It’s not just about the bike lanes. A beautiful cycle touring day in Copenhagen.

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This gallery contains 24 photos.

As a cyclist it is so easy to be blown away by the waves of Copenhageners cycling to work and school along their wonderful bike lanes and forget to take a look at the city and its region. I haven’t … Continue reading

Cycling in Sofia, Bulgaria – positive observations from a short visit

Time for another “Idonotdespair” moment, trying to get a snapshot of the cycling culture in a new city through the eyes of local activists, a short ride and some general wandering about. I was in Sofia, capital city of Bulgaria for three days this week which included a guided cycle tour of the city centre and a similar walking excursion. I have broken my usual collection of photos and comments into two posts, this one about the cycling experience and then a few tourist notes in a few days’ time.

I think the cycling can certainly be summarized as “far better than expected” because the country hovers towards the bottom of most European cycling league tables and expectations had been set fairly low by our hosts. But I found a lot of positives and yes it was so much better moving about by bike than walking!

We were in Bulgaria with delegates from small and medium sized cycling organizations as part of a programme to support European groups that are trying to make the jump from smaller, informal structures to try and create a national impact. So I wasn’t there on my own and that helped keep the differences in perspective. Coming to Sofia from the low cycling countries like UK, Greece, Ireland, Czech Republic and Ukraine it really didn’t feel vastly different to home, so we of course were able to share our experiences as “kindred spirits”. On the other hand at least one person in the mid rank of cycling nations who joined us (Austria, Finland, and Sweden) said she certainly felt a bit better about her home city after cycling here.Photo by Kevin Mayne

First impressions were not great. In the taxi from the airport we were faced by nose-to-tail traffic queues and wide high speed boulevards that made me suspect that this was another east European city that had embraced the car with enthusiasm in the last 25 years. It was not until we reached our city centre hotel that I was delighted to notice a cyclist, inevitably a hipster on a fixie jumping a red light. There must be a factory somewhere in Taiwan that just creates them and sends the whole unit over to Europe as one item, person, bike, trendy beard and colour-blindness included.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

The start of our group bike tour the next day confirmed some of the poor impressions. We were cycling on multi-lane roads or encouraged to share the lumpy, poorly repaired pavements with pedestrians, neither of which was particularly appealing. The infrastructure gave no help knowing which route or what positioning on the road to take. Our guide did point out a few places where there were once cycle lanes and the paint had worn away and suggested the city really didn’t know what to do with cyclists now. I was very grateful that we did have a host to start with, it gave confidence that we were actually riding in an accepted manner. (Although more of that below)

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Throughout the trip I noticed that the city had the parking plague, every street, spare corner and open space seemed to be covered with parked cars and they were often double parked, pushing us out into the traffic. In that it reminded me of Kiev, Ukraine, because there was potentially a lot of space for cycling facilities but no space to install them without taking on the parking menace.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Nice cobbled streets around the National Theatre offered the possibility of an attractive slow moving network of cycle friendly streets like I had seen in Madrid in September, but the parking was still intrusive and not well controlled. The road surfaces were pretty awful too but after three years of Belgium I hardly take that into account any more, I rather regard it as a form of traffic calming.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Towards the end of our tour we turned back towards our hotel along Vitosha Boulevard, the main shopping street of the city that gets its name from the dramatic snow covered Vitosha Mountain that is visible on the skyline right along the street.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

By the time we did so I was in a thoroughly good mood from the cycling and beginning to quiz my colleagues about what I had seen and felt on the ride. Because I certainly wasn’t getting the impression that this was a frightening, anti-cycling city. That impression was reinforced the next day when some of us walked around other areas.

Most importantly of all I felt that the drivers of Sofia were some of the most patient and well behaved I have come across. Seriously! It seemed common to just to wander out into the street and face down the cars which proves to me that is far from a car dominated city centre. At no point was our large group honked at and passing distances were well respected. Whenever a pedestrian or another cyclist just wandered out into the carriageway or attempted a pedestrian crossing the motorists stopped almost instantly so we started doing it too.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Turning at junctions the traffic didn’t race off, people were able to cross and in the small streets traffic speed was very sensible, especially in the numerous 30kmph speed limit zones.

The other thing that struck me was that the numbers of pedestrians and cars was incredibly quiet for the centre of a large European capital on a weekday. I kept thinking I must be missing something such as a public holiday, but apparently not. There were definitely traffic jams out on the peripheral roads and arterial corridors but it really was quiet and sedate to get around by bike in the city centre. I wonder if it is the traffic management that makes everybody so patient, the waits at traffic lights were never ending? However in most cities where cars queue at traffic lights it seems to make them impatient and grumpy, here I just didn’t get that impression. It may be that we were the beneficiaries of a significant police presence, especially at larger junctions where they still have these brilliant little control boxes that sit up above the street corner and manually intervene to control the traffic flows. How old school is that – brilliant!

Photo by Kevin Mayne

When we walked a bit beyond the city centre we came to some of the many parks that run around central Sofia.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Here there were networks of quiet car free paths and alongside the canalized Perlovska river there were long cycle lanes looping around the south of the city centre. They too were not in wonderful condition, but they were there, and being used.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Photo by Kevin Mayne

The last discovery of the trip turned out to be just near our hotel where we found a large, wide cycling and walking bridge linking the National Cultural Centre to the southern suburbs, allowing people to cross a really nasty main road into the city centre from their residential areas.

Photo by Kevin Mayne Photo by Kevin Mayne

This is the kind of infrastructure we desperately need to fill missing links in our networks in so many cities and here was a perfect example in a place that is supposedly really bad at infrastructure. How confusing.

It was a bit spoiled by the nasty collapsed drain cover on the down slope but most of the locals seemed to know it was there, the BMX riders jumped it and the oldsters went round.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Because there were cyclists. Not in huge numbers but almost everywhere we went in the city there were just ones and twos pottering about on the streets and pavements. No it wasn’t a lot and I could see that they probably didn’t add up to more than the 1% mode share claimed in the published statistics. But they were there and it wasn’t just the cool dudes. We saw older people, mothers with children on child seats and younger women which also suggests that the environment was not totally hostile to all but the fearless.

What surprised some colleagues more was the bikes. They were 90% cheap mountain bikes, only occasionally did we see a more equipped city bike. Again those of us from low cycling countries were less surprised, a population that doesn’t cycle much and therefore doesn’t understand the need to pay more for mudguards, a rack and some city tyres is just what we experience all the time. We did conclude that fat tyres and suspension was probably a good idea when a lot of Sofia cycling seemed to involve bouncing up and down kerbs but we know that you have to build up the population’s knowledge quite a bit more before the better equipped bikes become more common.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

So I leave Bulgaria slightly puzzled by my cycling experiences in Sofia. In many ways this was like my experience of Berlin with its wide streets, quiet traffic and well enforced traffic laws. And in that context cycling could and should flourish because the traffic jams on the arterial roads were bad and there is only a two line metro service to fall back on.

I guess cycling really hasn’t set down new cultural roots in the city and it is going to take a slow steady campaign of promotion and a lot more commitment to cycling infrastructure before it takes off, if only to help people know where and how to ride.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

What this place needs more than anything else is more cyclists because a visible group on the streets riding around safely will do more than anything else to show what is possible.

Probably I got an artificial impression in the centre because the traffic did look more aggressive further out. But there was a huge maze of minor streets around the suburban apartment blocks which could be bike friendly. Of course what usually fails in those circumstances is crossing the big roads and I may be wildly over optimistic from what I saw, any bike route is only as good as its most challenging junction because that is the one people won’t cross. But I couldn’t help but feel the city centre is a good destination for cycling, there must be something to build on there and I would certainly ride there on my own on a return visit.

Now we will do what we can to help our passionate friends at the Bulgarian Cycling Association and their allies to take advantage of what they have because it will be a long road to build up a cycling culture from such low numbers.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

But it is possible that their underlying conditions are a lot more tolerant than in many other countries.

I do not despair.

“It’s the end of the world as we know it. (And I feel fine.)” A special last ride in New Zealand. Thanks to everyone that made the cycling on this trip possible.

Bluff Point sign

So this was the final day of my six weeks in Australia and New Zealand. It has taken me almost that long again to write it all up, but the last day’s ride was so good it feels vivid and fresh right now.

It was not only a symbolic end, I physically reached the end of New Zealand’s South Island, spending my last morning riding on Bluff Hill, a rocky dome of a hill that rises 265 m (870ft) straight from sea level at the very southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. It has 360 degree panoramic views along the coast, inland towards Invercargill and even to the mountains far beyond. The Maori name for the hill is Motupõhue which means “island of põhue flowers”, because from the sea it appeared to be an island rising before the rest of the land could be seen. Despite its remote location Bluff has a claim to be the longest permanently settled European town in New Zealand, the first trader and farmer bought land off the Maori here in 1824. Today it is still an active port although many Kiwis will be much more interested in the seasonal Bluff Oysters, considered the finest of delicacies and craved by exiles.

I knew about Bluff Hill from my previous trips to Invercargill. Everywhere has a hill like this. The one you have to go and try when you think you have become a cyclist. The local cyclists talk about it in that tone that tells you it is a place of legend. When you are even part way up your legs are burning and you are frantically looking for a lower gear that you don’t have any more. Bluff Hill’s reputation is enhanced because the Tour of Southland, New Zealand’s toughest bike stage race regularly finishes at the top.

Flagstaff Road Bluff New Zealand

However I had never actually cycled there on my previous trips, mainly because it is 25 km south of Invercargill and the access is an open stretch of main road that I had never fancied riding. However this time I was updating my knowledge about what was going on locally when I saw a link to Bluff Hill trails on the Southland MTB Club web site.

Within moments I knew that this was a “must do”. A bucket list item almost. To know I had ridden on what is possibly the most southerly set of planned and maintained mountain bike trails in the world? To ride up above the countryside and sea and take in the landscape at this unique place. To know I could spend an hour or more playing on good mountain bike trails rather than just head-banging down a main road. You bet I was going to try and go there.

I hadn’t really planned on it being the last day but that is the way that time escapes on a short visit. So to maximise family time and get in my special ride I compromised and got up at 6am to drive my in-laws’ car out to the foot of the hill, ready to ride at first light.

Bluff Hill Flagstaff Road in the dark New ZealandThat part of the plan went perfectly. Too perfectly. I arrived just as there was a glimmer of dawn on the far horizon, but I couldn’t actually see a yard in front of my face at the trailhead so any prospect of riding up the hill off-road had to wait.

Instead I took the route of most pain and climbed the almost straight road to the top of the hill. It is 22% at the steepest point and an average of 11% so I certainly needed the mountain bike gears, doing that without any sort of warm up at 7.30 am in the morning would have had me walking for sure on a road bike.

But then my timing turned out to be absolutely perfect. As the light crept in under the clouds the landscape changed magically, second by second. Each time I lifted my head deep blues turned to pinkish hues behind me and the road surface became more visible.

Bluff Hill view New Zealand

Buff Hill sunrise New Zealand

Dawn from Bluff Hill mountain bike tracks New Zealand

As I got to the top a soft yellow glow was driving away the shadows right across the landscape.

Bluff Hill Sunrise over south coast of New Zealand

Way in the north Invercargill was visible a series of light spots on the flat plain.

Lights at dawn Invercargill from Bluff Hill New Zealand

I was also blessed by the weather. The start of winter and I was wearing a light cycling top and shorts in almost windless conditions, an incredible stroke of luck for the views and the riding. Despite it being winter clumps of hardy gorse were in bloom, the yellow flowers seemingly sucking up the rays and glowing against the grey-green backdrop.

Gorse flowers on Bluff Hill New Zealand

I don’t know how long I hung around at the top taking in the rising sun and the changing views but I had to pinch myself to remember I was there to ride as well.

Bluff Hill viewing point at dawn

I looked momentarily at the entrance point to the “Downhill route” which descends a terrifying straight line and is graded “Black” or “expert”, but knowing that it was not for me I dropped down the shallower side of the hill and played for an hour on the intermediate trail network. It weaved its way up, down and around the hillside, offering me a good variety of riding. But what made this set of trails special today was that every corner offered a different sea view, and when I was sure I had gone round a section more than once it didn’t really matter because the effect of the sunrise was to make it feel subtly different each time.

Bluff Hill Mountain Bike Trails New Zealand Bluff Hill Mountain bike tracks New Zealand Bluff Hill Mountain bike track with sea view New Zealand

All the time in my head I was revelling in where I actually was, at the far end of the world and at the end of my holiday. Throughout the ride a song played in on permanent repeat in my head. REM’s “It’s the end of the world as we know it” was the song of the day. Inevitably? Maybe, in the odd way my mind works.

Then time was up and I let the bike flow its way down the lumps and bumps in the track to the parking where mine was still the only car, another joy of riding on a winter dawn. It was indeed the end of the trip, and fate intervened to tell me so in no uncertain terms. As I freewheeled into the car park there was a horrible rending noise, all pedalling ceased and I looked down to discover a very distressed gear mechanism in quite the wrong position. My last seconds, my last ride and my only mechanical failure of the whole trip.

Time to go home, but what a way to finish.

My huge thanks to everyone who made the cycling on this trip possible. The mountain bike trail builders of New Zealand and the local authorities building bike paths all over Australia and New Zealand. The friends, family and commercial companies that made it possible to beg, borrow and hire eight different bikes in six weeks. Jason I am really sorry about the last day mishap on your nice mountain bike – I hope you have it fixed now.

Last and by no means least the family, friends and hosts who indulged me once again while I went off at all times of the day to get my cycling fix. I had come to see you all, of course, but a bit of pedalling made me a nicer human being – trust me. As my favourite travelling companion knows best of all.

If you cannot see a link to the REM song here in the email version of the post click “View in Browser” for a working link.

Sydney’s Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park – the backdrop to three outstanding bike rides

Bike at West Head Lookout Sydney Welcome to Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park

As soon as we arrived at my in-laws house in the northern suburbs of Sydney I was looking at the map working out where to get in a ride or two, especially as I had a very nice road bike on loan. My expectation was encouraged by knowing that the landscape is really interesting and the amazing weather forecast was promising around twenty degrees and mostly dry weather every day. You cannot do better than that for a winter holiday and I certainly wanted to get some kilometres in because the weather prospects for New Zealand were much less promising.

The map was extremely enticing. To the north of my start point in Beecroft is the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park and it had some brilliant looking roads running up to the coastal inlets that define this area. However I was less clear about the actual topography or the road quality and to get there it seemed I had some busy highways to navigate so I was a little hesitant before my first attempt.

I can report now that over a week I found three outstanding rides which offered the low traffic volumes, spectacular views and exciting riding that I was looking for. The numerous cyclists I saw on each route confirmed that I must have dropped on to some real local favourites.

Hills on the West Head Road Sydney

My health warning is that while the scenic roads were brilliant the access was much less so. I was exposed to more high speed traffic and unpleasant riding conditions than I am happy with. This may explain why many locals seemed likely to have driven out to the National Park before riding. It was also my first exposures to the fact that any  in suburban Sydney are a very distinctive group with a completely different perspective on what constitutes a good bike ride to anywhere else I have been. However that will be a later post, for now let’s concentrate on the positive.

Bobbin Head reserve Sydney Bike ride

My first ride was about an hour and a half through a feature on the map called the Galston Gap. The attraction on the map was an area of green adjoining the National Park called the Berowa Valley Regional Park with a very wiggly road running across it which could only be hairpin bends – oh yes please!  The ride up to Hornsby was a bit of an induction, it involved a very nervy crossing of the multi-lane Pennant Hills Road and then a road that can only be called a roller coaster, there wasn’t a flat bit on it. I was puffing like a steam train by the time I even thought about the Galston Road.

However I was then rewarded by a 4 km descent and a 3km climb on quieter roads through a wooded valley which cheered me enormously.

The next ride was my longest and by far the most spectacular. I was quite sure that I wanted to ride the road right through the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park out to the great looking headland at West Head but I decided to Google a bit to see if a dead end road like that would be worth it. I was very pleasantly surprised when almost top of the Google ranking was a very positive 2010 description of the ride on the excellent “Richard Tulloch’s Life on the Road” blog which I follow.

West Head Road

Richard and his son went by car but I was determined to make a half day ride of it so I wanted to ride out. My sister-in-law assured me that the long link via the Mona Vale Road was a popular cyclists’ route because “there are always cyclists on it” so I decided that it was all quite possible.

I can say now that I am incredibly pleased that I made the effort, the West Head Road is a spectacular triumph of a cycling road on a quiet sunny week day in winter. I saw perhaps a dozen cars, far more cyclists, the road surface was spectacularly smooth and rolled up down and around the contours for about 20km in each direction.As I approached its north end and the head itself the peninsula narrowed offering great views over the sea inlets on either side and then ended in the West Head lookout itself.

West Head Lookout bike ride

I enjoyed a very pleasant twenty minutes or so just taking in the views and taking pictures before I retraced my steps. This really is an amazing route, not to be ignored just because it is a dead end. It is one of the highlights of my Sydney trip.

Mona Vale Road cycle path SydneyI could say I am really pleased about the other 45km of the ride through the suburbs. I am pleased for my fitness and because I was out on the bike. However in all honesty it was really hard riding on many of those roads because the hills are ferocious and the traffic is really busy. There’s no escape from the noise and the fumes anywhere. Mona Vale Road may suit Sydney’s head case cyclists, but it isn’t for me if I could avoid it. I kept hoping that I would discover the secret back roads that the local riders use for scenic cycle touring but in that part of the city the back roads don’t seem connect because of the steep sided valleys so bikes are using the same corridors as the cars and freight.

That explains why my final offering for the “three great rides” was a car assist, after a lunch at the beach I got dropped off to complete the third leg of my valleys’ triple. This time it was back into Ku-Ring-Gai Chase for the Bobbin Head ride. I started at St. Ives and had a fantastic long descent of about 3km down to the sea at Bobbin Head, right at the heart of the national park. This secluded inlet is only home to an exclusive set of moorings on the water and a visitor area on shore, otherwise it is a silent green haven with steep sided valleys cutting it off like walls on all sides. It was almost deserted apart from a few fishermen and occasional passing cyclists.

Bobbin Head bike ride Sydney

This ride is apparently popular for local clubs because it isn’t just a dead end, it climbs up to Hornsby on a similar long shallow climb which conveniently has been spray painted with 500 metre intervals all the way up.  (3km I can report).

Bobbin Head Road Sydney

Again I just thrashed the final 25 minutes from Hornsby and rode the final kilometre into Beecroft on the pavement to avoid the trucks but it wasn’t enough to diminish the pleasure of the overall ride.

Conclusions?

There is probably a way of combining these rides into a spectacular set of touring and training routes that would be one of the most outstanding cycle routes you could imagine anywhere. (I have put them all together in this Google Map) Unfortunately from my perspective the horrible access roads currently make them rather exclusive to serious cyclists who feel comfortable on busy roads or those who drive out to the national park.

three great rides in Sydney

As a set of shorter rides each can be exceptional, especially the West Head ride which is a superb ride by any definition. Possibly the ferries that link some of the beaches could be the “missing link”, as could access by mountain bike which opens up a lot of tracks and trails, I didn’t quite work that out in the time I had. If I lived there maybe I would work it out.

However that doesn’t stop me saying that I am really glad I did these three rides, the chance to ride in the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park was a cycling high spot on this holiday.

West Head view point

Charming Ravensburg, Germany

Ravensberg Blaserturm

Ravensberg leather house

One of the pleasures of this year’s Eurobike was further discovery of Ravensberg, the town we stay at in the Allgäu region of southern Germany. 

I stayed there last year and found it was charming town with an attractive car free town centre and a lively bustle of restaurants and bars. However because we only use the town as a dormitory I didn’t realise that there was much more to it than the streets between the station and the main central Marienplatz.

This time we stayed in the delightful Hotel Obertor which is actually built into the city walls and the Obertor (upper tower) itself. A few morning photos don’t quite do it justice but it is a great location.

Ravensberg Obertor and Obertor Hotel

And just beside it was another tower, known unusually as the Mehlsack or “flour sack”. Great name, especially as it had a much more imposing name of the White Tower at St Michael when it was built but locals nicknamed it because of its shape and colour and the name stuck.

The Flour sack Ravensberg

Apparently the town almost completely avoided war damage because it was of little strategic importance which is why it is so well preserved. Another time I must try to have enough time to do it justice and I recommend it you might do the same. Good restaurants and hotels too.

For more about the cycling in the area too see last years’s post here

Ravensburg morning Germany Allgau Ravensburg weigh tower