Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Moomintroll rides to Naantali

According to an online “what type of Moomin are you?” test, I fall into the category “Moomintroll”.

Ritva and Jan have kindly lent me their Tunturi Retki Super again and after work I'm getting some exercise instead of visiting Denis pizza. Denis pizza is a wonderful place to eat, but it is not improving my climbing ability. I might be more aerodynamic after a trip to Denis though; to quote Captain Beefheart, “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous.” Now there is a mental image that will take some brain floss to clear out. Diet time.

Setting off from the Radisson Blu in Turku I immediately head the wrong way along the riverside, and hear the distress call of the baby garmin looking for its route. Turning north and west I head out of town on the cycle paths. Back home I detest cycle paths; they are not designed for cyclists they are designed for motorists so as to keep traffic moving unimpeded. In the UK, whenever a cycle path and a road cross, the motorist has right of way. For this reason I find it more pleasant to ride as part of the traffic. Also UK cycle paths are usually full of broken glass – our society just doesn't care for itself any more. In Finland the situation is totally different. It is true that they have some more space, but they also care about each other, they care about doing the right thing. So cyclists on cycle paths have right of way at junctions; motorists turning into a street stop to look for pedestrians and cyclists. Also the paths are wide and clean; it is like having a totally separate road network dedicated to vulnerable travellers. It is wonderful to use cycle paths in Finland.

Although I had planned out a route and uploaded it to the little navigation device, I found that the sign posts were clear and unambiguous. At every junction I knew I was heading the right way to Naantali, which was reassuring. RidewithGPS had also plotted a route which automatically took the cycle paths too. It is lovely when systems work without a problem.

The evening was warm, bright and a slight breeze from the north west kept me cool as I rode. There were plenty of others out too, cycling, walking and even using inline skates and walking poles to mimic the action of cross-country skiing.

This vintage Tunturi needs some loving, it is a classic bicycle but the rear brake cable has snapped and the local bicycle shop wasn't interested in helping me resolve the problem.  Ritva knows I enjoy riding this bicycle and I'm not phased by being restricted to a front brake only.  If its good enough for Carl Fogarty, its good enough for me.  Learning to use friction shifters only takes a few kilometres and finding the right amount of movement to accurately shift gear starts to become instinctive.  The only challenge presented is an unexpected sharp climb, the sort you find just round the corner when pootling along in a world of your own.  To quote the 70's band, 'The down-tube shifters'.... "If you can't be with the gear you love, love the gear you're with."

The route I'd auto-generated took me past arable crops and through silver birch woods, the mainly flat Finnish countryside rolled by while I snapped away with my camera.  I was besotted with the silver birch copses surrounding me.  In Finland there is a profitable line of forestry, with a lot of families working the land for their long term investment in timber.

I found a nice wooded area to take a glamour-shot of the Tunturi.  I think this is a really beautiful bicycle, not just because of the simplicity of the mechanics or the thin steel frame, but because of how quickly it accelerates and how smooth the frame is over the lightly gravelled cycle paths.  I don't know whether this was a racing bicycle in the past, but I was happy to take it up to 45kph on the flat.

I did get lost once or twice, despite the chirps of the little navigation device and the excellent signposts.  There were two reasons for this, firstly, as a gentleman of the world, I clearly know exactly where I'm going and don't need blatant sign-postage and contrary bleeping devices to contradict me.  Secondly, I was totally absorbed in my surroundings and absent minded about direction of travel.  So once or twice I found the breadcrumb trail on the little device heading off the screen while I assumed the road would eventually work out where I wanted to be and get with the program.  On one such occasion I ended up at the Neste compound gates.  Isn't it lovely that in Finland there are cycle paths direct to oil refineries.  Reminds me of the path alongside the A174 to Wilton. Having said that, the only way to continue, other than pretend to work in the refinery, was to follow a twisty country road slightly downhill and back to the garmin's breadcrumb trail.

As I arrived in Naantali itself I passed through the high-tech science park area with its serious looking buildings, before connecting with a gravelled shared-use route.  I could see water through the trees and suddenly found myself at a little beach near the Naantalin Spa Hotel and Resort.

Just round the corner my Moomintroll adventure brought me to the Moomin Island.  I have noticed that when asking a stranger to take your picture it isn't always possible to ensure the quality of the picture they return to you.  Sometimes black and white editing is the only way to go!

As I had not paid the 25 euro entry fee, this little Moomintroll was stopped at the gates by a smiling ninja dressed as an innocent young park attendant.  It was pretty impressive how she managed, with one eyebrow, to disable my attempt to enter the park and make my home among my fellow Moomins.  Ninja skillz.  Notice how she blends into the background ready to strike.  A right little feminine Chuck Norris.  I bravely ran away.

Naantali is a pleasant coastal resort, with a pleasant shopping area of consistently designed buildings, I'm sure it isn't as fake as the famous street of Bergen where you see a beautiful row of wooden houses with the surroundings conveniently cropped out.

Indeed Naantali is a lot more consistent and actually beautiful compared to Bergen.

I toyed with the idea of stopping for an evening meal, but the forecast of rain at night, and the inconvenient truth of lycra and a Moomintroll physique helped me make up my mind to simply return to Turku the way I had come.

I enjoyed this gentle 40km round trip form Turku to Naantali and back, and if I'd been wearing more socially acceptable clothing I might have even enjoyed a good meal at one of the restaurants.   As it was I arrived back in Turku at about 8pm, passing Mikaelinkirkko before rolling up at the Radisson again.


Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ohio / Erie Trail; Rail and River

I have been fortunate to have spent time working in Akron (Ohio) on several occasions. I have some wonderful colleagues (who are more like friends), so I get to enjoy the odd BBQ in the back garden. We watched fireflies drift past like the dying embers of a nearby bonfire. I saw a ground-hog too.

I have hired bikes from several places, including hiring a road bike from Eddy’s and spending a whole Saturday riding around the Cuyahoga National Park. However, on this journey I only had one evening to myself, the last night before returning to the UK. I drove over to Centruy Cycles in Peninsula on the Ohio / Erie Trail, where I knew I could rent a ‘comfort/hybrid’ bike for $9/hr.

The Ohio / Erie Canal (or Portage) Towpath Trail is a safe and flat path through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park according to the advertising bumf.  To quote their own website (which is in the US version of the English language):

The Ohio to Erie Trail spans the state of Ohio from Cincinnati to Cleveland following lands formerly owned by railroads and canals. When complete, this trail will connect four of Ohio's metropolitan cities, a dozen large towns and numerous small villages - all done on easily accessible, paved trails, that are completely separated from highways and automobiles.  Along the way, the trail passes through rural areas, farmlands, nature preserves, and regional parks giving the adventurous a hearty helping of nature's finest. At the metropolitan perimeter, meadows and woods give way to exciting urban centers, affording the traveller a contemporary taste of Ohio's culture and arts.  Bicyclists, hikers, equestrians, and other groups such as bird watchers, cross-country skiers, and nature lovers have the opportunity to explore the natural beauty of Ohio as the trail weaves its way across the state.

It was five in the evening and the sun was still shining brightly as I picked up the bike and took to the trail. I chose to cycle south first, towards Akron.  I knew that in jeans and a t-shirt on a warm evening like this, on this sort of bicycle, I wasn't going to get far. So instead I settled into the grin of a simpleton; simply taking the time to enjoy the dappled sunlight playing through the forest leaves onto the track. At first the path follows the river, but shortly leaves and spends more time next to the rail-road tracks.

Intermittently there are broken and dry remains of locks from the old canal. Each lock is numbered and has a short storyboard giving more details. They are impressive, huge dried stone structures, and potentially hazardous for those tempted to get too close to the edge.

On this beautiful evening I was surrounded by runners and cyclists. I made sure to slow right down and give a gentle ring of the bicycle bell so as not to startle any of the pedestrians; a fast moving cyclist can really make a runner jump by passing too close or too fast.  Spaced out along the trail are ‘Trail Head’ points, these are car parks with toilet facilities, perfect for anyone local who wants to load their bikes on the back of the pick-up truck and drive down to the path for a lazy Sunday afternoon with the family. In Peninsula, where Century Cycles are based, there are plenty of low key pleasant looking restaurants and bars. Basing a ride around a lunch stop there would be a nice idea.

As I had been cycling for 45 minutes I came close to a section of rail-road with no barriers (or forest) between us just as I heard a whistle behind me; stopping and grabbing my camera quickly I caught an image of this massive locomotive trundling past me.  The driver waved to me and I returned the greeting. I think there is some form of bike ‘n’ ride scheme which uses this service. The train, seen from below the level of the track was huge, the weight of the engineering which goes into moving this around staggers belief. And the locomotive engine itself is so evocative of American culture; totally different to the historical British designs and the Victorian culture we are used to at home: this train oozed ‘wild west’!

I turned and headed back the way I’d come, the trail is an out-and-back affair so there is no need to rush, it was just a matter of finding a place that felt like a turn point, so the trail-head car park I’d reached was good enough for me. I retraced my tyre tracks and then kept going; in the other direction to see what the route had to offer heading north.  North bound from Peninsula, the Ohio/Erie Trail follows the river and dried canal path more closely. Again the dappled sunlight was on my path but also, shining in my eyes was a glittering sunlight off the fast flowing river surface.

The Cuyahoga river has eroded a deep sided valley, and in places has cut vertically through the rock. The river bank is kept in repair to stop the Cuyahoga bursting through and flooding the wrong routes, as the canal itself is in ruins.

There are sections of board-walk too – these are about 50cm above the lily ponds. Bright lilies and purple flowers, reeds and birds teemed around the paths creating a meandering wooden path above the nature park.

It wasn't too far to the Tourist Park and Visitor Centre, which was closed. Given it was now 6:30pm on a Thursday evening I'm not surprised it was closed.  I have been here on a Saturday to find delicious ice-cream on sale and plenty of shaded benches to sit and enjoy the refreshment.

I have enjoyed all my cycling in Ohio. I find the motorists careful and considerate. Traffic is moving no more than 45 mph and drivers like to give cyclists plenty of room on these quiet back roads. As I drove back to my hotel, to pack for the journey back the UK, I saw several ABC (Akron Bicycle Club) members out soaking up the last of the cooler evening sunshine. Everyone was smiling.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Volunteering at the National 400

The National 400 is an Audax event which happens annually and alternates between the north and south of the UK.  All Saints Academy, Ingleby Barwick played host to the start of this year's event, 26/27 July 2014, and I had volunteered to be an extra pair of hands at one of the western controls as I was specifically looking forward to a night time stint.

Rob was our control manager, and his team was Joyce, Conrad, Chris, Denise, Corrine and myself. Tasks were divided between cooking and cleaning, serving and tidying, control admin, mechanical support and water bottles.  I was on the serving and tidying team, running backwards and forwards taking food orders, picking up, serving, providing hot and cold drinks, desserts and clearing tables.

Our first rider; Ian, arrived at 7:30pm; just 9.5 hours after leaving Ingleby Barwick and 237km into the ride.  Our last rider had become slightly lost and added extra kilometres to the route, arriving at 12:30am; 5 hours later.  In between the bulk of riders came through between 9pm and 11pm and this was the busiest time for making everyone welcome and fed/watered.

We only had one mechanical; which Denise sorted while the rider ate.  The food was cleared from every plate; homemade pizza; baked potatoes, bean-on-toast; apple or peach crumble and custard.  Tea/Coffee/Cola/OJ/Apple/Water/Milk... the choice was diverse and there was plenty of good quality food without meat for everyone.  As well as some meat-eating specifics like a homemade chorizo pizza.

There were seven of us manning this fully catered halfway control offering hot food and somewhere to close eyes and rest; and I don't think we could have managed with less in the team.  It felt quite hectic at one point; but thankfully the riders had spaced themselves out.

The weather had started so well, but from about 8pm it was raining and every person on our doorstep was drenched.  This seemed to be the reason we had quite long wait times; riders were reluctant to head back out into the sodden skies.

We had one rider we couldn't track, but thankfully we had a text at 1:45am letting us know the rider had packed in riding and was making their way home; so after a beer and chat we were settling down for some sleep ourselves by 2:15am.

I was up at 4:30am with Rob and after a coffee and packing his car we headed off back to our families feeling like a job had been well done, riders were happy and the team had worked together excellently.

Volunteering on Audax events can be very tiring; but I have found it really rewarding; especially seeing the tired and bedraggled faces arriving; and waving off fairly cheerful and strengthened cyclists into the second half of the event.

Sunday, 20 July 2014


Day two in Brisbane and the conference work starts at lunchtime, so I have a lazy Sunday morning to myself.  Time for another adventure I think, so up at 5am and out into the dark with the Bianchi Impulso from Bike Obsession.  I had loaded my little device with a gpx track to the nearest coast, which is at Nudgee Beach, a nature reserve just north of Brisbane.  One or two other cyclists were out too as I crossed the river.

Looking back to Brisbane the city was lighting up the river and the lights along the bridges were shining out.  It was difficult to catch much of this in the low light, but I love the sense of movement which comes from having a slow shutter speed combined with motion while taking the photo - the way the image blurs into a tunnel giving a sense of motion to the image.  I passed the P&O 'Pacific Jewel' coming in to dock and waved to the passengers on the decks.  I had no real idea of how to follow my route as it seemed to jump on and off cycle paths and I only had the little black line to follow.  I asked another cyclist the way to the beach, to which he responded... what beach?

As the light grew I found myself leaving the city and passing into a suburban commercial district near the race course.  I loved the sign which read, "Floating Horses Turn Here" or something similar.

Eventually I joined the Nudgee Rd cycle path which is about 7km long and wide enough for two cyclists side by side in either direction.  Very civilised.  I chased down three cyclists ahead but they saw me coming and turned left.  Eventually I reached the shore and hassled three women who'd just cycled up into taking my picture.  They commented on my short sleeves and said I must be mad, or English.  Clearly, madam, I'm English.

I saw a group of three Ibis picking scraps up from around a picnic area, such an odd looking creature I had to keep snapping shots until I got a profile picture in focus.  I also saw a Pelican swimming sedately along the river.

There were many more cyclists by the time I started to return, the Nudgee Beach appears to be a popular turning point for riders, that coastal / boundary type of place.  Ride to the Ocean!  This is the Pacific Ocean.

Coming back into Brisbane I found a beautiful little organic coffee shop and ordered breakfast of ham and cheese croissant, black coffee and some ginger beer.

After filling up with delicious food from "The Little Pantry" at 92 James Street, Brisbane, I headed back for the riverside cycle paths back to the hotel on South Bank.  Some of the lanes are boardwalks which clatter as I ride along them, others are encrusted with jungles of hanging branches.

I was only out for about three hours and this was a neat 50km morning ride getting me back in time for a shower and shave before cracking on with work... the real reason I came to Brisbane!

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Inland Indulgence - Audax Australia

I'm a strong believer that my bicycle rides should start at my own front door, but I'm guilty of transporting my bicycle by car to interesting places like the Alps, or to the beginning of a Sportive or Audax event. The justification usually has to be pretty good though; for example riding an iconic event like the Bryan Chapman Memorial. So travelling to Brisbane, Australia, to ride a 100km Brevet seems a little extreme. In this case though, I am on a business trip to a conference in Brisbane and I decided to make the most of the time between landing and the conference start.

I left home at 7am on Thursday morning and flew with KLM to Amsterdam from Teesside airport. After waiting there for 5 hours, I caught the 12 hour leg to Hong Kong. I wasn't very tired but did close my eyes for a couple of hours. Typhoon Rammasun was battering the airport as we tried to land, the turbulence was quite disturbing and the pilot chose to abort the landing the first time. It is a strange sensation seeing the ground approach and then feeling the engines fire full throttle as the energy lift us back away from the tarmac. I was praying for God’s blessing on all the crew as we came for the second approach and as I looked at the runway from my window… approaching the landing sideways… I was deeply impressed with the skills of everyone on the flight deck to get us down safely. This was something I said a prayer of thanks about.

I was delighted to be safely on the ground in Hong Kong, and then I saw the news about flight MH17, also from Amsterdam on a similar route to the KLM flight. Shot down as part of the conflict in Ukraine. God rest their souls and, Father, be with their families and friends in grief; people just like me, heading on a business trip, some even going to Australia for a conference… just like me.

I was only in Hong Kong for a couple of hours before we battled the typhoon winds to take on the next 8 hour stretch to Brisbane, arriving on Friday night at 11:30pm. Immigration / bags / customs / taxi… arriving at the hotel at 12:15am Saturday morning.

I had been in touch with Bike Obsession in Brisbane, so in the hotel waiting for me was a beautiful Bianchi Impulso road bike, set up to the measurements from my bike at home, with SPD-SL pedals and a seat pack with tyre levers and inner tube. I headed off to bed and set the alarm for 5am.  (Note that this is not a bus-shelter... so not a proper Audax Hotel)

Audax Australia had helped me find the event nearest to Brisbane, and I had signed up for Rosie's “Inland Indulgence”, a 100km Brevet. Rosie has run a few audaxes now and this was a ride she’d designed to test legs and yet be accessible to rider dipping their toes into the world of self-sufficient endurance cycling. I had been in regular email contact with Rosie in the week running up to the trip, so she had arranged for a local lad, Nick, to meet me at the hotel lobby at 5:30am in order to guide me the 15km to the start at her house in Kenmore. I woke just before the alarm, which didn't go off because I’d set it wrong.

With two front lights and two rear lights and with a reflective gilet, I met the minimum requirements for lighting in the Australian Audax rules; this was something I’d fretted about needlessly as the ride was in daylight of course. I am very grateful to Nick for leading me to Rosie’s house, I'm not sure that with the travel and sleep loss I could have negotiated the road network in the predawn light. I have never been to Australia before, so this was testing my comfort zone a little.

In Australia there has been a new law about passing cyclists with at least 1m space, and the roads have nice wide cycle paths along most of the sides. In the Brisbane area there seems to be a very good cycle network alongside major arteries and kept in excellent condition. Even though it was still dark, there were hundreds of cyclists out meeting up ready for their Saturday ride. Although it was chilly it certainly wasn't cold. Back in the UK we know the phrase, 'Winter Miles = Summer Smiles', but in Brisbane cyclists really don’t get the harsh and bitter winter we do, they don’t get the freezing horizontal rain which soaks through the seams of any gortex layer to form an icy coating to toes, fingers, arms, chest and head. 'Winter miles = winter smiles' in Brisbane. Mind you, I would not want to ride in 40oC+ during the summer months. Presumably in Australia 'Summer Miles = Winter Smiles'.

We gathered, about 15 riders, at Rosie’s collecting our Brevet cards and route sheet. It is nice that even in a ‘foreign’ environment something simple and familiar helps me to relax and feel at home. I didn't have a route sheet holder and without long sleeves I didn't want to strap the instructions to my arm with elastic bands. I had loaded Rosie’s ridewithgps route into my little garmin 200 device and was going to rely on that, also rely on staying with the group!

We’re off! First turn and guess what happens… yes, the group turns left instead of right. One shout from an astute rider at the back has us turning in the road and on the correct path. We rode together for the first 100m or maybe 200m, and then the 15% climb split the group, a quick descent and then the next climb spilt the group again, another descent and climb… choppy little steep descents and climbs on great road surfaces – fun but leg breaking – were spreading us out. I found that the early warm up with Nick had put my muscles in their ‘happy place’, so Nick and I, with Vaughan and Hugh, formed a little advance party as we headed for the first proper climbs.

We were following a very nice back road which was destined to end in a dead-end, climbing to the secret control at the top where we needed to answer Rosie’s simple question. The climbing was nothing more than 10%, but with some nice dips to keep the pace up. As we climbed the scenery was fascinating me, trees and bird-calls which were thoroughly unfamiliar. I felt like I was back in the USA, perhaps Florida, but the bird song was so utterly strange that it maintained my sense of dislocation. Vaughan slid slightly off the back of our group as we carried on climbing to the control, but we had no more than 30 seconds to wait at the top for him. With the question answered Vaughan, Nick, Hugh and I blasted our way back downhill, but of course it wasn't all downhill and we lost Vaughan with the continuous choppy hills. The climbs can’t have been more than 75m in height, but with the constant drop and climb, over and over again, it was becoming much harder for me to stay with Nick and Hugh. I think Nick was very much in control though because he eased the pace back to a steady one.

The landscape in the countryside just beyond Brisbane’s suburbs is quite dry. It wasn't barren by any means, there were trees galore and shrubs and wildlife everywhere; I just had a sense that this flora and fauna was as tough as nails, forcing a living out of the earth. I can’t imagine how hard this riding would be in 40oC+; as the sun started to climb in the sky my arms began to glisten with the effort to keep me cool.

We reached the ferry crossing of the Brisbane River, a cable winched affair. The ferry is free to cyclists, and things like this make for an entertaining interlude in a ride. We’d lost Vaughan but only long enough for us to board the ferry and take the obligatory selfies. As the ferry pulled away Vaughan came round the corner – we shouted for him to bunny-hop the gap!

We decided to wait on the far bank for Vaughan to join us, and in the meantime the troupe came back together so we rolled up hill away from the river en-mass. I tucked in at the back for a free ride.

Unfortunately, at the first significant junction there was a cyclist collision towards the front of the group. It is the sort of thing that happens easily enough when one person checks over their shoulder while the rider in front slows down: wheels touch. No one was hurt, but it was all Nick and I needed to choose to roll away off the front of the group again, with Hugh jumping across to us; we didn't plan to be far away or riding fast because in the heart of Ipswich, on Brisbane St, we stopped for the control at a café.

Coffee and cake were on the menu for me, a lovely piece of lemon meringue and a hot black coffee. We had a leisurely break, long enough for me to start shivering! It was great to be with everyone chatting and getting to know each other. There are some tough Audaxers in Australia, riding the PAP (Perth-Albany-Perth) and one gentleman (I think David) has ridden PBP (Paris-Brest-Paris) twice. Next year I hope to be at PBP and maybe some of my new friends will have made the journey from the southern hemisphere to be there too. I enjoyed the description of a four instruction route sheet for a 200km event; “Ride 50km, turn left: (x4).”

We set off again and navigated our way through Ipswich, which is a lot hillier than the original Ipswich town in the UK. We approached a signpost for the Centenary Highway (which joins Ipswich to Springfield) and I pointed to the others that cyclists seemed to be allowed on the motorway.  Nick explained this was because there was a promise to have a cycle path, but it had never materialised.  So the government had basically allowed cyclists to use the hard shoulder, which we duly did as our route was along this stretch.  This was great fun because the motorway is mainly for commuters, so on this Saturday mid-morning the road was quiet. Motorways have much longer gentle climbs, so with the tailwind and Nick pacing us, we flew along.

We returned back to Brisbane on a mixture of cycle paths and town roads, until the inevitable happened and even Australia’s excellent bicycle paths gave Nick a puncture – not long to fix though and we’d be rejoined by the second group on the road. More short tough climbs and a great cycle path alongside a M7 and M5 motorways brought us back over the Brisbane River.  We were nearly home!

Everyone rolled back into Rosie’s within half an hour of each other. A leg testing, choppy, 102km covered in 6 hours with a nice long café break. Events like this bring people together nicely and we stood on Rosie’s driveway for another half an hour chatting about everything audax related.

Thank you to Rosie for an excellent event; I understand this was the first time it has run and I would heartily recommend it to others, although perhaps without travelling half way round the world specifically… but definitely if you were going to Brisbane and wanted some lovely company and a dip into the culture beyond the tourist traps.

With the 15km each way making it 130km in total, I was back at the hotel on Brisbane’s South Bank by early afternoon.  I am also very grateful to Nick for looking after this foreigner in Australia.

I am pleased to recommend Bike Obsession in Brisbane. I have not been to the shop but have only dealt with them via email. Sharon was extremely helpful, the Bianchi was in great condition and a pleasure to ride, already set up to my measurements and needing only a minor tweak with a 5mm key to be perfect. Sharon delivered it to my hotel while I was still travelling so it was ready for my early Saturday start, and will be picking it up on Monday. I also got to go for an early ride on Sunday… more to follow… and I have been invited to join the shop ride at 6-7:30am on Monday morning: not sure about that though!