I was helping my friend and excellent photographer Beto to create some content for his portfolio one afternoon when two familiar bikes came along – Michael Monk of Monk Cycles and his lovely lady Candy. While Michael, Candy and myself were chatting Beto took the opportunity to photograph us – bike nerds in their natural habitat-style. Once the photos came out, we figured that this will be a great platform to publish the work and talk about Monk Cycles, my very own neighborhood bike company.
Michael Monk and myself met a few years ago at the Berliner Fahrradschau. We were quiet shocked to realize that we both liked riding drop bar bikes off road, we loved big tires, Bruce Gordon and steel. To add to the whole love fest, we discovered that we lived about 100 meters from each other, drink coffee at the same coffee shop (hello Cafe Am Ende Der Welt) and went to the same BIC-barber.
Monk cycles is all about steel bikes, handmade in Germany, assembled in Berlin with practical and sophisticated design and of course drop bars. Monk comes in 26 inch variance, 650B, and a 29er. Each rig will rip a single track to shreds while also allowing you to schlepp your groceries and mount panniers and fenders. With all braze-ons and options the bike still manages to keep it minimal and tidy and as long as Michael has anything to say about it, it will come equipped with Retroshift levers and proper mountain bike tires if you ask nicely.
The Monk bikes just scream “make me dirty”.
This multi-tool, from a kiwi designer behind The Full Windsor, is looking to fulfill both smart, durable and “has great user interface” requirements which many tools are lacking. I’m not one to spread hate, but I am less than impressed with my Park Tool MTB 3.2 which has everything, but fell apart after a few days (I was able to rebuild it) and generally seems to offer too much without much quality.
This might just have to get on my shopping list.
I’m going to regret this later, but what the hell, I’m in. Registration just opened today and promises a ride together! 2,000 meters of climbs, maybe some dirt, and a plan B is the weather is awful. I have not been to the Black Forest since 1984 so it’s time.
Anything sounds cooler when you put Der in front of it.
The third day started rather early as to leave enough time for a big breakfast, bike check, loads of stretching and general checkup on the pains accumulated over the last few days. Bike and rider checked ok and breakfast was fantastic. We spoke about leaving earlier the night before, but somehow the message did not trickle down to every member of the group so we lingered and chatted until the rest were ready. A few minutes before 9:00 we took off.
The first part of the ride was actually backtracking on the hills of the night before. That part of course was new to Karsten, Sven and myself since we took the road. Having ridden that sandy descent during the morning light I thanked every god in the atheist handbook for the smart move of the previous night. It was not fun during the day and was probably a hell of a lot less fun at night, especially without lights. Mental note: get lights.
The fields through which we rode were covered in morning mist and looked dreamy. Within minutes the knee pain returned and the tendons were screaming. I asked the group to continue and slowly fought my way through the forest. I knew that we were south west of Berlin and was rather confused by the fact that the track started south and not north, but as by now was clear, the point was not to get from A to B, but to ride in nice tracks…or tracks that did not exist just yet. When I arrived to a strange hilly portion of the forest I realized that the track seemed to go through the trees, all neatly and more importantly densely planted. The combination of the various aches and the growing realization that this day, possibly the shortest one, was not going to be a walk in the park, or a ride in around the lake, planted a new thought in my head: do I want to finish this ride and then not ride for weeks and weeks recovering, or should I find a way out.
Lucky for me, our singlespeed mountain biker came up behind me and helped the decision process. As a veteran of long rides (the fellow did London-Edinborough-London a few times) he said “take the road, find a train, get off your heels.” I decided to take his advise.
I rode to the next small town to find a train station that looked rather deserted. I decided to continue north on the excellent cycling path and take it easy. At the next town I stopped and checked the train again and decided that instead of waiting for a train that will bring me to another train station where I will have to switch trains again, I might as well finish riding all the way to Potsdam, where the trains go to Berlin.
At the end of the day, I still rode 70km with a barely working right knee and massive pains in the Achilles Tendons. I did not finish the ride as it was planned, but in terms of distance ridden I was on the same mark.
From what intel I collected from the team post-ride it seems that pretty much every person had some mechanical issues starting from flat tires and ending in busted pretty much every thing. Ralf, the organizer, actually busted his derailleur and ended up rigging his bike for single speed in the last 10 km. That’s dedication for you!
It was first and foremost an epic adventure. The second day, with its mix of river crossing, forest riding, castles and dikes was truly the pinnacle of tour. The accommodations, organized by Ralf, were fantastically practical, welcoming, affordable and well placed. The group, even those whom I only saw at dinner or breakfast was great – tough breed or tri-atheleths, Randonneurs, folks who rode the Grenzsteintrophy more than once and managed to also keep a family of 4 children happy. And here I was, a newbie in comparison, spitting blood and hanging for dear life. Did I have fun? HELL YEH. Would I do it again? HELL YEH.
The next time should be easier…right?
Waking up in a rather nice hotel in the middle of nowhere in Germany and knowing that the day will end in another similar location and not at home really gave credence to the fact that this was a mini-tour. We met for breakfast, wolfed down magnificent amount of cheese, eggs and coffee, did a quick bike check and headed out. Today, the direction was south.
For some truly unknown reason, the path first headed north and then backtracked in the correct direction – south. Before long I was in the forest by myself again. A small group at the front was riding at UCI-approved speeds and I decided that enjoying the ride was a lot more interesting then making it to the next hotel early. The same team made it to the hotel at 17:00 the night before and preceded to drink beers until the rest of the riders finally assembled which was around 20:00. Those 2.5 hours of drinking are certainly appealing for some, but I rather spend the time in the forest, on the gravel and outdoors.
Soon enough I noted that I was riding behind Karsten who was ripping the trails on a very yellow Brodie mountain bike. I figured that two steel horses are better than one so we teamed up and rode together. The route alternated again between open fields and forests and was, for me, more exciting than the previous day.
Pretty quickly after we started riding, the tour took us into the next state – Saxon-Anhalt. Here we followed the river Elbe, one of the major rivers of central Europe, in the direction to its origin. We somehow missed a turn which meant that when we got to a place in the GPS track that showed us backing up and riding 15km along a dike. We decided to skip this potential exciting part and continue forward. The GPS track showed that the road would eventually join the original track so we were happy to continue on the same road for a few clicks.
About one kilometer after we made this fine decision we reached the end of the road. Here, in order to continue, one had to board a ferry and cross the Elbe. Lucky for us the ferry was waiting just there and as soon as we rode onto it, it took off and crossed the river. Later we were told that not everyone was so lucky – one of the groups actually had to wait for an hour for the ferry.
There were really no further excitements for a while. One of the nice things about following an important river in central Europe is seeing the old castles and fortresses that were setup to guard the trade routes. The Elbe also has a nice bike path that accompany the river which provides a more comfortable view and a little rest from the gravel. It also meant that taking pictures from the back of the bike was possible.
We made it to a village called Jerichow after 5 hours of riding, knowing that we have about 80 kilometer more to ride so we decided to stop for a coffee and a quick bite. As we were sitting outside enjoying the french press coffee and salad/cakes combination we spotted Sven who was rolling by and flagged him down. He joined us for a coffee and stayed in our group until the end of the day.
As we were leaving the village restaurant in Jerichow, we ran into another group that was behind us. Of course we assumed that we were always the last ones in the pack, but this sudden manifestation confirmed that we were not riding tail. We exchanged a few words but since we were done and then were just starting, we said goodbye and continued.
Not an hour later, while riding in a nice gravel path in a forest, the same group came up behind us and from three we were now seven.
We stayed together for a while until we stopped to explore something and the others continued. Riding in our little pack of three was great as we took turns conversing, pointing out to interesting scenes and coming up with new curses when the sand arrived. Sven often had to fix his chain, which liked to jump out every now and then and we always waited patiently a little ahead.
At 17:00 we stopped again and waited for Sven who came up a few minutes behind and showed us his Shimano 105 derailleur. The cage facing the wheel was gone and he was riding with exposed pulleys! No wonder that the chain did not stay, but this could potentially be a much bigger problem since the pulleys did not give the impression that they would stay where they were for much longer. Lucky for Sven, Karsten had some screw-nuts which helped Sven secure his pulleys and hope for the best. We still had some distance to go and with nighttime getting near, the risk of loosing a derailleur in the middle of nowhere and having to ride at night with no lights, we figured that we should be taking for the road. And so we did.
At this point in the ride certain body parts were hurting pretty badly. For some of us that meant the seat bones and for yours truly a strange new pain developed in the right knee. Now, Hunter has been setup as it is for a long while and I have ridden it on many occasions for long distances (like the Camino Norte), so this made no sense. My Achilles Tendon started hurting as well so I was rather happy to be taking the road. In the last hour of the ride I was pretty much riding with my left leg only which exacerbated the pains in the left Achilles Tendon. Boy were we happy to make it to the hotel, having ridden 175 km with a moving time of 8 hours and a total ride time of 11.5 hours. Later on when the next group arrived, riding in the dark through nasty sand, we were very pleased to have made that decision to ride on the road. Sometimes the practical way is the best way.
I really tried to plan my riding for the first 6 months of the year. So when Ralf posted the idea for a three days ride in the state surrounding Berlin – Brandenburg, I marked my calendar, secured a day off, and was excited for weeks before Transbrandenburg arrived. The big Friday arrived, 6 days after the first Brevet of the season. I did a brief test ride in the middle of the week to verify that the Hunter setup was acceptable and concluded that we were set. Was the rider set? As it turns out, the answer should be “not really,” but at the start of the ride, the rider was feeling very confident. We collected the group in a coffee shop close to the central train station between 8 and 9. Other than Ralf, who I met in person during the Brevet, I did not know a single soul. Introductions were made, Ralf repeated his mantra that this is not in any way a race, and we took off. It certainly felt like a race as the ragtag group of cyclocross, mountain bike and Hunter took off to the road. The first 20km were familiar to yours truly so keeping up with the group was relatively easy, but I detected a certain urgency to get somewhere with the rest of the group – the where and why were not completely clear. 22 km from the starting point I managed to log the first technical issue – in a heroic feat I managed to snap my derailleur cable. At this point we were already riding in smaller groups and the dudes behind me were kind enough to stop and help. We rigged the derailleur in such a way that I could continue riding, but the sound of the chain scraping the cage and the thought of three days riding this way made me think twice about proving that I can actually have fun riding this way. As luck would have it, we were still somewhere near Berlin so I googled for bike shop, found one, and headed over there. The group continued. The mechanic at the shop understood the urgency especially when I named the destination for the day. He took 20 minutes to replace my cables, tune the derailleur and soon enough I was on my way. At this point it was 12:00 which meant that I had ridden 22km in 3 hours – not an impressive distance even for a toddler on a pushbike. “The show must go on” I thought to myself as I followed the Garmin map for miles and miles by myself, stuck in a rather negative headspace asking myself why am I even doing this ride. The direction was North-West and was mostly kept to loose gravel roads crossing fields. It was all rather obvious and expected, apart from those instances where I thought “but how would one even know where this thing goes?”. I followed the path and was making great progress. And then I got to a coordinate which showed an alternative. I vaguely remembered that Ralf mentioned that the main road will cross a field that will only be rideable when dry. Well, it was dry so I decided to stick to the main track. The track continued into a field of dirt that was treated by a tractor and had deep grooves. I tried to ride inside one of the grooves, but every time I swayed a little off center my pedals hit the edge of the groove causing me to loose control. This was the first walking path. Some followed. At the end of the field the GPS track indicated that the correct way was to my left. The only small issue with that notion was the distinct lack of any traces of a path. After working with computers for the best part of my life I decided to trust the little Garmin and continued on the edge of the field. The path curved around what appeared to be a dike. I climbed with the bike to the top of the dike, but no traces of any rideable path were seen from there. So I went back down and continued towards a fence that had something resembling a path next to it. The path was a little wet but rideable so I continued. And then the slightly wet earth turned into very wet earth and then some puddles followed and the puddles changed and turned into a swamp. I found myself rather alone, bike axle-deep in water, looking ahead at much deeper water and a huge question mark hanging over my head. One of the nice things about being in the middle of nowhere is the fact that you can scream without bothering anyone. Just getting your frustrations out feels good. So I cursed the whole world and the nice fellow who organized the tour and then decided to backtrack and look for some sanity. 200 meters back, with shoes that made squish-squish sounds, I found a slight trace of a path, took, it and was back on a slightly more dry route. Another unknown distance past and I found myself rolling into a tiny village only to run into Sven and Frank. It turns out that the two had some flat tires and other misfortunes and so were rather behind. We collected our bruised souls, banded together and continued riding, not stopping for anything apart from one snap I got to take, until about 16:00.
We still had ways to go so we stopped briefly in a supermarket for coke, bananas and a warm soup and continued on our way. I remember that the combination of very gray sky, rather cold and wet temperature and a very monotonous scenery were a subject of discussion in which I proclaimed that as a trans-Iowa training course, this is a perfect setup. Just as this conversation peaked we started riding along side a huge lake (Klempowsee) which was exciting, bordered on single trail and had us focusing on not running into trees more than on chatting.
The last part of the ride was exciting as we were trying to beat the darkness. We were pounding the gravel as hard as we could after a long day in he saddle, noting that this was very atypical ride for Ralf to organize since we run into no loose sand sections. We were happy and the thought of the accommodations waiting for us just 3 km ahead helped push harder.
And then, true to form, we hit the notorious Brandenburg sand – this wet, black, loose sea-sand, caused by the massive deforestation that the area experienced in the last century. My rock’n’road tires turned into sand cakes while Sven’s 30mm UCI-legal cyclocross tires just stopped in their tracks.
Even Frank who was riding pretty thick mountain bike tires gave up after a while and we proceeded to push the bikes further until the area cleared, we jumped back on an in 4 minutes we hit the hotel where most of the group, apart from the fellow riding single speed mountain bike, were waiting. We had ridden north of 160km, almost exclusively off-road. We were ready for shower, food and a good night sleep.
It’s not the first time that I mention that I have a small, or perhaps not so small, fetish for bags. I also like to support European manufacturers. Blahol has been on my radar for a few years now, ever since I bookmarked their saddle toolbox. So on a recent visit to Warsaw, Poland, I got in touch and asked if I can come visit.
As I was walking down the industrial building staircase towards the basement I could not help but notice traces of the past, evident also in many similar buildings in East Berlin – the exposed pipes, the concrete, the ceiling that’s barely 2 meters high and the utilitarian nature of the whole environment. This was clearly a space with deep history and stories of its own, and our little cycling world was taking over.
The staircase wall was painted with a beautiful mural showing a track racer in grotesque position, muscles pumped and determination that only eastern block athletes used to posses. There was no way to become a professional cyclist during the days in which Europe was split into two, so every cyclist, no matter how good, was an amateur cyclist. This painted guy did not look amateur at all.
The staircase opened to a corridor filled with bikes. I had to watch my head since the ceiling was roughly the height of my head and at times was cross by pipes. Some of the bikes had alley cat cards in their spokes, one even proudly presenting Blahol’s logo. None of the bikes were fancy and all were steel. The first door marked with the industrial looking sign proclaiming Cech opened into a room filled with bikes, each in various stages of repair – this was a bike workshop, a velo-surgery room, a safe-house operating table for Warsaw’s elite two wheeled transporters.
My goal was the door at the end of the corridor. I was heading towards a room, no larger than 4×4 meters, that hosts, for another two weeks until the boys move to a new space, the Blahol workshop, order processing unit, web operations and storage space – the whole operations is hosted here.
Blahol started 7 years ago by making messenger bags. In its initial 5 years the operation was an after work activity that developed slowly and allowed the young artisan to develop his skills, supply chains and product offering. Two years ago, Blahol gave his day job the middle finger and started working full time for himself.
Together with his brother, they operate the two sewing machines and take care of the customers. At times, Blahol tells me, his girlfriend helps as well. The name of the company is actually the nickname of the man himself. He explained that when a friend of his helped with the logo, said friend suggested that the name of the company will be the nick name. 7 years later the logo and name are a perfect match for this young and independent operation.
I did mention that I’ve got a little bag fetish, but in all the years I’ve been chasing bags around the planet, from the first messenger bag I bought in London in 1993 (hello Rasta colors Timbuk2) through the rather large collection of Chrome bags I own, I never got to see the bags being made, from scratch. Blahol sews all the bags exactly where I found him using two Juki Japanese industrial sewing machines. For material Blahol uses only the best elements, some, like the straps, from Poland, while the main fabric, Cordura, he sources from Italy.
For a small company one of the biggest challenges is getting the material. A large fabric manufacturer like Cordura, is interested in selling fabrics in 1,000 meters pieces and not in small batches. So Blahol sources his materials from other manufacturers that buy in bulk and sell him smaller pieces. This means that at times the colors he has, like the Swedish military cameo bag he had lying around, can be wild and unique and also run out quickly. Through the website the customers can create the color combination they want and Blahol and his brother make each bag when the order is made. Each bag also gets a unique ID enforcing the concept behind “this is your bag, no other bag like it exist.”
The messenger bag that Blahol demonstrated to me had some pretty cool features and looked to be indestructible. It had a double strap for those instances when you really have a lot of stuff to cary. The strap looked cushy and the buckles industrial strength and massive. I could totally see these bags being used and abused by bike messengers in Warsaw, but when I asked Blahol about the local messenger scene, he proclaimed that there are not a lot of these dudes in his city and that the bags mostly go to individuals that like to use these shoulder-strap style bags.
There were really a few other pre-made bags in the studio. One was a waist-bag.
And the other was a hip bag.
And U-lock belts.
Another bag, that lucky for me was in the studio and has not yet left the shop to the customer, was the new wave backpack. This is a brilliant backpack with roomy and fully waterproof main compartment that’s actually configureable by removing straps from their default positions to a different position, closer to the top of the bag, to allow for longer things to be packed. It also has a deep pocket on the front where you can keep your pens, cables, chargers and what nots. Another secret feature is the quick access, left and right pocket that’s located in the middle of the bag. It seems like Blahol thought about everything – you can even velcro-off the back-pad and wash it or use it as a seating matt. Brilliant. The Swedish cameo bag he had is one hell of a zombie-apocalypse gear which I found difficult not to snatch out of his hands immediately. I knew that Blahol could out run me in a second so that never happens.
For such a small business I was surprised to see an order management system that ensured the customer is able to track exactly when his or her bag is being made, finished and shipped. The brothers schedule their production by days and work diligently to get each bag out the door as soon as possible. These days, when every customer is the Western World, is used to near-instant delivery from the likes of Amazon, even small businesses have to compete with standards that were near impossible to meet only a few years back. Blahol seems to have his order management and customer order tracking system well under control.
I am stoked on this find. The bags are rock solid, made with attention to details and utilitarian mind set. The boys behind the bags use them and know, from first hand experience, what is important to the user. Even though the company is small, the bags are affordable – something that can not be said for many other bag companies, even those who manufacture in the far-east. I know the Blahol brothers will do well and can whole heartedly recommend giving their bags a chance.
The man behind Blahol:
And his brother:
The world seems to split between those who love the new No Garmin No Rules campaign and those who are very much addicted to their Garmin. It’s no surprise that Garmin is always trying to innovate and create new devices – this is the way to keep earning money.
Garmin just announced the Garmin 1000. The list of features are well documented in the video link and of course on the DC Rainmaker web site. The main features are more connectivity and more competitively…Maybe we can all agree on a new moto: Yes Garmin, Still no Rules.
Anyone that knows me also knows that I have a slight problem with bikes and bags. While the bike addiction might be under control these days, meaning that I’m stoked on my current steeds and just want to ride them and not build new ones, the bag addiction is far from gone. My off-road touring monster, Hunter, is very capable of taking front and back panniers. But when riding off road or completely not on any roads, I find that panniers tend to get in the way. So I was looking for alternatives and came up with the setup displayed above.
From the backend of the bike to the front you have the following:
- BikePack RePack C. This baby is amazing and is the place where everything that’s not needed during the day is stored. In the case of a recent three days tour that meant extra base layer, jersey, touring shorts, bibs, socks, toiletries, chamois creme, sleeping gear and what not. It sits solid without swaying at all, had way more space than I actually used and of course, for this specific model, comes in cameo. From a European perspective, this is the best deal one can find – Pawel who produces them in Poznan, Poland, is a solid dude, ships super quickly, and is very reliable. The price of the bags is 65 Euro which is simply unbeatable. I can not recommend this bag enough and no I am taking no kickbacks from Pawel.
- Revelate Designs Tangle Frame Bag and Gas Tank. The Gas Tank is used for one purpose only: to cary my Panasonic GX7 camera with a 20mm (full frame equivalent 40mm) lens. I like the shape of the Gas Tank and the fact that it is wider than the similar top tube bag from BikePack, but the latter was not wide enough for a camera. The Tangle Frame Bag has two sides. The right side is where I keep all the snacks, gels, sandwiches, nuts and power bars. It’s easy to open while riding and has enough room for bulky bags of dried fruits as well as bananas. It’s my goto side on a ride. The left side is slightly more shallow which is why I keep all the tools in there. It accommodates two tubes, tools, patch kit, a few lights, pens, iPhone charger, cables etc. It’s my garage when I’m on the road.
- Bailey Works D Rack. Bailey Works are located in New Hampshire. I saw the D-rack mounted on one of the Ride Studio Cafes show floor bikes and fell in love with it. I was shocked to find out that Bailey did not actually offer it as part of their standard offering. I did a lot of searching until I found out that one has to email the guys and ask them for one. Within two days after I asked for it, it arrived, in cameo of course, to my U.S. address. Why do I need it? I don’t really, but I tend to keep things like gluten-free bread in there, a charger battery which I use when the Garmin runs out of juice on a long ride and other what not. It rests comfortably on the Velo Orange Pass Hunter Rack and at times is the only storage I take when riding. It’s not too big, but I like the way it works. The same rack should really be used to host a randonneur bag…that will be the next bag purchase.
It’s really not cheap or easy to get some of these bags in Europe. Shipping Revelate from their home in Alaska to Germany will take a lot of time, will include high cost of postage and possibly will involve the friendly customs people. BikePack makes frame bags – both custom and standard which could work well (I have no personal experience there) – this could be considered a good alternative. Other than this, feel free to let me know what other European alternatives you know of.
Have fun out there.
The TransBrandenburg starts tomorrow. Three Etape, three days, two overnighters, 450km around one of the least populated states in Germany and loads of nature. Hunter, in Zombie Apocalypse-mode and yours truly are ready…well at least Hunter is ready.