30 days of biking: days 1-6 @30daysofbiking

A great idea from Minneapolis, now in its fourth year.

Pledge to ride every day in April and join thousands of others who have signed up to the same idea. Not too late to pledge for the rest of the month if you have missed it. http://30daysofbiking.com

I have a strong suspicion that many of my readers may not regard riding every day as the slightest bit challenging, but I have to say even an addict like me does have down days, not least in this year’s interminable European winter. But what the heck, why not. It might just become spring at some point.

The only slight problem bothering me is that the wonderful Mrs Do Not Despair reads at least some of my blog posts. Now she has probably worked out why I was prepared to take the dog out Wednesday evening even if it was awful.  And when she reads this post the words “Don’t you do enough cycling already?” may just pass her lips.

I move quickly on.

1st April – shadow ride. Lovely late evening sunshine for me and the pooch. 30 minutes.IMG_0804

2nd April – station ride – pretty standard stuff but so nice to do it without much ice around. 25 minutes for out and back.

Rixensart station

Lasne sentier

3rd April – The I really wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t made that stupid pledge ride.

Cold, bleak, horrible. 30 minutes of bashing round the tracks and the cobbles under the leaden skies of Lasne.

IMG00455-20130404-0818

4th April – Station ride again – but where are they all?

Easter holidays seem to have emptied the roads and streets of the area.

Foret de Soignes Cycling5th April – The long commute ride. To Brussels through Foret de Soignes. First time since the clocks changed so the woods have reverted to dawn. Saw the family of deer again and listened to the bird life pretending it is spring. 80 minutes – I’m getting quicker.

6th April – Test a couple of bike adjustments ride to Limlette. Cold, but maybe there is a glimmer of sunshine. And the key question. “is it bad form to bring your own mud to Paris Roubaix?” 25 minutes riding, 15 minutes spannering.

Brabant WallonMuddy Peugeot Prologue

Duel at dawn

As I was riding through the forest on my way to work earlier this week another rider swept on to the path from a side track about 50 yards ahead of me. As I normally have this track to myself I was immediately interested and I did the quick cyclist’s snapshot of man and bike. Looks like a rigid mountain bike, he is in cycling clothes but not full on racing gear, woolly hat not helmet and a backpack no doubt containing clothes or work.

Pretty much like me in fact.

As he turned the next bend and began to drag up into the trees he briefly looked back and I knew he was making exactly the same audit of this unexpected cyclist behind him. And then he sent out a signal. He hunched forward and pedalled harder.

A challenge! The hundred and fifty year old sign that says “Don’t catch me”, a signal between stupid men conditioned to think because we ride bikes it is some sort of competitive act.

Guilty as charged your honour. 50 years spent around racing cyclists takes over and of course I do exactly the same thing to see if I can catch him and within seconds we are both dashing along the tracks at massively higher speeds than is sensible for the time of day, the terrain and in my case my body. And had you been an observer you would have noted that both were trying to maintain a pose that says “Trying? Oh not really, I’m only riding to work”

For about ten minutes the distance fluctuated between 30 and 50 metres, me climbing a bit faster but him pulling away on the flat, neither of us changing pace or style. I was just so desperately relieved when he turned off though, honours even.

Why – why do I do that? I spent the rest of the day desperate for a quiet nap somewhere. It would have been so much better if it had worked out like most of the rest of my time so far in Belgium. I see another cyclist, they ride off, I watch. I keep convincing myself that all those people passing me at apparent high speed are actually refugees from Belgian cycle racing culture and they just commute on upright bikes in day clothes so I shouldn’t be upset that I can’t keep up. It really amazes me how well those ex-top racers can disguise themselves as little old ladies on shopping bikes, quite remarkable.

Will I ever learn? Probably not I am afraid. Sorry to all those who believe that Middle Aged Men in Lycra (MAMILS) are the death of daily cycling, I am who I am, I just need a few slower Belgians to keep me company.

The unprepared tourist – an afternoon cycling in Berlin

Brandenburg Gate Deutschebahn call bike

Last week I paid my first visit to Berlin. Fortunately around my schedule of meetings I had a few free hours to myself for an afternoon and the freezing rain relented just enough to make sightseeing a realistic opportunity.

I was horribly unprepared to be a tourist having done almost no prior reading. When I checked my usual source on such matters Tripadvisor’s main recommendations were all places that needed at least an hour each to do them justice. Given that my knowledge of Berlin is entirely made of fragments from spy movies and occasional news footage, not the soundest of starts.

Solitary woman cyclist Berlin

So it should come as no surprise to any reader of this blog that I hired a bike and pottered about with my camera just trying to get some impressions of the city.

I was able to top up my knowledge by chatting to colleagues the following day so I was at least able to answer some of my immediate questions, but here is a brief snapshot of thoughts and feelings from a first afternoon cycling and sightseeing in central Berlin.

First orientation issue – am I in East or West Berlin? I am starting from the middle (Mitte), but checking the map tells me I am in the former East because the Berlin Wall actually encircled the old centre like a bump in its alignment. Not obvious to my eye which was which or that the East had been the poor half because my walk down Friedrichstrasse to hire a bike passed parades of shops and offices indistinguishable from any modern city.

Once a bike was obtained from one of Deutsche Bahn’s many bike hire stations I realised that the layout was very compact and it was a matter of minutes to turn down the main street of East Berlin Unter den Linden and head for the must see monument, the Brandenburg Gate. (above)

Not only an impressive monument but important for my orientation because this was one of the symbols of divided Berlin and I could follow the former line of the Berlin Wall from here, especially as so many tourism landmarks appeared to be along its route.

It turned out to be quite an odd ride, as if the city doesn’t quite know what to do with its legacy, or indeed it’s cycling. Heading south from the Brandenburg Gate towards Potsdamer Platz the road was obvious but almost all suggestions of the wall’s existence were gone. Instead the first landmark was the Holocaust Memorial, a sombre grey feature of large blocks laid out in a grid, completed in 2004. A moody place in the overcast sky and slushy snow.Holocaust Memorial Berlin

At PotsdamerPlatz I encountered my first evidence of the wall with some retained segments placed on the square covered with interpretation materials about the wall and its legacy. This explained more about what I was, or indeed was not seeing. In the transition after the wall came down many sections were demolished leaving the wide open spaces that used to be the former killing zone, the space left for the guards to see anybody trying to cross. Some are still undeveloped over 20 years later and appear as waste land, some quickly got developed or incorporated into road schemes and a few make the site of memorials and museums.

As I left Potsdamer Platz the cycle lane on the pavement disappeared, the road narrowed and I appeared to be on a very ordinary city street with no indication of history. My map said I was following the wall and should take the first left into another very nondescript small side street heading for the famous Checkpoint Charlie and a site called “Topography of Terror”.  It was all very quiet, few cars, few tourist trappings and not unpleasant cycling at all.

I quickly knew I was on the right road because a much longer section of original wall came up beside me. Behind it was a flat plain containing a low grey modern building and some open building foundations. No signs, no obvious clues as to what was going on until I found that “Topography of Terror”  was the site of the core of former Nazi control in Berlin, the seat of the Gestapo and the Propaganda Ministry and the building footings I could see were Hitler’s Bunker and Gestapo rooms. I found out later that the surface buildings had been demolished by Allied bombing during the war and its proximity to the wall meant it was just left as open space for over 40 years. Another uncomfortable memory to be incorporated into the city and the museum was perhaps suitably understated.Berlin wall NiederkirchnerstrasseDisplay Board Topography of Terrors Berlin

Its neighbour across the street could hardly be more of a contrast!Berlin

Shortly beyond was Checkpoint Charlie, the main gateway between the American and Russian sectors which had appeared in many iconic Cold War images and is certainly more of a tourist hot spot now.  visiting Berlin by bike

The motif of the wall was used well to provide photographic displays on the approaching streets which gave the history of divided Berlin in news photographs and information boards.Berlin wall displays

But yet again nearby was one of those ambiguous memorials that really set me thinking – this time the museum of the infamous STASI, the East German secret police.Berlin

I spoke to a colleague later about these many memorials to difficult subjects. He said that because Berlin had stagnated for so long after the war there had been no systematic attempt to “move on” and certainly no civic regeneration programme to remove evidence of difficult subjects. And then after reunification it became recognised that Berlin should not be allowed this past so the city had begun to establish them as part of education and reconciliation. I had the feeling it was a sort of pact – you can become the capital city again but you cannot be allowed to forget.

There is certainly no avoiding the subject of the wall. I had assumed that when I left the central area some of the references would go diminish but later that evening on the S-bahn railway I learned about the ghost stations where North-South trains ran under East Berlin from two sectors of the West but didn’t stop at the pre-war stations. And the sections of that line that ran almost along the wall with platforms only open on the West side.

Back to my ride. Having passed Checkpoint Charlie I had my fill of wall sites so I swung North East to see more of the older city. First I followed a relatively large road across to Alexanderplatz which was a pretty nondescript public space in the growing gloom but I was then able to pick up the banks of the River Spree and circle around the hugely impressive Museum Island. What actually caught the eye here too was the amount of building going on, this looks like a city going though a construction boom.Museumsinsel BerlinRiver scene Berlin

I then used the river bank to retrace my steps back to a building I wanted to see, the Reichstag.  The historic parliament building became the seat of German government again when its modern dome designed by British architect Norman Foster was finally built into the older frame. Reichstag Berlin

Around it I discovered a huge modern civil service quarter built on the river bank and a series of waterways and parkland which looked really nice environment. If I had been organised I would like to have booked a visit to see the inside of the Reichstag because everything I have heard about it looks amazing. But for now the space in front of the Reichstag was vast, open and increasingly cold so I didn’t linger, I needed to keep moving.

From the Reichstag it was a quick trip through the Tiergarten park back to the Brandenburg Gate and the return of the bike to its hire station as the gloom came in.

Fascinating place – so many questions about the attitude to history, to culture, to monuments and a potentially days to spend. That is without touching the arts, culture, nightlife and even some of the suburbs – so many other things form which the city is known.

And what about the cycling?

Well I found as many oddities about cycling in Berlin as I did about the city itself.

I had been told that about 13% of trips in Berlin are made by bike. That’s in line with the German average which means well above the rest of Europe and especially the places I usually ride. But I have convinced myself I am getting the hang of this mode share business, I am beginning to be able to see what the differing levels look like.

empty cycle parking - February in BerlinBut in Berlin I couldn’t. Whether on my ride or looking at the rush hours I couldn’t see the significant flows I was expecting. Cyclists visible on most streets, yes, but not huge numbers. There were lots of bikes parked round the city but in fact much of the cycle parking was empty. So maybe the weather meant that cycling was quite seasonal I asked? Apparently not, but perhaps I was in the wrong place because the levels of cycling are highly dependent on the routes in from certain suburbs.

Fixie rider Checkpoint Charlie Berlin

Just like everywhere else in Europe it is the middle classes and intellectuals who cycle the most and in Berlin it is the areas where the alternative cultural movement established itself in the sixties that cycling levels are highest. If this is the case then it might explain why cyclists in the city centre really did feel quite isolated.

However in the city centre what I could see was that other indicator of cycling health. Women on bikes are universally recognised as a sign that the population thinks cycling is safe. However maybe they think they are not quite safe enough because I did notice that nearly all the women wore the dreaded cycle helmets – but none of the men!Friedrichstrasse Cycling Berlin

Cyclist Berlin 1The other thing that will be a bit confusing for many cycling advocates was the lack of segregated cycle routes. The vast majority of cycling I did was on the carriageway – I could have been in Brussels or London. That certainly contradicts the message that you need a big segregated network to get cycling levels above 10%. However I rarely felt worried, the drivers were largely respectful of the cyclist and the cycle lane – now that is a big difference. Possibly my view was distorted by the time of day, I was just before the afternoon rush hour, but even the following morning I felt general traffic volumes in the city were really low compared to most large cities in Europe. Maybe Berlin drivers are less stressed than their equivalents stuck in traffic across the world? I still instinctively believe that cycle lanes are just one way of changing the relationship between rider and driver and Berlin seemed to support the notion that respectful driving is a valuable way to create a cycling environment too.

So Berlin by bike?

Flat, compact, interesting, well behaved drivers, loads of bikes on hire. Something I definitely want to do again. But better prepared and able to use the Call Bike system properly, jumping on and off to visit the main attractions properly!

Cycle commuters are the happiest commuters – but I’m not there yet

A great research titbit from the ever excellent Bike Portland made me realise now is the time to share my Bike to Work problem. “Cycling Commuters are happiest” whizzed round Twitter last week.

Graph of “commute well-being” from a presentation poster by Oliver Smith, Portland State University

This is exaggerated by the fact that those most likely to moan about cyclists are the least happy – lone car drivers. Great for the promotion of cycling and we all knew it really, didn’t we? (And does it confirm the stereotype that all cyclists are just that little bit smug about their transport choice!)

But currently I am not happy with my bike to work. I am seeking a special set of conditions that make my ride “Just so”.

The scene is set by my first week of living in Belgium. I realise that in the ECF office as in much of Europe I am also a much rarer beast than in the UK, while I am a daily cyclist I also have roots in sport, most of my colleagues here are largely transport cyclists and while the daily commute is a great thing to do (and thereby should make them happier) it is just a commute, to be done as efficiently and quickly as possible. One of my colleagues expressed her confusion about my travelling habits because on my second week after moving I rode 24km to the office, appearing as a sweaty mess and heading off to the local gym for a shower. “But” she said, “you have just paid for your season ticket on the train, why ride all that way?”

Automatically I gave her the same answer I have been giving for nearly 20 years. “Oh, it keeps me fit, keeps my weight down and it sets me up for going out with a local cycling club when I get a bit fitter”.

But in in hindsight I realise that my stock answer just isn’t true anymore. While I value the fitness what I miss more than anything else what I need is a ride where I can settle to a steady rhythm and then completely disengage my brain from the process of riding. Over 10 years of my last commuting route in England there were numerous occasions when I would arrive at the work bike sheds and realise that I had no recollection whatsoever of the last hour.

What happened in that missing hour was like a piece of mental magic. I sort, order, conjure and create until the most difficult of problems began to rearrange themselves into manageable form. So many presentations, speeches, projects and problems sorted themselves during those rides that I rely on those moments for my mental wellbeing. And the reverse is true, without the necessary therapeutic hour my mind becomes crowded and even my sleep can be interrupted by the competing threads.

My trusty commuting bike is also built to meet these objectives. Recovered from scrap the Giant Granite is a rigid mountain bike frame with drop bars added for road riding and my favoured Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres so I am never going to be troubled by punctures. But neither am I going to be troubled by the need for speed, add a couple of full panniers and I slow myself down enough to ensure I don’t get to work too quickly. (Oh and by the way it is deliberately ugly, dirty and distressed to deter thieves – honest)Mountain bike converted to road

There is all sorts of medical evidence that exercise reduces stress and people who walk and cycle to work arrive more productive and alert, I am sure I am getting the benefit of all those things on my ride. But I can get many of those by riding the 5km to the station too or on a weekend ride. What matters on my long commute is that the riding itself is completely automatic for just the right period of time.

Brussels Belgium Chemin Des TumuliiSo why I am not happy with my Belgian ride yet? The distance is about right – I can finesse the route to get my favoured 90 minutes and fitness will certainly come, there are five hills of varying sizes which I can charge up if I want to. And it has the makings of a great combination. First 8km on quiet country roads while the traffic volumes are low. Then into Foret de Soignes where I have about 9km on forest tracks and car free service roads before the final 7km is a zigzag though the southern suburbs Watermael-Boitsfort and Etterbeek to the EU district at Schumann.

I have a horrible feeling that this ride is just too diverse. I have to think too much. When I get to Brussels I am not yet confident enough to ride without full concentration. The forest tracks are actually in excellent condition but not enough to relax during periods of falling leaves, rain, snow and ice. I am begging for a dry spell when I can try just cruising.

Just maybe the conditions, travelling away and spells of illness mean I am just being too impatient, I haven’t done the ride enough to make it automatic, to switch off completely. Maybe a bit of route fettling will see me right, but something has to give. Wouldn’t it be a cruel irony if I have got myself this beautiful route and I find myself heading back to the typical horrible cycle lanes by the main road so I can create the cycle commute I need for my well-being?

Let’s end with a reminder of how great it could be ……… I live in hope.Brussels

Today’s music to ride bikes by: “Slip sliding away”. Must change that tyre!

I haven’t updated my “Music to ride bikes by” blog page in ages, I think my head has been too full of other stuff for songs to sneak in and take over.

Not today!

Within minutes of starting to pick my way through the fresh fallen snow even my intense concentration was taken over by Paul Simon’s “Slip sliding away”.

There is little doubt that it was prompted by my two wheeled behaviour. The Belgian schoolboys trudging alongside the road were highly entertained by the chap doing a 180 degree spin in front of them and wobbling off down the hill sliping from side to side.

No real risk, a friend has given me an almost car free back route to the station. But I am a victim of my own complacency. I am a huge fan of the puncture proof Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres, over 10 years since I first reviewed them for the CTC magazine and still puncture free. But this does mean I put them on the bike and completely ignore them until the carcass completely falls apart. This is exposed at some point each year when the bike becomes mysteriously unstable on mud, snow or ice and I finally look down to discover the rear is completely bald.

Today appears to have been that day, thus Paul Simon is now in my head for the rest of the day.

Over to you Paul.

Hands up everyone who thinks Vienna’s public rental bikes are rubbish?

So who thinks the city bikes are rubbish?

Is it still acceptable for a major city to have a public bike sharing scheme with rubbish bikes?

Do not despair’s message is that there is nothing that cannot be made better by a bike ride and that any bike is better than no bike. But come on folks, you want to be a world leading cycling city with these?Vienna City Bikes

To be fair the current pro-cycling administration in Vienna inherited the current fleet. But if they really want to make a good impression at the Velo-City conference in 2013 then this should be an easy victory.

The booking and hiring system works well enough, all hired by credit card. But the bikes them selves are really poor. In particular 80% of the fleet has no gears and is set to a stupidly high single gear ratio which leaves even a stronger rider labouring and novices wobbling away from stops. Hardly something to make the casual rider think cycling is easy and comfortable.

Add solid tyres, tired and rattling equipment and regular breakdowns – could do better.

I’m quite looking forward to one of London’s fat monsters, they may be heavy and slow but they are comfortable and reliable.

Pass or fail the cold weather test?

I was going to put down some of my thoughts about cycling in the cold weather that hit Europe last week, especially after experiencing Germany at -15C and Brussels-9C.

However I have to take my hat off to this great film put together by David Hembrow which steals the show. It passes every test you can set for a cycling clip “Do I want to be there?” “Do I want to try that?” Oh yes, on every count. If you do you can look at his holidays and study trips here

The man I defer to on all things cold weather is Morten Kerr, President of SLF (Syklistenes Landsforening) the cyclists’

Morten Kerr demonstrates winter cycling in Norway

Morten Kerr demonstrates winter cycling in Norway

organisation of Norway. He seems to ride his 15km to work whatever the weather, studded tyres and all. Although having spent time in North America he apparently rates Canadian gear as the best, especially his amazing gloves.

I was impressed on my visit to Memmingen in the Lower Allgau region of Germany last week. Memmingen is a few hundred metres above sea level so the combination with the cold weather system across the whole of Europe dropped the temperature at the station to -15C, as far as I know the lowest temperature I have ever experienced. And just like the cycle lanes in the Netherlands shown in

Memmingen Cycle Route, still clear at -15C

Memmingen Cycle Route, still clear at -15C

David’s film the cycle routes here were completely clear. I don’t think it was particularly about the cycling, the pavements, roads and station platforms were all immaculately clear. I’m not sure what they use, it doesn’t seem to have the properties of the salt and grit we have on our streets in the UK, but that may be because the temperatures were too low for the wet salty coating that we always get which covers your bike in a corrosive film. What it did mean was that all the cyclists were flying around full tilt without any apparent concern for a hidden ice patch.

I failed the cold weather test miserably. I don’t really cycle on icy roads in

Bike covered in snow in Memmingen

Not everyone in Memmingen got away from the snow!

the UK if I can help it, I love cycling in snow on a mountain bike if I can. My stepfather had a badly broken hip after he went out once too often in February, I really could do without it.

I had planned to spend an evening cycling around Brussels to check out a couple of communes as possible places to live. I’d prepared double gloves, socks, hat etc but I failed miserably after 40 minutes when it was my hands that couldn’t take any more and I shot back to the hotel for dinner.

However after the clothing failure I was put firmly in my place when I dared roll out the Danish expression “No such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing” which has become such a feature of every presentation on cycling in Denmark. “I hate that expression” said my Danish colleague to the amazement of our lunch group. “I’m Danish, and I like to be warm”.

The following day I was keeping a careful eye out the window around lunchtime when the snow started to fall. By the time I set off for the Eurostar there was a slushy mess on the streets of Brussels. I’d like to say I shot off confidently taking cobbles, traffic and pavement cyclepaths in my stride. What I actually did was fold the bike and walk to the Metro. I am sure I have let the side down somehow, but something tells me that I was not going to enjoy the small wheel experience in those conditions.

So hats off to the cold weather cyclists, a pair of proper Nordic gloves needed for me to join you next year.