Magic hour in Nederland

Evening rides come in two kinds. First, there’s the frantic assembly on lycra pulled on after a stressful day; a ride sandwiched closely between the commute and darkness. These rides are the bread and butter of Spring and Autumn. They are what keeps the wheels turning when there isn’t another time to ride. The second kind of evening ride is the rare adventure; the carefully planned escape from work before the clock strikes five. Friends organised, riding kit ready, tyres pre-pumped and chains well oiled. You drive away from the bustle of rush hour – the opposite direction from normal. Your stomach grumbles a little as it realises it won’t be getting any post-work cake and a cup of tea. This is what makes the summertime: The Magic Hour.

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Road riding on Exmoor – a biased review

Which way? There's almost always more than one way to connect each village. The options spread the few visitors out even further, leaving you with endless roads to yourself

The Exmoor coast is the most primitive shoreline left in England. The huge cliffs have protected 35 miles of coastline from development, and the result is one of the most one unique landscapes in the UK. The cliffs role inland onto huge flat-topped hills. The relentless atlantic storms and long winters have scoured the vegetation from the tops of the moorland, leaving hardy plants and wildlife. The wooded valleys cutting between these hills are a contrast – part of the huge variety of terrain you’ll see if you cross Exmoor by bike.

Countisbury Hill is famous in the UK as one of the hardest climbs. The first mile is at 25% gradient

The Tour of Britain has visited Exmoor on every iteration since it’s rebirth, and it’s easy to see why. The roads cutting straight up and down the hills create 25% gradients that are impossible to ride easily. With all elevation starting from absolute zero – sea level – and rising to 1600 feet, the climbs are bigger than they appear on the map, and some of the most challenging in the UK.

Towards the top of Dunkery Beacon. Most climbs on Exmoor are devoid of switchbacks; instead, small roads wind directly up the barren faces of the hills
Towards the top of Dunkery Beacon. Most climbs on Exmoor are devoid of switchbacks; instead, small roads wind directly up the barren faces of the hills

As soon as you travel off the top of the moor, the trees grow taller, plant species become more numerous, and the weather a little gentler. The weather is fast-moving and unpredictable on Exmoor. The storms moved rapidly off the atlantic and over the coast, dropping heavy rain any time of the year. The wooded valleys are the protection from the elements, and it’s not uncommon to have different weather at the bottom of the hill from at the top.

In the bottom of the valley's, it's sometimes impossible to tell what the weather is doing just 1000 feet above
In the bottom of the valley’s, it’s sometimes impossible to tell what the weather is doing just 1000 feet above

The inaccessible coastline was further protected when Exmoor became a national park. Unlike the Wildernesses that make up American national parks, in the UK the national parks are living places filled with farms and industry. The protection comes from stopping development that would ruin what is already there. As such, Exmoor is filled with small villages, each with its own identity. Some of the villages are just a couple of miles apart, separated by open moorland and winding roads. These winding roads have often been replaced by (slightly) larger roads that now carry cars around the park, leaving winding country lanes to the bikes and horses. It takes a lot of local knowledge to successfully piece together a route through the best parts of Exmoor, and it takes a strong pair of legs to carry out the planned ride.

Trentishoe Down is at the western edge of Exmoor, where the unrelenting hills finally subside into the friendlier North Devon countryside
Trentishoe Down is at the western edge of Exmoor, where the unrelenting hills finally subside into the friendlier North Devon countryside

With Weather and fitness on your side, there are endless options for riding, taking in the busier coastal areas, or the quieter high moorland.

Porlock Hill has a warning for cyclists to dismount. It's hilarious for an experienced rider, but casual bike riders will struggle on Exmoor
Porlock Hill has a warning for cyclists to dismount. It’s hilarious for an experienced rider, but casual bike riders will struggle on Exmoor

I’ve been riding and walking on Exmoor for a long time, but it’s only recently that I’ve truly appreciated Exmoor for what it offers to cyclists. The variable weather that can never be predicted is the biggest factor in keeping people from coming to this part of the world – it seems that sunshine is often the determining factor when riders decide where to visit. Hot summers days might be the easiest time to enjoy the riding, but some of the best days are the ones where you’re the only person around for miles, the roads are your own, and the bleak moorland rolls on for days.

The heather, bracken, and gorse bushes are the natural flora of Exmoor. Hardy plants that can survive the harsh winters and bloom in the warm summers
The heather, bracken, and gorse bushes are the natural flora of Exmoor. Hardy plants that can survive the harsh winters and bloom in the warm summers

Why you need to throw away your old water bottles

Not many people outside of science have heard about “Endocrine Disruptors”, a term applied to chemicals which can affect how our bodies function, but recent research is starting to show that they may be responsible for the shift in disease prevalence in the western world. To put it simply: cancers, neurodegenerative diseases, and immune disorders have increased faster than can be explained by genetic factors. Our DNA isn’t changing, but the way we are becoming ill is. Since the 1950s, life expectancy has barely increased, but the rates of cancers, Parkinson’s, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, asthma and many other diseases have all gone up. What can be causing this?

Make sure your water bottles are BPA free, like this Clean Bottle.

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I had a bit of bad luck racing cyclocross in November, and it was the wake up call I needed to get back into cross after collegiate nationals. I raced down in Broomfield at Interlocken, and got a little over zealous in a corner, ending up sliding along the grass with my foot still clipped in to my bike. I twisted my ankle enough for some immediate swelling and some hobbling around. It didn’t put me off aiming for redemption in Longmont the day after though. I was going great (again), managing to set the pace and ride a lot of people out of the lead group. That all ended when I shredded my tyre on a metal edging on the course, and came to an abrupt stop. It was the end to a frustrating weekend of racing, but it put a couple things in perspective.

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Where to first?

First task for any road trip is to buy a map, but normally this is preceded by working out where on earth we might be going. To cover all eventualities we headed over to the book shop and had a browse around until we walked out with ‘central Europe’ plastered over a huge piece of multi coloured paper. With not-so-detailed roads all the way from Haute-savoie in Alpine France to the Croatian-Italian border, we were pretty covered. That still didn’t change the fact of not knowing where we were headed.

We’d spent the previous day not picking up a campervan, after I had inadvertently not responded to the confirmation email. I had assumed that a pick up time, location, price, and deposit on my credit card would have been sufficient, but I will from now on never fail to read the small print, even if it is in German. As such, we’d felt a bit like we’d lost a day of the trip, and I was struggling to play catch up for the months we’d been apart already. Five hours of spending money going nowhere in the pouring rain certainly didn’t help, but by the end of the day, we had a VW golf, and a vague direction planned. I’m an admitted Strava addict, and our first concern regarding a destination was ‘where can we find the most sinuous stretch of snaking tarmac’, of which the ride-finder tool provided particularly useful. With the option of bringing just one bike to this continent, we would be on pavement for the entirety of the trip, but that was something I would not be resenting, as riding bikes together beats riding bikes apart, no matter what kind of bikes they are. Strava told us that we should drive an hour south to Bruneck, where we could circumvent the ski area of the Kronplatz, before dropping into Val Badia for a scenic cruise back down the valley.

Furkenpass from Bruneck, Italy (6)

Bikes in car. Coffee in hand. Freshly baked, hastily consumed croissants sitting comfortably in our stomachs, we jumped onto the motorway and immediately found traffic. Lots of it, all going the same way: south. We sat, I remembered what a manual transmission was like in stop start traffic, and we got frustrated. Our drive doubled in time, our wallets lightened with the Italian tolls, and we finally pulled in the centre of Bruneck to pay our first of many car park fees. We hustled our bikes together as quickly as possible, and within little time the world was a much better place. We spun out of the cobbled pedestrian streets and onto a small bike path that paralleled the busy road, and followed that all the way to the base of the climb.

Furkenpass from Bruneck, Italy (42)

Less than 30 minutes into the ride, and at the base of the very first hill, Christa pulls up in pain, and is off her bike with shooting pains in her knee. Not ideal. A week long riding trip should never begin with knee pain.  We stop and stretch, and its obvious things aren’t quite right, but an insistence to continue means we pedal trepidatiously up the remaining slopes of the Furkelpass.

Furkenpass from Bruneck, Italy (48)

Its hard to recount a story when every place has two names. The Alpine scenery in this part of Italy is Germanic in more than just architecture, and the majority of the population is German speaking, and thus is seems appropriate to use Deutsch names here. We greet fellow riders in German, and get buzzed by troops of middle aged and overweight men on expensive and loud motorbikes. Their identities would have remained more of a mystery if they hadn’t have stopped at the top of the pass to marvel at the same view we did.

Furkenpass from Bruneck, Italy (26)

We cruised down a couple of switchbacks, but couldn’t resist the views and had to stop for more photos. Its such a hard decision when you have to choose between railing amazing alpine descents, or breathing in huge mountains of the dolomites. Again, we stopped another couple of turns down as we saw a hoard of motorbikes approaching. A local centenarian took the chance to talk to us, by which I mean he made a number of sounds which could have been interpreted as language, and I responded with things like ‘we’re riding to Bruneck’. Whatever he was actually trying to say, he seemed happy! We carried on through winding lanes and villages perched on the hills in between meadows of long grass flowing in the afternoon breeze.

Furkenpass from Bruneck, Italy (18)

Back in town, we decided to christen the first day in Italy with a proper pizza. We made ourselves look a little less like cyclists and wandered along the small streets, under the shadow of the castle. Our mid-afternoon mealtime meant that most of the restaurants were closed, but we found a deserted place at the far end of the street, and tucked into the first of many delicious treats. With sustenance, we headed on our way, again further south, and up into the high dolomites.

 Furkenpass from Bruneck, Italy (3)

After the mornings drive through horrendous traffic, we chose the scenic route. The downside of our map covering most of Europe was that we weren’t really sure of how long it would take to get to lake Garda, but we knew the roads would be small. Time wasn’t really an issue, so our drive was relaxed and winding. Through the magnificent Alta Badia, over Passo Gardena and directly into the heart of the biggest rock faces I have ever seen. After watching a magnificent sunset, we drove on and down and down, and down. We reached the Trento-Adige valley in the dark, with huge blobs of rain hitting the windscreen, and drove the final 45 minutes hoping we’d make it to the lake before our hotel check in closed.

We made it. Just.

The Steeps

While most in Colorado associate ‘steeps’ with snow, this years’ skiing for me can be written off as  N/A. After much anticipation of backcountry exploring, the reality of rotten snow and daily reports of deaths and injuries in Avalanches across the state steered me firmly away from the high country.

Unlike last year, when I would awake at 6am just to check the powder totals, the lack of buzz from ski resorts hasn’t affected my enjoyment of the low country; my road bike has taken a beating, and as a result I’m fitter than I’ve ever been.

But sooner or later, I knew I was going to run out of enthusiasm for pounding the pedals in straight lines across the plains. Luckily, my new Scalpel showed up just it time for our early spring, and as a result, Bryan and I have begun our annual re-exploration of the quieter corners of Boulder county.

Roads around here can get steep, but not really steep. To find stem chewing, gear grinding, dont-fall-or-you’ll-tip-over-backwards steep, you have to use some imagination.

The fact that walking might be faster should not be considered.

The challenge of cleaning the ups, for me, is just as satisfying as cleaning the downs.

Lefthand OHV trails are all connected off of a couple dirt roads, meaning loops can be made depending on how much masochism you have stored up.

Unfortunately, the reward of finishing a singletrack descent has a certain way of ensuring that you’ll turn around and grind your way back up again.

The trails aren’t exactly flowy smooth ribbons of tacky singletrack, but more chiselled chutes of rocky doom. Choke stones are always lurking, ready to catch your front wheel.

It takes a certain degree of skill, combined with the flexibility of negotiating a 78cm seat height without enduring physical and psychological injury, to master these trails. Created and destroyed by Motor bikes, the lowly mountain biker is just one step in the life cycle of these trails.

Although Boulder county really needs the rain and snow that hasn’t fallen this year, I am happy to be insular in my enjoyment of the mountain biking that is available at the moment. The trails are going to suffer, but I will do my small part in protecting them by riding the ones that no-one else knows exists.

Food for freewheeling

The last three days have been sandwiches. I like sandwiches.

The early sunrise that is beckoning spring has moved my internal dials towards an equally early rise, with the effect that riding in the mornings has actually been possible. The beginning of the week hailed optimistic thoughts of riding without the preface of layering clothes for 20 minutes. The windy warm days are a perfect sandwich of a morning spin, followed by the immense productivity that only comes when that incessant exercise bug has already been sated.

The other slice of bread has been warm golden evenings. Some quirk of meteorology around here makes the wind calm drastically after 4pm. Perfect timing. I live in perhaps the only house where I can come home and pick any roommate to ask the question “you want to ride up Magnolia?” and get an affirmative answer.

Wayne and I managed to get out the door within 5 minutes of the question being asked, and we dodged traffic on the canyon to get to the climb. Garmin told me we got to 21% up-ness in places. I’ll take it.

Sitting 1000 metres above Boulder with the sun bouncing off the Continental Divide, and the pink hue being chased across the plains below by the advancing shadows was a great way to end the day.

And I’m still hungry. I will be sandwiching rides into every corner this spring and summer. Bring on the sunshine.

Down by the River

I arouse from my heavily sedated state. For the second time. My Brother who has brought me a cup of tea two hours earlier is heading out of the house for a run. Its nearly 10am. Jetlag. I lug my lead-weighted body down the stairs and see the bacon already cooked and another cup of tea steaming on the kitchen side. Its good to be home. Nothing to do but eat vast quantities, drink tea, and ride my bike.

Hmm, yes. Ride my bike. Its raining outside and I’m not surprised; I could hear it lashing the windows when I was still in bed. I feel my cycling clothing, left by the Aga overnight, and its still wet from the sodden ride yesterday. I settle into my bacon sandwich and hope that it will be dry enough to ride in half an hour.

As time slips towards midday, I finally get the courage to get changed and hit the road.

Living in the bottom of a steep and verdant valley, there is no option other than climbing up a hill to get out. My sleepy mind had baulked at the idea of heading out into the grey windy day, and as such I had massively over dressed. Its warm and sticky outside. The humid air seems to have caught hold of the rain before it could hit the ground – its so thick with moisture that I feel like I’m battling it, as well as gravity.

My aim of five hours of pedalling, I realise, is rather ambitious. Not for distance or energy but it occurs to me that it will be completely dark in four. So I head over the big ridge of hills which mark the start of Exmoor National Park, and down towards the Estuary. The Tarka trail might be one of the heaviest used cycle paths in the country, but today I would rather battle recreation cyclists and dog walkers than possessed drivers on narrow wet busy roads. The Tarka trail hugs the riverside for 32 miles around the Taw and Torridge estuaries. Its main benefit, other than the fantastic sea breeze and views across the coast, is its lack of hills.

The wind blowing off the sea is at the perfect 90 degrees to me riding. I lean towards it and quick find a steady rhythm. The occasional stray dog is subdued by its owner, or scared witless as it realises I wont be slowing from my steady 18 mph.

It seems that the average speed of most cyclists along these paths is more in the region of 10 mph. The look of sadness and disappointment of the faces of some cyclists is priceless: Kitted in brand new Christmas apparel, handlebars adorned with lights and bells and wing mirrors and all manner of other clip on accessories, they’re aghast as I cruise gently by with a smile on my face. They struggled to pilot their hydrid racers against the gentle wind, the extra pounds of Christmas festivities put on over causing too much resistance.

The random 10 year old – let loose by his parents to pedal like crazy – sees me coming and sprints into a fury, holding my wheel for a minute or two. I encourage the youngster to sit in. Alas, the furious base pace is too high and he fades away.

Unlike Colorado, where a 60 mile ride can take you into the depths of nowhere, my ride pedals through many communities. The small cafe on the river in Fremington was bustling with pension aged custom. Instow, with trendy pubs and restaurants, was abuzz with middle aged men in nice cars ferrying their families out for a meal followed by a stroll on the beach. I felt like a was steamrollering past these places, just catching a glimpse of the personality of each little hive.

Past Torrington and everything starts to get quiet. Away from the coast now, the river winds its way into the country. The valley sides get steeper and greener, and the families are replaced by lone dog walkers – the type that are out here every week through the year. The smooth surface of the paths becomes a little greener and narrower; not by design but from the moss and lichen which blankets every available surface.

I look at the clock and realise its just gone 2:30 in the afternoon. In the mood for exploration, and legs feeling warm and full of energy, I am hesitant to turn around, to head back through the maze of seaside community, but I know that if I don’t I will not be back before the thick blanket of northern darkness falls.

I turn around and do it all again.