Collective creaking and groaning – must be the start of the cycle touring year

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This gallery contains 6 photos.

Yesterday I took my first cycling club ride of the year, breaking into the start of the Belgian cycle touring club season. As usual our club split into two groups, with those who have been riding all winter or who … Continue reading

Taiwan touring day 2 – Taichung mountain circuit

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This gallery contains 5 photos.

I am assured that the three peaks of the mountain circuit from Taichung are the measure by which all local riders are judged, with the local clubs and pro-groups regularly thrashing round in a form of survival of the fittest. … Continue reading

Follow the arrows for a Belgian magical mystery cycle tour

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This gallery contains 17 photos.

My last Sunday in Belgium before I head off for Australia and New Zealand for Velo-city 2014 and some overdue holiday. So it was fitting that the weather turned on a spectacular day, the Walloon countryside was beautiful and we … Continue reading

Ahhhh, good to be back in the comfort of the peloton. The club cycle touring season kicks off in Belgium

Photo Kevin Mayne

After its winter break the Belgian cycle touring season kicked off again on the first weekend of March. Unlike the UK where I have done most of my cycling the clubs here don’t ride through the winter.

So this means that the March rides are a bit if a “get to know you” and find out who spent the winter doing the kilometres and who were doing the kilogrammes. And it brings a little trepidation, a slight return of cyclingclubaphobia until I have checked that that I can fit in to the club.

I missed the first two weeks in Taipei so this was my first ride of the year with my ambition to drop into group 2 and hide quietly in the slipstream. With the hazy sunshine I was optimistic that there might be a good few riders out so I could chose my level. And wow – 75 starters resplendent in the new club kit.

There were about 35 in group 2 and my hopes worked out quite well, because in a stiff breeze the enthusiasts that had been riding regularly were happy to take the lead, and the big lads provided what might less politely be called a solid wall of Belgian beef that provided excellent shelter!.

Collegiate Church of Saint Gertrude NivellesWonderful spring day, I could have stopped and taken hundreds of views of blossom and open fields as we skimmed the open countryside. In Nivelles the splendid Church of St Gertrude was ringing out its bells with great energy as if to welcome us, or just to celebrate the day.

Good to have the first club ride under my wheels.

Cycleottignies March 2014

Wet, steamy, green, welcoming. It must be the 2014 Taipei cycling experience

Photo Kevin Mayne

I managed to get out for three decent bike rides on this year’s visit to Taipei, however it was a very different experience to last year. The defining factor this year was water. The downpours which hit us on almost every day could certainly have killed off my enthusiasm, but instead provided a backdrop to this year’s explorations. In the previous two years I didn’t get up into the forested hills that sweep down into the city on all sides and are the product of all that rain. They go up over 1000 metres from sea level within the city boundaries and apparently cover almost half the land area which must make it one of the hilliest and greenest capital cities in the world.

Through this year’s rides I became more aware of how this landscape links with the city and how much the residents value green space and plants which burst into life in the warmth and humidity of the island. And my very final stop on the trip was the steamiest of all – the hot springs district of Beitou which deserves not only a comment as a ride destination but will get a small post of its own to follow this one.

tern social 2014

Not all things are publishable however. Our friends from Tern Bicycles put on their Thursday social ride again this year. It was social. It was a ride. As ever their bikes are comfortable and smart with some nice features. But it hammered down with rain. I have a lot of photos that look rather too much like this, and very few that look like the one below,

Tern social Taipei

Their Facebook page has a much better selection, but you get the story. But good company and a bike ride are always highlights in the Idonotdespair world, so I enjoyed it and as ever the clothes dried out. Eventually.Thanks to the Tern team.

My two other excursions were better for sharing and learning about Taipei.

Monday Youbike Bimble

Youbikes of TaipeiA brief gap in the showers before the Taipei Cycle Show allowed me to grab a Youbike and set off from my hotel. Last year I experienced the city and the riverside cycle paths so my ambition this time was to try and get into the hills I could see from my window.

Xinyi district is mostly known to travellers as the administrative centre, shopping and property hot spot of Taipei, focussed around the City Hall and Taipei 101, for several years the world’s tallest building and an icon of Taipei. The area has modern malls, offices and busy roads. There are cycle lanes and Youbikes too, which is handy.

Taipei 101 and cycle paths

Xinyi district TaipeiBut within just a very short distance by bike the very new developments end and disappear into a maze of residential alleys and back streets which rear up into the steep slopes and verdant forest of the hills. Out of curiosity I heaved myself up some of these steep ramps to the bemusement of the residents who were clearly not used to seeing tourists round here. There are also a number of waymarked and well signed walking trails that were leading up to the mountain tops which showed a considerable local demand for enjoying these green spaces. The Fuyang Eco Park was busy with walkers and joggers, plus it gave me the backdrop to my lovely moment with a Grandfather teaching his granddaughter to ride (see earlier post)

What immediately caught my eye is the way the buildings seem to just merge into the hills, only stopping at the steepest of overhangs.

Houses on hills Taipei

Taipei hillside houses

Plants and houses Taipei

And not only is the greenery outside, there is clearly a passion for plants with every balcony and doorway having a range of healthy looking plants in pots. Where there was a flat spot these would often be flourishing vegetable patches or in the middle class gardens there were beautiful flashes of colour from decorative foliage and flowers.

Gardens of Taipei Taipei Gardens

It is such mixture in a small area. Small industrial plots, temples, shacks, apartment blocks and expensive villas catering for all levels of society. Given a different bike and a stronger constitution I might have climbed more of the side streets, but a three hour bimble around the different areas was full of variety.

The traffic was also well behaved too, the streets are narrow and busy which has a traffic calming effect which I appreciated.

Cycling Taipei alleys

 

 

Saturday touring ride.

My second memorable ride was on Saturday, the day we left. We were invited out by our new friends at Formosa Lohas Cycling Association www.flca.tw to come and see how they organise their touring rides. The club is relatively new but is making strong progress with a mix of promotional activities for cycling, especially based on cycle touring, events and cycling education for children. As my regular readers know I am very fond of cycling clubs and within minutes of chatting to Development Director Demi Huang and her colleagues it was immediately clear that we were kindred spirits, chatting away about rides, routes and advocacy for ages.

Formosa Lohas Cycling Association and ECF

Demi offered us a ride with some of the club’s experienced Tour Guides and we suggested a half day starting in Taipei so that we could also pack our bags and prepare for departure. To be honest, the omens were not good because the rain just bucketed down all morning, but at least it wasn’t cold so Bernhard and I were up for the ride.

Cycle route map TaipeiGathering point for a small but hardy group was down on the riverside cycle path where we were kitted out with two nice sporty looking machines with straight bars. Guide James explained our route, a loop of about 20km around the river banks, then up to “Hell Valley” and the Beitou Springs area. The convenient planning board shows that we were to go out into the teeth of the rainstorm and then take a more sheltered line up to Beitou.

The opening kilometres were certainly exposed because our route was not down at water level like other sections of the path that I rode last year. This section sits right up on top of the typhoon defences and looked down on the homes and businesses behind the wall. The views were expansive, but decidedly murky. Clearly Bernhard was at home, this could almost be a Dutch dyke path.

Riverside cycle route Taipei

Beyond the walls were mud flats and reed beds that are now popular for bird watching. It was hard to imagine our hosts description of the rivers as the centre for trade with waterside wharves everywhere. Today it is a world closed off from the city.

Once round the confluence of the two rivers we had the wind behind and swept towards a very impressive suspension style bridge. We were struck by the cycle ramps, huge cycle lanes and segregated sections for bikes, scooters and cars.

Taipei cycle path and bridges Suspension bridge Taipei Bikes bridge and clouds Taipei

The view from the bridge was interesting too, it gave an impression of how committed the local authorities are to high quality facilities along these river paths. We could see a fun mountain bike park already completed and under construction a water filled park being landscaped to fit the land space between typhoon defence and river. Clever use of buffer land which will also improve flooding resilience. Now if only other countries were that sensible.

mountain bike track in Taipei New riverside park in Taipei

Rice paddy field and vegetable garden TaipeiThe benefits of local guides were apparent when we swung away from the river bank and headed north through a series of embankments and small roads. Our guides called this “our secret route” and it was a treasure. Almost vehicle free but taking us through something like a garden zone of rice fields and market gardens cutting right into the heart of the city. Several people I have talked to spontaneously started talking about the Taiwanese love of fresh fruit and vegetables and the expertise of their farmers, certainly the quality of the fruit and veg at meal times is outstanding. We were rewarded with herons and cranes foraging in the rice fields as we passed, oblivious to our presence.

Paddy fields with white birds Taipei

It was almost a shock to pop out of the quiet lanes into urban hustle but we had been brought almost to the heart of Beitou by our guides. A gentle climb took us up to a range of sights in this popular visitor area.

The true finish of our ride was the thermal valley itself, which was a mass of steam and smells of sulphur where the hot water gushes up from the volcanic rock at a temperature of almost 90 degrees. All around us streams carried away hot water to be piped into the hotels and bath houses which have been a feature of the area since Japanese occupation from 1895-1945. The main bath house, now a museum, was built in 1913.

Beitou Thermal valley

Our day finished with steaming hot baths in a hot springs hotel and a delicious meal with our guides, but more of that in my next post.

For now let me just say that once again the friendliness and hospitality of our Taiwanese hosts was unbeatable. The Formosa Lohas guides were knowledgeable and courteous cycling guides and I am absolutely sure that one of their multi-day rides around Taiwan would be a great holiday. James was clearly an experienced leader and Bike Lin (yes that is his name) is the author of two well-regarded tour guides about cycling in Taiwan so I am not surprised they are getting more and more enquiries from around the world. They are going to be popular and welcomed members of the ECF cycling family too.

In summary – another week in Taipei which turned out to be far more than rooms full of bikes on show. Increasingly the international travel media is saying that cycling in Taipei is one of the country’s visitor highlights. I am not going to disagree.

The start of a cycling life

Godric Cycling Club Logo

Some 16 years ago I was offered a job with CTC, the national cyclist’s organisation in the UK. For me the move was never a doubt once the offer was made. Yes we had some real challenges, I was stepping out of a business career that saw us swap a settled lifestyle in Cardiff to a much lower paid job in one of the most expensive places in England. But no doubt whatsoever about the move to cycling on my part.

Not so my old boss. When the the Chair of CTC’s board phoned my corporate boss for a reference he unexpectedly got his ear bent for nearly 20 minutes about how I was throwing away my career for a whim. And he made it pretty clear that he blamed CTC for throwing temptation in my path. He made the same point very clearly to me. The CTC Chair was extremely rattled and spent much of the next two years worrying that I had taken the job on emotion and I might soon set off back to my corporate life.

But of course my old boss had no idea about my deep connection to cycling and the irresistible draw of a dream job. But then again nor do some of the people I work with today. Because in our world of common sense cycling in European cities it really isn’t essential to be passionate about the sport or pastime of cycling to know what a civilising effect it has on a city. I heard this best described in Copenhagen. The city cycling officer said “In Copenhagen you get up in the morning, you clean your teeth, maybe some breakfast then you bike to work. Nobody thinks about having a club for people who clean their teeth, it’s just what you do.”

Well in my childhood cycling to school was still quite normal. But being a “cyclist” wasn’t. My trip back to Bungay was a chance to celebrate that with the people who made my cycling life possible, the Godric Cycling Club. I went back as the guest speaker at their Annual Dinner and prize presentation. About 70 people took over the local golf club, many of whom I have known since childhood, either my parents friends or indeed my own schoolmates from the 1970s.

Godric Cycling Club Annual Dinner 2014

Time trial start mid sixtiesClose to my heart? My earliest memories are of being carted off to races at ungodly hours in the morning, waking up to ask if Mummy or Daddy had won. Even now my dad is the Chairman, my mum organised the dinner and there were enough relatives to have their own table, these really are my cycling roots. And the club itself has rocked from time to time, but when a glass of wine was raised to toast the founding members of sixty years ago it was brilliant to see several in the room.

Godric Cycling Club Dinner 2014

As an after dinner speaker the job is of course not to overstay your welcome, entertain with some travellers’ tales and in my case throw in some anecdotes about the quirks of cycling in Belgium then get out of the way so everybody can get round to collecting their winnings from the groaning table of prizes and on to the raffle.*

Godric Cycling Club Trophies

But as part of my speech I said roughly this:

I wasn’t such a great racing cyclist. I am proud that my name appears on at least one of these trophies, but my speeds were not exceptional. (“I’ll second that” agrees a voice in the room)

But this club gave me the opportunity to be what I am today. Firstly the club was always a supportive place to be, it let me go forward in another way. I got the chance to try out things that some young people never get to do. At 14 they let me be the club-room secretary, having the keys the club building, selling Mars bars and drinks or organising the table tennis tournaments in the winter.

At 16 I organised my first open race. It was probably so inconceivable at the time that nowhere in the rules of cycling did it set a minimum age for event organisers, so I just put my hand up to run one of our cyclo-cross events. These were chances you just cannot replicate.

And of course when I went on to university I got involved in running our cycling club, making friends for life but also filling my CV with more of those try-outs for real life that came with the territory. Discovering the stunning region in which we lived while the other students made it little further than the bar. Plan and lead group rides? Deal with bureaucracy? Plan cycle tours round France? But of course we did, it just was just the world I knew. And every one of those experiences enriched my CV and when at 23 I didn’t have a clue what to do I discovered that what I was really equipped for was something called management. I’ve been there ever since.

So now I have the unque honour of traveling Europe managing cycling programmes, talking about cycling, promoting cycling, meeting people who are battling to grow cycling in small groups in cities that often don’t really seem to care. Or put me in a Belgian cycling club where I don’t even speak the language. I know I am among friends. Because the Godric Cycling Club made that my world, a very comfortable place to be. I hope that all cycling clubs continue to give a next generation of young people that chance, the chance to grow up as individuals, not just as places where the only winners are the ones who go fast. That has made cycling so much more to me that brushing my teeth. Its what I do, it’s my people.

When I join a group of cyclists I do not despair.

Thank you Godric Cycling Club.

Godric Cycling Club Sunday Club Run

Related posts:

“I love club dinners”

“Cycling’s helpers” by David Horton on the ever excellent “Thinking about Cycling”

Press report in local media

* On the podium on the Champs Elysee after getting his trophy for his Tour de France win Bradley Wiggins, Britain’s first ever winner said “Are we going to do the raffle now?” Millions of spectators worldwide were completely baffled. About 30,000 club cyclists in the UK just collapsed with laughter, recognising just how many local cycling club dinners Brad must have attended during his career rise. One of us.

Ten best things about being a cyclist in Belgium

Watchng the Fleche 2

A year ago we moved to Belgium. 

By way of an anniversary post and a thank you to my new country here are my musings about the best things about cycling here so far.  

Next week I might throw in a few pet hates, although the scales are overwhelmingly positive for the first year in this great cycling nation.

In no particular order this British cyclist’s “Ten best of cycling in Belgium” are

  • Belgian National DaySocial cycling
  • The Classics
  • Tracks and trails of Wallonia
  • Long summer evenings
  • Being strange
  • The ever changing Belgian countryside
  • Belgians like a lie in
  • Bike fans
  • Somewhere near to everywhere
  • My bike shed

1. Social cycling – you are not alone.

Recreational and sports cycling in Belgium is overwhelmingly a collective activity. At the weekend you can hear the groups of cyclists passing our house not by the tyre swoosh but by sounds of talking and laughing. I have commented that I love the sense of community in the small towns and villages of Belgium that carries over into the cycling, everywhere I go I see people riding together.

It’s not just the big pelotons of club cyclists in the touring and racing clubs.

Cycleottignies

It’s the scouts.

Belgian scout ride

It’s the youth clubs.

Chateau Solvay La Hulpe cyclisme

It’s the senior citizens on a Friday night near Ghent.

Friday night in Flanders

It’s just a couple of friends riding their mountain bikes.

Solvay park VTT

It’s the randonnée à vélo for families that every village and town puts on for its jour de fete.

Child cycling Solvay Park La Hulpe

2. The Classics

fans 5

The chance to experience the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen), Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege are just fantastic days out for a bike fan.

All the legends – beer and frites, fan clubs, cobblestones and star riders come together in an atmosphere I have never experienced before after a lifetime of going to bike races.

Liege Bastogne Liege Sprimont 5

minor places Fleche Wallonne

And by pure chance this year I took the best cycle racing photo I will ever take on the Patterberg – Spartacus (Fabian Cancellara) making the winning move against Peter Sagan.Ronde Van Vlaanderen Paterberg

Hard to repeat that, but I’ll be back again this year for my next fix.

3. Tracks and trails of Wallonia

Brabant Wallon

For the mountain bikers this time. Every commune in our area has hundreds of kilometres of farm tracks, forest trails and cobbled roads that together make an amazing network of rides for mountain bikers. Where I live in Lasne the brilliant folks at Lasne Nature have signposted 250 kilometres of the trails into circular routes from 5-15km in length, all of which can be joined together to give great rides.

Beaumont Lasne

Belgium, Brabant Wallon

And this continues for village after village.

It isn’t rugged and mountainous, it isn’t the flowing singletrack of a purpose built trail centre but it is an endless source of riding. Add an unexpected and freak layer of snow for four months last year and it was plenty tough enough for hard riding too.

Brabant Wallon

4. Long summer evenings

Ben Mayne Chapelle St Lambert

An unexpected bonus. I didn’t think I would notice the time difference between Belgium and the UK. It seems a minor point but because Belgium is an hour ahead of the UK in clock time but geographically just a few minutes ahead this is like having a whole extra hour of daylight in the evening.

In the summer this means the evenings just seem to go on for ages. When I was a little boy I used to resent being sent to bed while it was still light in the summer. Now I can commute home in the light so much later or go ride my bike after work. We have had some just lovely riding evenings, even well into the autumn.

5. Being strange

IMG00779-20131126-0836When I had made a lycra-clad appearance in our office for the second or third time a colleague said to me “you are a bit strange”.

While I decided whether to be offended or not he quickly qualified himself. He said he had never met anyone in who worked in cycling who also enjoyed cycle racing and sport or was prepared to commute in from outside Brussels. I was a bit thrown, I had come to Belgium to be part of this glorious cycling heritage and I was being portrayed as a bit of freak.

In the UK I have always been around sports cyclists even when I was working in transport and tourism and many of my colleagues carried a passing interest or a background in the sports world.

ECF lunch rideBut in some areas of Belgium, especially Flanders and in the EU district of Brussels what I think of as the Dutch/Scandinavian sub-culture is really strong and it is daily transport cycling, in normal clothes on normal bikes that holds sway. It is really great to be part of this multi-national community in the mornings, taking their kids to school, going to the shops and generally giving cycling status as a proper transport mode in front of the EU political classes, unlike in much of the English speaking world where cyclists can still be distinguished as a sub-culture by sport or hipster dress codes.

Segregated cycle path Ghent

For me to be “the strange one” is a statement that cycling has healthy prospects in Belgium.

6. The ever changing Belgian countryside

Houtain le Val

Friday night bike ride Flanders

I have written many blog posts about the changing light and weather of Belgium over the past 12 months. I don’t know what I expected, but I don’t think it was steep-sided valleys covered in beech trees or ever changing farming landscapes. The differences across the country from West Flanders to the Ardennes pack a lot of scenery into a small country.

IMG_2822

Belgium farming and forestry practices have a big part to play in maintaining this landscape as does the maintenance of the historic buildings and villages despite it being the battleground of Europe.

Mist, trees and moon, evening in Belgium

There is a big push towards organic and pesticide free farming here which means that farmers have returned to traditional practices like crop rotation and green manures. In the fields just around our house we have seen wheat, barley, sugar beet, maize, potatoes, and parsnips just this year, all mixed up with fields of cows, sheep and horses and lots of coppices of deciduous trees. And in addition to the fields themselves this wide variety enables bird and animal species that are declining in other countries to flourish. Not the large monocultures of Britain or France or the horticultural factories of the Netherlands here.

Snowy ride Belgium

It means that even familiar roads can take on a new feel from month to month, the sense of being part of the rhythm of the land is palpable. More examples of posts here, here and here, or just chose the Belgium tab to the right.

7. Belgians like a lie in

Just 30 kilometres from the capital city, the heart of Europe. And a group of cyclists can ride for two hours on a Sunday morning and not see a car moving. 

Wallonia Cycle Touring

Or a public holiday in mid-summer when the parks and woods are empty for hours, making them a personal playground.

Brussels forest

Sundays especially are like a throwback to an earlier time. The shops are not supposed to open and tranquillity regulations ensure that mowing the lawn and noisy DIY are banned.

Thank you Belgium. Don’t bother getting up, I’m going out on my bike.

8. Belgian bike fans

Tour of Flanders IMG_0707 beer 1

Cycling matters here. Or more precisely cycle sport matters here. Especially in Flanders.

Every branch too, not just the impressive heritage of road racing. I mean, where else can cyclo-cross be on the TV every Saturday and Sunday all winter and Sven Nys be a national superstar. Do you even know the name of the national cyclo-cross champion in your country? I don’t. It is in the news, the television and even the gossip. Earlier this year I blogged about how the Prime Minister of Flanders got pulled into a dispute about cycling facilities while he was away on a trip to the Tour de France, everybody is sucked into the cycling world.

I loved my trip to the Tour of Flanders Museum in Oudenaarde to absorb the legends, to the classics to celebrate with beer, frites and people in birdie suits.

Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen Ronde Van Vlaanderen Centrum

And amazingly this even carries over in to driving behaviour. Drivers have a remarkable tolerance for anyone in lycra out in the countryside, they seen to be prepared to wait for ages for individual riders or in groups. Maybe less so in the rush hour in Brussels, but I have certainly noticed that when I ride like a posing roadie I get a lot more space. If only they knew just how un-Belgian my riding actually is I might not get the same respect.

9. Somewhere near to everywhere

Ittre Walloon Brabant

Flanders Cycle route signs

While I was in Poland last week at the COP 19 Transport Day I met a very dour Belgian railways official. When I said I used the service every day politely he asked me “how do you find it?”

He was genuinely shocked when I said I thought it was a good network with cheap prices and how pleased I was that it carries bikes on almost every service. He turned to his companion from the European rail association and said “See, I have to come to Poland to find a satisfied customer.”

Wallonia

Yes some of the trains are old and tired. Yes the strikes are a pain. But I cannot be fed up in a compact country, covered masses of country lanes, varying terrain, varying history, even different languages, all seemingly within about an hour’s travel in any direction and the chance to let the trains do the work.

And beyond the borders more great cycling countries to sample, all within such easy reach. Luxembourg, Germany, France, the Netherlands……

Luxembourg Old town and Kirchberg

10. My bike shed

Ok, you can’t enjoy this with me. It’s my space.

Kevin Mayne's Bike Shed

All I wanted was a shed, or a garage. When we started looking at apartments in Brussels we quickly realised that space was going to be at an absolute premium so I started reluctantly selling off some of my old bikes and bits. But having decided against city life and headed for the countryside I raised my hopes slightly that the shed would be a bit bigger.

When I visited a former farm in Lasne that we had previously ignored off as too small, too remote and without any storage in the particulars it was a very long shot.

Ok the house was fine. But seconds after entering the former milking shed I just burst into a smile that has barely left my face ever since. And now it has been properly equipped with its new livestock it has a similar effect on visitors, although mainly they just bursting out laughing.

Mysteriously the bikes seem to like it here, for it appears their numbers are growing. When the rental finishes it is going to come as an almighty shock, but for now it’s in my top 10 reasons for loving being a Belgian cyclist.

Thank you Belgium.

A year ago I wondered what life might bring. The answer? I do not despair!