Posts in Category: Touring

Touring the Camino Del Norte

We cheer with whiskey glasses at a cafe next to the famous church. We somehow picked up an Australian pilgrim along the way and are all smiles, pats on the back, and high fives. The Camino Del Norte is completed. Sadness creeps in and a succession of thoughts fires through my brain “we should have taken more random path.” “we should have taken it slower.” “What can we ride tomorrow”. After 688 km of full-loaded touring in one of Europe’s most beautiful regions and I’m obsessing over the next ride. What’s wrong with this boy?

But this is really when it hits me – this was an amazing experience, exceeding 10-fold any expectation I had of my first tour and I’d very much like to do another tour, as soon as possible, post-haste.

In September 2013 I came across a Salsa blog post from Kelly Mac about “Bikepacking the Camino Santiago.” The blog entry started a chain reaction that culminated in the most fan adventure I have yet to experience on two wheels.  The Camino Santiago, or The Way of St. James, is a pilgrim path that starts in various places around Europe and ends in the capital of Galicia – Santiago de Compostela.  Initially when reading about the history of the camino, and considering the possible religious implications, I was turned off by the idea to join the pilgrims.  But after some consultations I realized that:

  • The fact that this is a pilgrim path means that it is setup to accommodate travelers
  • It turned out that biking the camino is an acceptable transportation method (but horses get priority)
  • The camino has distinct signposts that make it easy to follow and does not require reliance on GPS
  • There are ways to ride in nature and right by nature along the camino

These are pretty compelling arguments.  They spell out comfort and ease which were important aspects in being able to materialize the tour.  The tour was going to happen between one project and the next, so keeping preparations to minimal was essential.

I identified one friend who was keen on doing the ride and needed to get away as badly as I did.  We did one planning session in which we decided to ride the Camino Del Norte simply because it went along the ocean, seemed more challenging, and, based on all written material, had significantly less travelers.  We also decided to fly on a certain date, and due to another commitment, I had a very definitive date on which I needed to be back home.  How did we decide on when the trip will start?  Based on airline ticket price of course.  How did we decide on where we will stay each night and how many kilometers we had to ride every day?  We did not.  We knew where we land, where is Santiago, and where the path was.  We found a GPS map of the path from Bilbao to Santiago which showed 666.66 km of riding.  We figure that we can do that in a week without stressing too much, we added a few buffer days for good measure and booked airline tickets.

The weeks leading up to the tour were exciting.  The bike (my Hunter) had to be rebuilt, racks had to be found, mudguards, panniers, packing list had to be created, tires procured.  At no time did we actually concern ourselves with planning the tour itself.  Instead, we invested all our energy in making sure that the bikes were ready for the task.  We continued with our usual long distance riding every weekend and in the last weekend before heading to Spain, while riding east of Berlin on the way to Poland, we even found the first sign of the path.

Shell in Poland

The yellow shell with the blue background was going to be our tour guide through the whole adventure.

The feeling of rolling out of an airport on a bike instead of in a taxi or a rental was the real indication that this is something entirely new.  It was a rush of freedom and power that even to this seasoned traveler was a first.  As soon as I left the terminal, panniers hanging on the rack, water bottles filled in the terminal’s bathroom, I ran into two German Pilgrims that were on their way back.  They were excited to meet a fellow German and had nothing but amazing stories about the tour.  That was encouraging.  I departed the airport and rode into Bilbao.

Camino-2

We ended up using a simply guideline while riding: wake up between 7 and 8.  Wait for the sun to come out (which was around 8:45), hit he road around 9.  We would then ride until lunch time which in Spain is a very distinct time: 12:00-14:00.  We painfully learned that if we miss this window of opportunity, we can not expect to have food prepared for us until dinner time, which often, even in the smallest village in Spain, starts at 21:00.  So we always looked for a place to feed for lunch and then continued riding until it was around 18:00.  At that point we typically looked for a place to stay for the night.  We stayed at youth hostels (9 Euro a night with breakfast!), we stayed at hotels (the most expensive one being 40 Euro for the whole room), we stayed at Albergues which are pilgrim hostels.  All stays were great, comfortable and easy to organize.  Once we found a place to stay for the night we would explore the village or town, often on our bikes (with the panniers waiting at the hotel/hostel).  We would then find a place to eat dinner, have a drink, and pass out.

The eat-ride-eat-ride-eat/drink-sleep-repeat routine brought us to Santiago 6 days after we left Bilbao.  Without any planning, we ended up riding the following etape (stages):

  1. Bilbao to Santoña (slept at a youth hostel)
  2. Santoña to San Vincente De La Barquera (slept at hotel Villa De San Vincente)
  3. San Vincente De La Barquera to Villaviciosa (slept at a small hotel for 25 Euro, drank way too much Cider)
  4. Villaviciosa to Soto de Luiña (slept at a huge hotel where no other room was actually occupied)
  5. Soto de Luiña to Lourenzá
  6. Lourenzá to Baamonde
  7. Baamonde to Santiago De Compostela

We met people along the way, but not too many.  All folks we met had great stories, were often older than us and were happy to educate us on the history, location and geography.  We climbed every day around 1,400 cumulative meters and were relieved that we only had rain on two days.  When it did rain, it was great to have disk brakes that really worked to depend on.  Using liberal amounts of Chamois Creme we did not suffer any seat sores and being off-season meant that prices were more than affordable.  The food was fantastic and the wine and cider plenty.  What more could one ask for for the first tour?

Parsley Bags – Handmade in Berlin

Parsley Bag PB-600K

Susanne of Parsley Bags has been busy preparing new bags.  I love how clean the bag is and how much individual influence the customer can have.  Hand Made in Berlin, Germany.

Water World Double Century – The Route South

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I expected that waking up after the first day will be hard.  It turned out that I was wrong.  An hour before the alarm clock was set to ring I already opened my eyes, a little confused, and found myself in an acceptable state in the hotel room.  It was not even 7AM and breakfast was going to start was at 07:30.  I used the time to clean up the bike and send a few quick emails.  Next on the agenda was a massive breakfast which actually also served as dinner of the night before.  It was fantastic as only breakfast in a vacation hotel could be.  I did manage to consume massive amount of eggs and gluten-free toast and fruit and industrial quantity of coffee.

After breakfast I repacked, collected the bike clothes that spent the night on the radiator getting dry and hit the road.  It was 08:30AM and the morning myst was still floating over the lake and its surrounding.  For a brief second I felt sorry for having to ride back south and not being able to spend any time in the little city by the lake, but with some 200km ahead, I knew that there is not much room for meandering.  The Garmin was fully charged and my behind was still feeling like it was holding on to some skin.  I quickly got on the path and this time followed the curve of the lake on the west side.  The day’s route was mostly along lakes until pretty close to Berlin.

After about an hour of riding I suddenly got the sneaky suspicion that I was riding in circles.  In retrospect, it would have been hard to ride completely around the biggest lake in Germany in one hour, but something was not sitting right in my stomach and it was was not breakfast.  I consulted the Garmin and my cell phone and decided to ignore my gut feeling and try to follow the route I had planned.  This was also an instance where the Garmin was convinced that a line clear across a river was a valid route option.  It’s entirely possible that the problem was between the screen and the saddle and not with the device itself, but given that at the end of the day I did end up in my final destination, I guess the Garmin did its job.

Riding alongside lakes does get a little repetitive after several hours.  With all the peacefulness of the lake, at the end of the day it’s nothing but a very large body of water that’s pretty quiet – I was wishing for waves breaking on the shore, but this is Germany after all, waves are not our expertise really.  So southward we continued covering good ground and keeping close to the water.

Several hours later I realized that I am very tired of the lake.  I could not wait for a sign that will announce my departure from water land, from the state I was in and into the state surrounding Berlin.  As the day progress the amount of skin on which I was sitting was dwindling and the energy was low.  As opposed to the way north, I only allowed food intake from the saddle and the powerbars were running low.  At around 17:00 while riding through a very picturesque village cursing the cobblestones that were accelerating the loss of skin on my behind, I spotted a fetching coffee shop and decided that this was as good a point as any to take a coffee break.

This turned out to be exactly the energy source that I was lacking.  After a 10 minutes cappuccino session spent sitting in a seat other than my bike’s, I was ready for the last stretch.  This took me through some remote and very deserted roads deep in east Germany.  At some point, no longer that far from the ring road around Berlin, I actually found myself on a very old and deserted cobblestone path curving into the unknown.  A house was hidden in that curve and between wild grass and trees.  This was the only instance in which I felt like maybe the ride was not safe, but soon after turning the corner and crossing a rusty bridge I suddenly realized how close to Berlin I was and with that knowledge and a big smile on my face I headed to the city and then home.

Water World Double Century was a fantastic experience.  Riding 400km in one weekend, through one of Germany’s most beautiful landscapes was the kind of fun activities you only realize are fun when you completed them.  Connecting to places that are “around the corner” and yet far from the public view was also a highlight on the weekend.  Riding through villages that end before you finished reading their names, hearing the gravel crunch for hours under the tires and knowing that in any distance you are the only person around build a certain connection to the land and nature.  And yes, doing WWDC by myself, not giving up, and hoping that next year the ride will enjoy some more support, certainly is a source of pride.

Next year, WWDC#2 August 2-3, 2014.

Water World Double Century – How do you get from here to there?

WWDC

Two days after I completed the ride and I still walk funny.  It’s a little bit mechanic or perhaps a scene from Monty Python’s silly walk sketch, but it just does not feel like the normal walk.  Completing the Water World Double Century ride feels like a huge achievement, a battle won and an epic adventure to boot.  It involved a massive storm, two days of riding a total of 390 km (that’s 242 miles you imperialists), 3 power bars, 2 oat bars, a very German apple, massive hotel breakfast, 25 hours on the road and roughly 8 small deers.  Oh yeh, there was a proper rainbow, just you know, ’cause they sometimes pop up after the storm.

The first Water World Double Century started from a link a family member shared about an area in North Germany called The European Route of Brick Gothic.  The name is of course a marketing disaster, but I conveniently ignored the name and focused on the area.  I had already ridden in parts of it, but when I looked at the map and did some investigation, I realized that this was a Water World.  The whole area is a little bit of landed surrounded by canals, lakes and waterways.  One lake leads to another which leads to a river and the story just continues.  It also includes the biggest lake inside Germany – Müritz lake.

So I spent several nights practicing “the best way to learn is by doing.”  I poured over GPS routes both on Ride With GPS, GPSies, and some other less known sites.  I plotted two routes: one going north and one heading back south.  The north ride was a combination of well known European bike routes such as the Berlin-Copenhagen way, as well as forest roads and loads of what looked like gravel.  The second day was a tour along the curves of the lakes.  Based on the map this was about half the ride and the rest was a ride through the deep unexplored corners of the state of Mecklenburg and its neighboring state Brandenburg.

Invitation to the very small group of other cyclists were sent. But… Well, the answers, encouraging and excited as they were, led to no takers.  So the ride included exactly one participant – yours truly.  While conceptualized as a Brevet, without any awards or checkpoints, it ended up being an endurance test and a hell of a way to see a beautiful corner of the country that gets a lot less advertising than it deserves.

We (that would be Hunter and me) left on Saturday morning.  Based on some back of the envelop calculations, I figured that the northern ride will take about 10 hours, and since the sun only sets at 21:30, there was no real rush to start the ride at an uncivilized hour.  Initially, while planning the tour, I debated if the tour should start from the center of Berlin or if a train ride out will be advisable.  I figured that the 30 km out of the city could also be interested if a different route was taken than the usual route so that distance was added and the ride started from one of the best cafes in Berlin: Cafe am Ende Der Welt.

As soon as I left the city the ride delivered on its promise: Water World!  I followed a water way which turned into a lake, which turned into another waterway and…well you know the drill.

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The road turned into a gravel path in the forest with large bodies of water to the right.  It was cool in the forest shade and hardly any people were to be seen.  At this point with the road turning into the following image, I suspected that this might be a rather boring route.

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But before I realized it, the road opened up and I was actually riding the Berlin-Copenhagen bike path.  Typically this would have been the easy part of the ride, but not when the road turns into this:

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This scene looked like a giant ran through the bike path knocking all the trees on the side of the path into the road.  It was definitely no longer the Berlin-Copenhagen path. While I was doing my best to ride around, the few other cyclists that were stumped by this sudden outburst of massive tree suicide, did not seem to have that option.  So I decided, in the spirit of Brevet of course, to stop and help.  This was a massive karma point collection since a fellow that was stuck between one tree and the next was about to give up on his plan to make it to Copenhagen. His bike, loaded to the max with the latest Ortlieb bags, weighted so much that he could not lift it.  We carried his bike together over the tree carcasses and slowly made progress.  After about 2 kilometers of walking his steel touring bike we reached the end of the tree carnage area and I bid him good luck and jumped back up on Hunter and continued.

The scene alternated between tiny villages, a constant theme during the whole ride, fields in various degrees of harvest and of course lakes!  Never was there a period longer than 30 minutes where a lake or some waterway was not accompanying Hunter and me.

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The road also included other riders.  These were characterized by an abundance of Ortlieb bags, Shimano dynamo hubs, flat bars and orange Garmin GPS devices that looked like a walkie-talkie.  As opposed to my fellow riders on other weekends, they all admired Hunter and made comments on the speed in which I was touring.  Now here was a welcome change – a group of riders that think that I’m actually fast!  That was a new experience not to mention a nice complement.  At certain locations along the path there were even little cyclist snack/coffee bars.  They reminded me, even thought it sounds absurd, of travel coffee shops in Thailand or India – unassuming places where the company and crowd play a bigger role than the menu.  Thumbs up, I only wished I had time for a coffee and a chat.

At some point, as I was riding the path between relatively high shrubs and overtaking a group of three men, one of which riding a Salsa, a very sudden change in scenery occurred.  The shrubs disappeared all of a sudden dead tree stems were sticking out of a swamp, looking menacing.

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As I stopped in my track and took the iPhone out I realized that the threatening nature of the swap was softened by the appearance of a rainbow in the distance.  It was massive and, possibly for the first time ever, I could actually see the place in which it touched the ground!

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But I promised a storm now didn’t I?  Well…rainbows mean water in the air, so I was not concerned, but not 30 minutes went by and some nasty looking clouds were arriving.  After living in this part of the world for 10 years, I believe that I developed a sense of “oh I’m so going to get it.”  I tried to push onwards as fast as I could knowing that a city called Strasen was not far away, but the rain, coming at me from the north, was faster and about 3 km before said sanctuary, the clouds opened and massive amount of rain started pouring down.

Now, I have a certain policy about getting wet.  You can only get so wet and then you’re already wet and getting wetter is not an option.  Nice theory when in the city, but sadly it did not work in this case.  I was hiding under a tree on the side of the road, trying to find the bigger leaves to cover Hunter and myself.  Looking on the road that was not 30 centimeters away, I realized that I was standing in a waterfall.  And just as I thought “wow this is the most fierce rainfall I ever saw” it started raining harder and lightening and thunder arrived.  I did hope for an adventure and I certainly got it.  As many storms in North Germany, I knew that it is just a matter of minutes before it will leave and indeed 15 minutes later the clouds continued on their way south-east and I jumped back on Hunter, completely soaked, shivering, and rode onwards.  As I suspected Strasen was just up the road.  I stopped for tea and to squeeze the water out of my shoes, warmed up, and continued north.

The rest of the day was an exercise in trying to stay warm and making it to the destination before nighttime.  With the trees-covered road, the rain storm and the tea, I had lost significant time and still had the best fire roads ahead of me.  I’m used to riding alone in the forests, but in the dark, without any lights, that notion seemed less appealing.  The fire roads though were fantastic!  They were wet, misty and made that crunchy sound of tires eating gravel.  I was stoked to come out of a fire road, which turned into a gravel road by the train tracks, just as the sun was in the right position to paint the air yellow and leave the trees painted green.  Yep, that’s the image at the top of the page.

I rode into Waren and checked into the hotel around 21:00.  Light was already very dim and the temperatures dropped.  I was grateful to have a working heater in my room where I could dry my everything.  Instead of dinner, I snacked on dried fruits and before long I was heading to sleepland.  The first 181 km were done.  199 km to go.

Lessons Learned from Day 1

  • If you’re going to bring a lock and carry all that weight, you should really make sure that you also have the key for said lock.  Otherwise, you’re just transporting weight around.
  • Weather is a very fickle think here in Northern Europe.  It can get cold in August and massive rain storms do decide to visit now and again.  Be ready!  There is a reason why knee and arm warmers exist and why rain jackets weight only a few grams.  Take them with you!
  • Stopping for a nice meal of fish and potatoes is not a good idea.  It might be the fact that your body is focused on generating energy for the legs and is neglecting the stomach which then complains and has its own way to revenge.  Oat bars, dried fruits and energy bars proved themselves to be excellent food supply.
  • Before the next tour, get a rack.  Hunter certainly has enough rack-mounts.  Carrying anything in a backpack for long distances really takes away from the feeling of wind at your back.  Your back is there to schlep the bag and that’s just not cool.
  • If you’re carrying stuff with you, put them in a water resistant bags.  Yep, my SAG bag was not water resistant enough.

Riding with GPS

 

A few years ago I found myself in Rome, Italy having breakfast with Marc Weiss, Ph.D. Dr Weiss is one of the GPS pioneers and is also one of the guys who created the first GPS receiver.  He told me that the GPS receiver that he created in the early 1980s is still functioning today and is actually being used by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).  Dr. Weiss is now working on teleportation.

The original GPS receiver is significantly bigger than the current GPS receivers each one of us is carrying in his or her pocket.  For years I resisted getting a GPS navigation system since the iPhone has exactly this ability and I firmly believe that less is more.  I argued that everything that I need already exists in the iPhone – a GPS receiver, maps, speedometer and trip recorder (Strava for example).  Not only that, but an iPhone can make phone calls which is sometimes a plus.

There has not been a single ride since the start of the season in which I returned home with any battery life left in my iPhone.  I always stopped counting the number of times I needed to stop, switch on the iPhone, figure out where I was and where I was going, put it back in the jersey pocket and ride on.  Sure I could mount it on the drop bars and get an external battery for it, but that still did not solve the issue of the lack of proper navigation application that was able to record rides as well as show me the path.  For some reason, Strava and anything (for example bikemap) always ended up in the phone or the app crashing.

This became annoying, a great way to loose riding time and at times frustrating.  This also meant that I adopted the “lets get lucky” style of riding.  I would point myself to some direction and then try to see “what’s there?”  Sometimes there were great surprises and sometimes there were long distances of boredom.

I probably would have continued this system for many more seasons, but then I visited Patria at Ride Studio Cafe and she got me to ride a Seven Mudhoney SL.  Since I am certainly not the most oriented person, she created a loop for me to follow, downloaded it to a little Garmin and attached it to the stem.  Her instructions were simple: follow the little arrow and click here when the screen goes to sleep.  It was a great ride and I felt like I knew where I was going all the time – a feeling that was only familiar when riding in Berlin.  Here I was, tearing down some trails, in a completely new area feeling like I actually knew where I was heading and knowing that I can also make it back to home base.

A week later I was riding in Maryland with friends.  One of them attached a GPS to his stem before we started the ride.  Since the ride included a circular loop in a forest I jokingly asked him if he is afraid of getting lost.  He answered that the Garmin device was just there to record his ride and to later Synchronize with his Strava account.  “Novelty” I exclaimed, but my mindset already started shifting.  Here was something useful and it even worked with existing technologies.  Oh…how little did I know.

Two weeks later I was the proud owner of a second hand Garmin 800.

Unlike the iPhone, the Garmin took a while to get used to.  Luckily for me, the web is full of Garmin tutorials, videos and howtos.  The Internet is also full of web sites designed to enable anyone to create riding maps and downloaded them to the GPS.  Once all plug-ins were installed and the appropriate number of chickens sacrificed, I downloaded the first batch of maps to my new GPS, choose a loop of 100 km and took off.

I absolutely loved the way the Garmin attaches to my stem using a clip system that’s both effortless and sturdy.  At no point during this first ride did I feel that the small device could detach itself from the stem.  It was also easy to see where I was supposed to be heading and as soon as I left the path, Garmin notified me that I was “Off Course” and did not let it go until I was back on course. This behavior could be configured of course. Old habits die hard and I certainly had to get off the path a few times.  The Garmin continued tracking me and showing the path while letting me know that I was no longer in Kansas, or on the intended road.  This was actually a useful feature since when getting off the track, I typically would like to return to it, and even when the path was no longer on the screen, as soon as I got back to it, the “Course Found” alert came up and I was directed to where I should have really been going.

Garmin also recorded the ride which meant that once it was connected back to the computer, I could synchronize Strava with it.  So the iPhone, which I still carry on rides, was now back to its basic functions: a mobile phone and a camera.  It also is able to receive GPS courses from various websites such as ride with gps or GPSies. The more I used the Garmin the more features I discovered.  For example, while from a user interface design perspective, having the same function on different locations is a big no-no, Garmin’s ability to configure each course (i.e. a planned GPS track) is actually very useful.  Sometimes you want notifications and recalculations and sometimes you most certainly do not.  So far I stick to riding courses, but proper training programs with targets and challenges are also doable with that little GPS computer.  These might be in my distant future.

After riding close to 1,000 km with the Garmin 800, I also started discovering the device’s transcendence qualities.  I find myself getting upset at the little computer and event cursing it’s little inaccuracies while fully realizing that the map is likely to be the blame and not the actual computer.  Last weekend we (Garmin and myself) certainly had the following exchanges on more than one occasion:

“Really!?!?!?!  Off Course ha!  I don’t think so!  Get it together” I shout at the device mounted on the stem.

“Off Course” it answers and insists that I am really off course even though I am clearly on course since I am literally on the bike which is on the course.

“Course Found” it suddenly informs me even though I most certainly did not change course.

“Nice!” I shout back.

It may be the effect of riding many hours without seeing any other cyclists, but the GPS device is slowly gaining the position of a riding partner – it’s a little scary, but the goal of every successful digital product: enhance the life of the user.  This little GPS device most certainly does.

Inspiration: Bike through Iceland

Inspired by Iceland Video from Inspired By Iceland on Vimeo.

I’ve been coming back to this video again and again.  Those peaks and hot-springs, the gazers, the ice mountains, smoked fish and picturesque lighthouses – experiencing all of these from the seat of a bike, camping on the side of the road and bathing in the hot-springs.  Sign me up.

TransUckermark II Express – Potato salad, lakes and gravel

 

Ukamark View

 

What makes a grown man open his eyes at 05:03, full 4 minutes before the alarm clock was scheduled to ring, and jump out of bed?  In the not-so-distant past the only answer was a club night, but in a recent Saturday morning, the answer turned out to be: the TransUkamark tour.

The tour was organized by a great gentleman called Tom.  I came across the announcement by pure luck on Thursday night and required all of 3 seconds to decide that this was definitely the agenda for Saturday?  The decision process followed this path: I regularly ride 70-110 km and in one weekend have done 180 km over two days.  I read in a recent requirement for a ride organized by Ride Studio Cafe, that the requirement was to have done at least half the distance already and to keep up with a certain speed.  Well…I looked everywhere on Tom’s posting for any mention of average speed but once that was nowhere to be found I decided that I meet the criteria and announced my participation.

My preparation included rebuilding Der Panzer on Friday night (it was still in its suitcase after our return from Washington, DC), riding by a mega-bike shop and buying a handful of power bars and electrolyte bars of all sorts of makes and models, checking out the route before hand, and going to sleep at 22:00 to try and make 7 hours in bed.

Excitement got me out of bed before the alarm went off.  It was already bright outside, but the air was crisp and cool.  I brewed a fresh cup of black wake-me-up juice and was devastated to see that there were no eggs in the fridge. I wolfed down a massive bowl of granola with yogurt and banana, showered, packed all the snacks in the Revelate Mountain Feedbag, made sure that the water bottles were full and that all the tools were securely packed under the saddle and then I took off.

The meeting point was set for a train station not far from home where I spotted a lonely mountain biker.  I approached him and realized that this was in fact the tour organizer.  We introduced each other, got tickets and started getting nervous since the train was about to arrive and another cyclist that was supposed to join us was nowhere to be seen.  Just as the train arrived the third member of our party arrived.  We boarded the train and were greeted by three other members of the group.

The tour stating point was in a tiny village called Chorin just north of Berlin.  I’ve done a tour that started from this point a few weeks back so the location and the area was somewhat familiar.  When we got to the station we were the only ones to get off the train and were greeted by the seventh tour member.  There was yet another fellow to join the tour – he started his ride in Berlin at 4:30 which really meant that he was already pretty warm up when he found us.

And we took off into the forest.

In the first three hours my main focus was staying with the group, not getting killed and understanding what was happening.  I was unable to speak much since I was so focused on the terrain ahead of us.  We crossed a few forests and alternated between gravel, packed sand, very fine sand, mud, and some fire roads.  At this point I was feeling confident and was happy to have had a chance to ride Roseryville single-track train in Maryland just a week before this ride.  The forest smelled fresh and the air was far from warm at this point and I was feeling fully awake, fully engaged and fully stoked on the ride.

A ride like this is never without surprises and excitement right?  The first exciting and amusing part was probably the instance in which I landed on my left side on a muddy puddle in the middle of the forest.  It was truly a Zoolander moment where my left leg was adamant about not separating from the Egg Beater while the right leg was trying to find an anchor in the air.  I wish I could say that this was the only instance.  But really, as I looked at my muddy kit I was thinking “how often can an adult fall into a puddle of mud in the forest, laugh about it and continue with his day as if nothing happened?”

The ride then alternated between a paved bike path in the forest and some off-road sections until we suddenly arrived at a picturesque little village.  It was 11:00 and we have already covered 78 km (that’s 50 miles).  The village had a little coffee shop which looked promising, but for some unknown reason related to “time” and “lets go”, we had a very short stop.  This was also the location where one of my biggest mistakes of the day was made.  I ordered a plate of potato salad and did not really bother chewing it as it went down.

Did I mention that practically drinking a whole plate of potatoes covered by a mix of yogurt and  mayonnaise is not a good idea while also trying to ride around lunch time  at high speed in the great wilderness of Northern-Germany?  Well…it’s a bad idea.  My stomach was violently complaining about the abuse it was experiencing and I started wishing that I was able to puke.  Add to this feeling the heat (nothing too bad but still in the 26 C or around 80 F) and the fact that we were at the edge of my comfort zone and you can imagine who took a firm lead at the back.  Yep, I was the last in the group.  I wish I could say that the situation changed afterwards, but it did not.  Someone have to be at the end and that someone was me.

I quickly became comfortable with being the last of the group – the scenery was simply too beautiful to concern myself with distance, speed or demonstration of prowess. We were riding through an area that looked to be painted and could not have been real.  There were rolling hills that seemed to always end in some lake or a field.  There were villages that ended before I was able to read the name on on the sign, there were very few humans anywhere we were and the whole time the air smelled new, fresh, sweet.

We did have to stop a few times due to some technical difficulties. Once it was a Ritchey seat-post that decided that holding the seat was a challenge and was constantly giving up and another instance, and lucky for us all, the only instance, one of the mountainbikers had a flat tire.  None of the technicalities took more than 10 minutes to resolve and we continued pounding the unexplored road.  Rumor has it that Tom shared many stories and anecdotes while riding but I was never close enough to be able to listen.

The whole day was amazing, apart from what we estimated to be 15 kilometers of cobblestone road that must have been laid down some 200 years ago.  With the passing of time and the beating of the elements and humans each stone decided to take a different position in the road and a different height which meant that when I road over them each bone in my body was tested for stability and resistance.  It was the definition of grueling.  Other than the great cobblestone massacre  I would not have changed anything about the path – it was a party for the senses.

Towards the last two hours I realized that the biggest obstacle at enjoying the full ride was going to be me.  Being the last one in the line and having a significant distance between me and the rest meant that a few times I had the luxury of stopping in frustration, be it due to deep/fine sand or due to another cobblestone path.  At none of these stops did I consider quitting, but taking a short break, drinking more water or slowing down (the latter as a joke, I could not have ridden slower at this point) did cross my mind.  None the less, after every small breakdown Der Panzer continued faithfully forward with my ass firmly attached to the saddle.

At the end of the day we managed to collect some nice statistics:

  • 8 Riders
  • 3 Cross Bikes
  • 4 26 inch mountain bikes
  • 1 29er
  • 3 Carbon rigs
  • 4 aluminum rigs
  • 1 steel rig
  • 180 kilometers (111 miles)
  • Average speed: 16 km/h
  • Max speed: 58 km/h
  • Start at 07:30, finish at 19:00
  • I consumed 9 liters of liquids, most of which water (that’s 2.2 gallons or so)
  • Uncountable amont of fun

Lessons Learned

  • I noticed that I need a lot more water than the rest of the group.  Even though I drank 9 liters I only peed once during the whole ride.  So the lesson learned will be to plan big rides with enough spots to collect more water.
  • GPS is great.  Had I done the same ride without the guidance of Tom, I would have taken much longer and would have had to stop much more frequently to look at google maps.  So getting a Garmin is a good idea.
  • Tire pressure.  I can not explain the reason for not stopping to remove some air pressure from my Bruce Gordon’s Rock’n’Road.  I pumped the tires to 60 psi (4 bars) before leaving the house and they were hard as rocks.  It made NO SENSE but still I could not bring myself to stop and remove some pressure.  They did perform extremely well, but would have performed much better had I taken some of the pressure out.
  • Riding by yourself is easy.  Riding with your close mates who always let you ride ahead and provide a wind block for them is easy.  Ride with other people, more experienced people – there is no better way to learn.  You’ll be the last, but who cares?  Your enjoyment of the ride should not change on account of placement.
  • Find a solution for saddle sores BEFORE next ride (next weekend).
  • The top of your ears and the back of your leg will burn in the sun.  Bring sunscreen.

This was a fantastic ride.  Would I do it again?  Hell yeh!  I plan on doing another such ride next weekend.  Is Der Panzer the best ride for a fast, almost professional group – probably not.  But Der Panzer is all I have until a certain fabrication in Watertown, MA is done with my Mudxium.

For more pictures head over to this post from Sonderzeichenbeauftragter (special character representative).  He was so fast on his 2006 Alan disk cross bike that he was able to hang back, take pictures and then ride back up to the top of the group!  Massive respect.  He was also happy to give tips and push me towards the paceline.  I could not be more grateful for the crew who clearly wanted to ride faster and were slowed down by yours truly.  But they followed “leave no man behind” even if that man was riding a 13.25 kg steel breakaway bike.

Spree to Elbe

I’m a slow roller.  My tempo is typically 20-25 km/h which means that old people sometimes pass me on their clonkers.  For this reason I shy away from group rides – I don’t want to slow anyone down.  This weekend though I took the  plunge and tried to organize a ride using a local facebook group.  Well, that bore absolutely no fruits.  Lucky for me I had a backup plan and once I realized that no one was showing up I executed it.

Since we’ve had rather massive amount of rain in East Germany, the river Elbe has been overflowing and threatening the towns and cities around it.  The news has been all over this since weeks with massive humanitarian efforts by the military on German soil.  So I wanted to see the water and decided to ride down to the Elbe. Since this is a rather long river that never really gets close to Berlin, I picked a spot that looked doable – a historical town called Wittenberg.

Now, my touring antics could be defined as poor to non-existance.  I pick a spot on google map, tell google to take me there by clicking on the pedestrian (we don’t have bike routes yet in the google app in Germany) and hope for the best. This is clearly not a winning strategy.  It also has some real issues:

  • When the iPhone runs out of juice you’re stuck.
  • You can’t wear full gloves since you keep taking them off to be able to look at the map/use your phone.
  • Google has some very dated information marking gravel routes through the forrest as roads even if they have not been used since the the days of the republic.
  • When your sense of direction is challenged, you have to stop a lot to look at your phone.

I might have been 2 hours outside of the city when the battery reported 30%.  This was no good, but since at this point I was confident that there is only one direction to ride – south, I turned off the phone completely and only reactivated it to take pictures.  This actually worked well and I managed to return home with 9% battery left!

The ride was challenging for two main reasons: wind and heat.  Right before I left the city I received a message from my weather app saying that there is a strong winds warning in the area.  The wind was coming from the south which really sucked since I was heading that way.  It was like riding into a wall and continuing when you know that there is a wall there – what else was I to do?  I was also pouring with sweat since I started the ride at the hottest time of the day – 14:00.

Most of the ride took place on the road which is where Der Panzer is ok, but really does not shine.  As much as I adore the Bruce Gordon Rock’n’Road they are noisy on the street and probably add quiet a lot of friction.  Combine the fat threaded tires with a 13.25 kg bike and you have a slow roller.  So I’m trucking along in the forrest of the state that surrounds Berlin – Brandenburg, and I’ve already sweated my body weight and hunger is creeping up, but just then I get to a little town called Beelitz.  The town is well known in this area for producing the white German Asparagus that’s really only in season in May and the first half of June.  As I came out of a backroad I spotted a nice location that had outdoor sitting – the perfect solution for someone who does not ride with a bike lock.  I decided that it’s ok to treat myself to a meal centered around those white Asparagus stalks.

So yummy and only in season for 6 weeks.  Get 'em while you can.

With renewed energy I hit the road again.  For some reason I did not find it in me to refill my water supply.  This required another stop to get a bottle of water and refill.  Again what learned as we say in German.

I will be lying if I said that the ride was easy.  It was not.  The wind was fierce and at some point, right when I felt that my energy was in low supply again, the bike path started gradually climbing up.  In these situations I gain massive respect to real mountain climbers.  We know nothing of mountain climbing here and if I’d actually dare to find out the elevation I was “dealing” with I am bound to be more than disappointed, but with the heat and the wind, any road condition not flat was  a challenge.  Around the same time I realized that I was riding very much by myself – no other cyclists were anywhere to be seen.  The route was truly pleasant though with little forests and fields of Asparagus and other vegetation that the state of Brandenburg is known for.  I found that shouting loudly helped motivate me and propel me forward and with this realization I reached this sign.

Wittenberg

I was elated.  I shouted yoohooo and jumped up and down a few times.  This sign meant that I was no longer in the state of Brandenburg, but have crossed over to the next state – Saxon-Anhalt.  This was a personal achievement as I have never ridden clear across a state before, especially not in 60 km/h head-winds.  This also meant that I was on the right way and that the destination was not far.

Indeed, a short time later I came across another sign that indicated that I was not just in the area of Wittenberg, but actually entering the city.  As it turns out Wittenberg is a sister city of Springfield Ohio!  You know who comes from Springfield Ohio?  The Simpsons!  Oh the irony.

Welcome to Wittenberg

From there it was a quick ride to get to the bike path beyond the old city and discovered that it goes into the water!  I pulled a few locals and asked if this was the Elbe and they said that this was the overflowing part of the Elbe and that the Elbe is actually further south, but one can not get there due to the water.  Mission accomplished!  Now it was time to find a train to take me home.  It was already past 19:00 and I had covered 85 km (50 miles).  As I rolled into the main train station I realized that there is only one ticket machine and that the train, that looked like it was suspiciously heading north, was about to leave.  I pulled next to the conductor who said that this was indeed the train to Berlin and that I have to get a ticket at the machine, the same machine that had several people queueing up behind it.  I asked when the next train to Berlin is and he answered in two hours.  WHAT?  I must have looked devastated as he concluded with “na ja, get on the train.”  Oh the kindness of strangers.

This was a truly great day with targets met and new personal victories achieved.  It was also a day in which I realized that shaving off weight from the bike will possibly increase the fun and that the current saddle I’m using, a Fizik Pave CX, is somehow not designed for my behind.  I can not find a comfortable place to rest  my seat bones on – I always have to choose between numbness and pain and after about 50 km or so the only sensation that’s there is pain  Since FIzik does not display this on their collection, I suspect that this was not a well received .  This will be a fun new topic to investigate and my ass is bound to be thankful.

 

The man who built it: Rick Hunter interview

The excellent Dirt Rag Mag posted a great interview with the man who built Der Panzer.  In the interview Rick is talking about his own touring bike, one that is, surprisingly to me, very similar to my own build.

I personally find curved tubes hella sexy.  This would be the one thing that I would change on Der Panzer, but hey, there is always an opportunity for a new build.

Additional Hunter creations which I like a lot could be found here.

Introducing: Der Panzer

The Hunter came about in a rainy summer day in The Hague, Netherlands. I was living in a hotel room in the capital, working on a project, watching 100s of people riding their bikes every day. There were Holland bikes, road bikes, some mountain bikes and loads of city bikes. The project was set in a facility that closed every day at 17:45 and daylight extended until 22:00 or so.
That meant that I could, potentially, spend 4 nights a week riding and exploring the Netherlands. That was only possible with a bike that was fun to ride and could be easily transported back and forth between Berlin and The Hague.  That bike did not exist.
The obvious solution was Ritchey’s Breakaway. As I started trolling the various forums for a second hand breakaway, I spotted a post about an unfinished, custom made, Rick Hunter travel bike. The post described a project that started two years prior and was about to finish. In those years of waiting for the frame, the seller went through a complete family state change (him and his wife had a baby) and with that dreams of riding across China in an American handmade bike were somehow put on very extended, potentially infinite, hold.

Well…I jumped on that post like a tiger on antelope. It certainly helped that the poster was, and still is, a good friend who happened to be the same height as me.

And so the adventure with Hunter started. First on the agenda were a few decisions that had to be made: cantis? Disks?, why not both? Eccentric bottom bracket? Why not? Cable routes? Top and bottom please. Racks? Of course. Fenders? Hell yeh. Basically any options that was on the table was answered with a yes. Smart? Probably not, but certainly diverse.

The project really took off in a business trip to California where I was finally able to pick up the frame, pack it in it’s Ritchey Breakaway case and take it back to its new home. The frame was beautiful and with 132.5mm drops, both 130mm and 135mm hubs could be used.

I christened, or circumcised, or blessed the new build with the appropriate name: Der Panzer. It’s build like it would be the bike to jump on when the apocalypse finally arrive and ride into safety. With 13.25 kg of weight it’s not going to out-ride rabid zombies, but it sure as hell could ride over them.

The center piece in the build is a 14-gears, handmade in Germany, Rohloff hub. It’s rumored to be the only viable competition to the energy bunny – it just keep running.

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There are two problems with Rohloff hubs though. For starters, they are meant to be used with mountain bikes which means that the super-mechanical shifting system is designed for flat bars and not for drop bars. Luckily there is another European solution for this – Mr Gilles Berthoud has constructed a replacement shifters that could be attached, very elegantly, to the drop bar. So problem solved.

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The second problem is the fact that the hub weights a ton, or rather, 1820 gram. This is not so easy to solve other than in keeping the rest of the components super light.

Engineering is the art of finding the best solution within the given budget. You have to learn to make compromises and, as it turns out, the same rule apply to bike building. Even if the rest of the bike was to be made out of space-material-not-yet-known-to-man-lighter-than-anything-we-now-know the weight of the hub will still make the whole bike very unevenly distributed. So keeping the rest light, quickly became a moot point.

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The only cranks that really came into question were White Industries ENO. Why? Good question. At some point it became pretty clear that the build, other than the wheels which were going to be European (and will be when the Shimano dynamo hub is replaced with a Schmidt Original Nabendynamo), was going to be “Made in America”. So the gleaming silver White Industries cranks just looked damn good and were build to survive that apocalypse.
This resulted in a bike with 14 gears and not a single derailer in sight. Oh the joy of minimizing risk.

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I could wax philosophies about why are there Paul Minimoto brakes on Der Panzer. I could say that this was meant to keep the weight down, but lets face it, it’s not. The real reason was that I wanted to try them. The other reason was the idea that if, through some baggage handler, the breakaway bag is stomped on, the bike will still be usable. Friends all had horror stories about brake rotors getting bent and not being useful anymore. Since I envisioned the bike going through various states of development I was happy to be talked into using some mini-v brakes and see what happens. So far the Paul Minimotos have proven to have immense stopping power. However, there is hardly any more clearance for thicker tires. With the current Bruce Gordon Rock’n’Road there is perhaps no more than 2mm left between the cable and the tire. Panaracer Fire Cross are most definitely out of the question with their 622×45 size and bigger, 29er tires are not going to happen with these brakes.

Hunter-1060430

 

When the bike was first conceptualized it was very clearly made with the idea that it will be an aggressive touring bike.  So Rick Hunter put his signature fork on her.  The fork truly ensues confidence that the bike could ride over anything.  In the 100s of kilometers that I already put on Der Panzer, I never felt like the fork flexed or was in any kind of danger – it’s a little bit like an elephant’s tusks, you know it’s there and it looks fragile, but it sure as hell not.

Hunter - Fork

 

A ride as diverse as this could not really be complete without an eccentric bottom bracket (EBB).  Now Der Panzer is hardly the first bike I own with an EBB, but the EBB on it is my favorite by a mile.  As opposed to the Bushnell EBB in my other ride, this one does not require special tools to be adjusted.  A simple allen key will unlock the two screws that hold it together and will allow you to set the chain tension.  When riding a Rohloff or a single speed setup this is an easy way to get the chain tension just right and in my humble opinion, it also looks pretty damn good.

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Overall I’m very pleased with the build and with the possibilities that lie ahead of us.  Who knows how long will Der Panzer stay at the current configuration?  There are a few wheels waiting in the kitchen workshop (a topic for another post) that would work great on it.  We have to wait and see until it spend some time traveling and then changes could be made.