 'paved' using that word only very liberally (the surface is packed chipseal). As you walk/ride/drive up it, bits will crumble; it is a back road not often used and treacherous to navigate.

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    2. "Any climb that steep will generate stories and frequent exaggeration."

      Haha, any old goat on a bike will tell you about the hills he's climbed that are practically straight-up vertical. Their cousins, the fishermen, have their tales, too.


      Wolf.

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    3. Here in Pittsburgh when the road gets too steep we pave it with "Polish block," which are big brick-shaped blocks of stone. That works pretty well. The steepest paved road here (also in the world) is Canton Ave, at 37% grade (max), 35% (avg, I think).

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  10. Re: new to cycling.

    I have been riding for sport and pleasure since 1983, and I'm still very much a student of the wheel. May the wind be at your back in 2017.

    Cheers,
    Will
    William M deRosset
    Fort Collins CO

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  11. Great story. I've read a couple articles about thatched roofs, although I'm perfectly content with asphalt shingles. Do you know what the cottage will be used for once the renovation is complete?

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    1. I think the new owner intends to live in it.

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  12. I usually walk up hills, partly because I sometimes physically cannot ride up, and partly because I want to cycle into old age and don't like the feeling of excessive wear and tear on my body which a painful struggle usually invokes, whereas a walk is good exercise without the tearing and splintering. I also wonder if it is good for the bike's components to be forced so hard. I like walking my bike, it makes it feel more of a companion rather than just a machine, if that's not too weird! Oh, and I often stop still on hills to enjoy the view too!

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    1. I also enjoy walking with my bike, I think cycling and walking and very compatible activitie. There are many areas where I prefer to walk, simply to enjoy the surroundings and because walking is a great exercise, particularly up and down hills. The modern light weight bikes mean that it is no hardship to do this, these bikes just seem to glide along beside you, as you say, quite companionably.

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  13. Your story of the cyclist climbing the Gap on a 3-speed roadster reminded me of something that happened at this year's Dirty Dozen. Every year, we Pittsburghers gather on the Saturday after Thanksgiving for our ride up the 13 steepest hills in Pittsburgh. This year was especially poignant (and well-attended) because the founder of the Dirty Dozen, Danny Chew, was paralyzed in a biking accident this summer, putting an end, for now, to his plan to ride a million miles in his lifetime (he's over 750,000 now; he's planning to start again once he's recovered enough to ride a hand-cycle).
    Anyway, this year we had someone attempt the Dirty Dozen on a bike share bike -- 7 gears (Shimano internal geared hub), heavy as hell. He made it up 9 of the 13 hills.
    Here's something about the bike share rider, Jeremiah Schill: http://triblive.com/local/allegheny/11538272-74/sullivan-dirty-challenge
    And here's Danny's site: http://dannychew.com/
    Also, I don't know if you'll approve of this, but Danny's raising money to his mom's house (where he lives) wheelchair-accessible: https://www.youcaring.com/danny-chew-640082

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