Archive for the ‘Cycling for sport & fun’ Category

Just in the Nick of Time!

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Whether I’ve the time or not, or a burning topic to write about is utterly irrelevant. I just noticed that in four days it’ll be a YEAR since I last added a post to Bakfiets en Meer. Jeetje, I’m sucking at this blog thing. Fortunately the blogging conditions are ideal today; The weather is too miserable for cycling and I’ve got a cold anyway. Here we go, and we’re going to begin with some photos I took at Bike Motion the local “sporty” bike expo in October. I like bike expos. You’re always guaranteed a mix of cool new gear, tons of boring generic stuff and mind blowingly stupid shit. Bike Motion 2014 was no exception.

Even though it’s in utility cycling paradise the Netherlands Bike Motion is a show for the sporty bikes. You see we ride those here too, all kinds of them actually. After riding two kids to school on my WorkCycles Fr8 transportfiets I sometimes go the the local Velodrome to train for my hobby: track racing. I was a decent endurance trackie (the kind of racers that sprinters think are roadies and roadies think are sprinters) when I was younger. I got back into the sport a couple years ago but am just now finally getting my act together to bring in some results.

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I’m the old dude in black and yellow Gaul.nl kit racing against the young studs. I do OK too.

If the weather’s OK I often spend my Fridays riding through the countryside for five or six hours. One of my favorite routes is through the dunes, sometimes from Bloemendaal aan Zee down to Scheveningen and back through the bulb fields. Other Dutchies go touring, do ride cyclosportives or race BMX, or even ride mountain bikes here. Never mind that there are no mountains. The Dutch are creative and flexible in their thinking.

MTB Wedstrijd Noordwijk 2014 10
This is my son P1, then five, tearing it up on his little 20″ wheeled mountain bike in Noordwijkerhout. Coach Randy is following his motivated student. We learn ’em young here!

Modern mountain bikes, though, leave me cold. I’m sure there were hundreds of them at Bike Motion but I didn’t notice or take pictures of them. I’m still happy with the old skool bike I built back around 1990. Mostly I really dig riding with my son, just getting a kick out the fact that it can actually enjoy trail riding with such a little kid. When the trail is tight he just flies, sliding that teeny bike around like he was born with it on his feet. At 19kg he climbs hills like a scalded cat too. In a few years he’ll kick my ass and badly.

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Yeah, Old Skool, that’s my mountain bike!

In no particular order here’s some stuff I found worthy of taking pictures of a few months ago:

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In the fairly useless but still cool department was this UNDER 2500g fixed gear bike by Carbonreparaties.nl. I hefted it with my very own fingers and felt no reason to doubt the claim. It was bizarrely lacking in mass. Exactly what one does with such a bike isn’t clear but it’s nonetheless neat that somebody built it. It’s in the same category as fully functional model-sized V12 engines and musical performances made with offshore fog horns. Guy stuff.

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Moving on toward more useful developments the availability of steadily fatter, high quality road tires is a trend we’re happy to see. The 1990’s was a low point in tiredom with horrible, harsh riding, super skinny 19 and 20mm jobs. Those fortunately disappeared in favor of 23mm as a standard. Like many others in the last couple years I’ve gone from 23mm to 25mm on most of my wheels and would try 27-28mm for rougher conditions. I managed to flat in two of two cyclo sportives last year and believe that at least one of those (a pinch flat while descending at eyeball rattling speed) could have been avoided with a bigger volume tire. I’m riding 25mm Veloflex tires on the road but these 27mm Challenges look a lot more than 2mm bigger. In fact the 25mm Veloflex measures the same as a 23mm Continental and for that matter only 1mm bigger than the 22mm Veloflex Records on my track training wheels (with narrower rims no less). In other words take manufacturer’s size designations with a grain of salt and measure stuff yourself.

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Another development WorkCycles has been following are toothed belt drives, with an eye toward them being practical for utility bikes. They offer some advantages over chains but for various reasons just haven’t yet been practical for WorkCycles utility bikes: mainly that they’ve been too expensive, require too much precision and that the belt preload stresses internal gear hubs. Chatting for some time with the fellow at Gates we came to the realization that we were acquaintances from way back when. It was Frank Scurlock who I knew from various bike industry firms in California. It seems Gates is aware of these issues and is busy with a new belt system for 2016 or so that should make the belt practical for bikes like ours. It’ll be more fault tolerant and a wider pitch will enable cheaper cogs and rings (i.e. molded plastic, cast metal etc). The currently available city bike cranks, chains and cogs wear disappointingly quickly, sometimes under hard use within a year for a set. We’re thus curious to see what Gates comes up with.

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Gates belt drive: Promising. Mando Footloose “hybrid drive”: Stupid. I’d seen this thing getting blogged up and touted in social media but hadn’t yet seen it in the flesh. Seriously, if this is the future of cycling I’ll just walk. The Mando Footloose is dubbed the first “hybrid” electric bike, meaning that there’s no direct, mechanical connection between the cranks and the rear wheel. Like a diesel locomotive the cranks power a generator which charges a battery. The motor in the rear hub is then powered by the battery. Even using aerospace quality components (which they’re most certainly NOT using) you’d be lucky to achieve much better than 50% efficiency. Compare that to well over 90% for even a dirty chain drive. Even appalling efficiency numbers aside the system removes the feeling of a direct connection between pedaling force and forward motion. Nooooooooooo!

Sure, I understand the potential advantages of a chainless drive system. It’s clean. You could potentially use a folding geometry that wouldn’t be practical with a chain in the way. Well actually I running out of advantages right there. So basically it’s an interesting idea for a folding bike. Why then does is this beast remain enormous when folded and why is it sooooo friggin’ heavy?! I don’t mean “heavy” as in heavier than my 9kg Brompton. I mean “heavy” as in almost impossible to lift at all, and it’s not even cleverly designed to roll along on it’s own wheels when folded.

Why else is the Footloose totally stupid? It’s touted as a practical development yet there’s no provision for carrying anything, no lights and it sports only vestigial fenders. The saddle height is only minimally adjustable. And it’s fuckin’ UGLY!

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The Mando’s little pedal mounted kickstand is kinda cute though even that isn’t nearly as convenient as the foot operated one it replaces. Can’t the thing just balance like a Segway?

henry's 1980ish DeRosa

While we’re enjoying being snarky critical let’s talk about De Rosa for a minute. Back in the day when men were men and sheep ran scared De Rosa was one of the most highly regarded Italian race bike builders. Eddy Merckx always rode De Rosas, even when he wasn’t supposed to be riding De Rosas. I rode a De Rosa too for what that’s worth, though mine seemed to be something of a Friday afternoon Chianti job. The geometry is rather strange, the cast seatstay caps have their De Rosa logos upside down and I broke one of the diamond shaped chainstays after only ten years of racing and training. It was and still is pretty though, and it’s for sale in case you’re interested.

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They now build boxy carbon frames with the most hideous graphics in the business. I was planning to snark about how De Rosa just sells frames made in the far east but I just did a little last minute research and discovered that they still build all of their frames (even the boxy carbon ones) in their own workshop in Cusano Milanino, Italy. Well takes the wind out of my snarky sails. OK, never mind… good on you De Rosa for maintaining your own Italian production while your competitors sell generics sourced in China. Do please hire a better graphic designer though.

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Speaking of local production the craft of custom framebuilding had almost disappeared in the Netherlands. Back in the day (see above) there were hundreds of Dutch frame builders. Hand built steel frames have had something of a revival in the US and to a lesser extent in the UK, Italy and elsewhere. In the NL though there seemed to be no emotion for the craft element of cycling. RIH, the last of the famous builders retired and closed his doors a couple years ago. RIH was legendary for building dozens of world championship winning bikes in their long history and an Amsterdam Jordaan icon. Wim van der Kaaij’s shop was around the corner from WorkCycles. Around the same time that Wim was retiring local interest in hand-built bikes was finally emerging and a number of young Dutch framebuilders were getting started. The bike above is from St. Joris Cycles in Eindhoven who builds really clean looking full custom bikes.

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Many cyclists in Amsterdam lamented the loss of RIH though and just couldn’t let this iconic make disappear. There was continuous rumor and speculation of a restart, despite Wim van der Kaaij being in his late 70’s. It really happened though; A number of young Amsterdammers opened a fresh new RIH atelier in Amsterdam Noord, complete with Mr. van der Kaaij building frames and teaching them his admittedly rather archaic framebuilding methods. Their stand at Bike Motion was amongst the most popular, constantly busy. I visited them last summer and I finally learned the origins of the frame of my old winter training bike that I’d bought for 100 guilders in a Groningen 2nd hand shop. It’s a 1960’s era RIH.

Henry's Winter Road Bike 2014 6

Sadly Wim van der Kaaij suddenly passed away in December. R.I.P. Wim; a big chunk of cycling history passes on with you. As for the future of RIH we’re curious to see their next moves. Good luck however you guys choose to go forward!

Now for Something Completely Different: Les Trois Ballons Cyclosportive

Monday, June 17th, 2013

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I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve been riding my racing kind of bikes steadily more in the past couple years. In fact my actually riding bikes is at least partially to blame for the lack of activity on Bakfiets en Meer. Writing is fun, but riding bikes is much more fun. Sometimes riding bikes really fast with your friends and other guys who, in turn, try to ride faster than you is even more fun. So that’s how I’ve been occupying my free time, that is aside from dressing, organically feeding, home-schooling and ferrying our seven kids kids around in the bakfiets.

About a year and a half ago I got really friggin’ nasty infection in both ears that had me first in intense pain for a week, almost totally deaf for a couple months, and finally took the better part of a half year to completely eradicate. By the end of that ordeal my fitness level had devolved to vaguely above couch potato level. So I did what any obsessive cyclist would do and began riding my way back into fitness. Nothing builds basic conditioning like long, easy rides so once a week I rode my bike for as long as I possibly could. I returned from the first few weeks’ rides dazed, hungry and wasted after two or three hours. But slowly my body developed endurance again and re-learned to run on fat reserves. Normal people would reach a certain level of fitness, observe they can ride kinda fast, maybe admire their newfound leg muscles and be satisfied. Or maybe they’d reach the point where further progress requires investing inordinate amounts of time and realize they have better things to do with their life.

I’ve never been very good about dealing with that junction. Instead of reacting sanely and accepting that I’m just one more old dude who enjoys riding bikes I start thinking about how I could get really, really fast again. What times are guys of my age turning and what can I do to develop to that level? With whom can I hone my tactics? What races would be cool to do? Never mind that I run a company and have eight little kids, that it would probably be much more logical to just enjoy being fit and healthy.

henry's ANT road bike on amstel
A new, somewhat modern racing bike.

So of course I just kept on training. The three hour friday morning rides gradually grew to six and seven hours. I built a new, somewhat more modern racing bike. Whenever the weather even remotely allowed it the long rides continued through the winter. Six hours on the bike in zero degrees with some snow and rain? Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it just builds character. I took out a racing license again and began riding regularly with a club, and a really nice one at that: Gaul! has no sponsors so I needn’t advertise a bike shop, a roofing company and a bank when I ride. Instead we raise money for War Child.

henry's rainday road bike
This ugly old road bike with full fenders makes long, wet days in the saddle infinitely more fun.

All those hours on the bike though are just to build basic fitness, essentially building the ability to train and recover because actually I’ve never been able to compete at longer distance events, nor can I climb a hill significantly faster than your average sloth. Nope, my thing is going really fast for a couple to a few minutes… on the velodrome thus. As mentioned before I ride the local velodromes once or twice a week during the fall and winter, doing both group sessions with a trainer and open training sessions following my own plan. My real goals are to kick some masters ass on the track in a couple years. Note that it’s critical for the delusional bike racer to have goals; otherwise the pointlessness of the efforts would be immediately apparent.

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Henry doing what he does does considerably better than climbing mountains.

So perhaps the most realistic element of my delusional cycling plans is that I at least have a well proven sense of what I’m good at and what I suck at. The old adage, converted to bike talk, is something like “Train your weaknesses. Race with your strengths.” So in that spirit I decided to enter in a race that is absolutely, utterly outside my the realm of my “strengths”. Rather it was precisely the sum of my weaknesses. The Dutch, French and Belgians call it a “cyclosportive”. The Italians and English speakers prefer the more glamorous “gran fondo”. I call it a “long ass day in the saddle grinding over lots of big mountains”.

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Course profile of Les 3 Ballons Master: Climb over them mountains as fast as you can.

“Les Trois Ballons” sounded all happy and playful with balloons and stuff while the reality described on the website seemed decidedly more brutal: 213km and 4300 vertical meters divided amongst nine climbs including several good sized mountain passes in Alsace, France. The winners somehow manage to blast through all of this in about six and half hours. That’s an average of almost 33kph which I frankly just can’t wrap my head around. 50km+ for three kilometers? Now THAT I can deal with. The benchmark time for a “gold diploma” in my age group was a vaguely more reasonable 9:40, thus 22kph avg. Yeah, that’s almost ten hours of continuous, hard cycling.

It took me a while to commit. Firstly to I had to arrange transport as well as play dates and extra daycare for all nine kids. But could I even complete such a ride? There’s a big difference between riding solo at a relaxed pace in the pannekoeken flat Netherlands for seven hours and riding hard over steep climbs for maybe ten or more hours. To test I went out one day for a 200km solo ride, atypically sometimes riding pretty fast. The batteries of my GPS died after six hours, I got totally lost and crawled home nine and half hours and about 250km later. OK, I guess finishing Les 3 Ballons isn’t totally unrealistic. We’re on.

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I never thought I’d see such a big, ugly cog on my road bike. Next time it’ll be even bigger, thank you very much.

I might not be able to climb a mountain much faster than your grandmother but I can prepare meticulously in the nerdiest of ways. Being only a couple weeks before the event it was pointless to do any special training (OK aside from riding het Kopje van Bloemendaal, our local 30m climblet, ten times one afternoon). Instead I focused on the equipment and getting to know the course (virtually of course). Having read numerous reports from previous editions it was apparent that lower gears than my flatland 42×23 would be needed. The most convenient answer was to just borrow the 30T cassette from my wife’s bike. Contrary to Shimano’s admonitions that such a large cog would shatter my derailleur into a million bits it shifted perfectly.

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Aren’t my course notes “pro” looking? If only they could help pedal the bike.

In order to meter out my feeble effort most wisely I printed and taped attractive course notes on my top tube, color coded and all. Team mechanics do this for the top pro riders and it’s very important to look professional. In retrospect it was actually really nice to have, though it would have been considerably more helpful had the organizers not had to modify the course at the last minute.

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Some skinnier, fitter, faster, more attractive Gaul! teammates.

Team Gaul! stayed in a great “gite rural” roughly in the middle of the course. We arrived a day early to “loosen up our legs” with a couple hours cycling in the hills. Really there isn’t much choice here: all roads lead up or down. Having not climbed a real hill on a road bike in many years I must admit thinking that just maybe my body had somehow morphed, late in life, into a reasonable climbing machine. You know, like Sean Kelly or Laurent Jalabert. It seemed reasonable; I’m fairly small and light and can time-trial quite well. Such a combination should logically go well uphill too. Well… wrong: Once that road pointed uphill I struggled while my teammates gradually left me behind. So be it. I am what I am.

Race day: Everything’s prepared, we’ve eaten a ton and hit the sack early. We’re amongst the first few hundred at the start so we’ll get in a fast group for the first, flat section. A couple (very strong) Gaul! teammates have the privilege of starting 15 minutes earlier amongst the 400 priority riders. These are all tough guys and gals who’re either well-known racers or who’ve posted top results here or elsewhere recently. My own goals are necessarily modest:

1. Finish.
2. Finish within the “gold diploma” time limit of 9:40.

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Have number. Will race.

The first 15km were basically flat and of course the group rode as if we’d just started a 50km criterium: Average speed well over 40kph. I was happy to just tuck in and get swept along; knocking this part out quickly would at least save a chunk of time for minimal effort. Throughout the ride we’d form little groups after the descents and work together to speed through these sections. Sometimes these were the most painful parts because the group dictates the pace. You want to stretch and relax, grab a bite to eat between the climbs but getting dropped from the group would cost too much time.

We turned a corner in some village and hit the first little climb. I bode my teammates farewell and a good race as everybody scrambled up the hill at full tilt. Me? Oh I’ll just ride my own tempo here, thanks. The day is still very, very long. Hundreds of riders rode past, mostly in little groups while I looked at my heart rate monitor and thought “Nope, don’t go harder than this yet.” The next climb was a real bitch, though. It was 10km long and the last 2km were so steep that everybody’s hearts were redlined just to keep moving. As it turned out I was quite overgeared, even with the big cassette and 38T ring. Standing didn’t work either since the narrow road was covered with slippery grit and riders stopping and falling over. I just sat and ground it out, mountain bike style.

My plan was simple: Ride conservatively over the first five mountains until the top of Grand Ballon, the biggest climb and smack in the hottest part of the day. After that descent the ride is almost 3/4 done and nothing, barring a crash, could stop me. After Grand Ballon I’d ride as hard as I could. It turned out to be a good plan. Riders were dropping like flies on Grand Ballon. It was hot, oppressively hot for northern Europeans who’ve hardly seen a day above 20 degrees this Spring. The water/food stations were also poorly considered leaving a lot of riders dry and hungry in the middle of that long ascent. I was super thankful to get an extra refill in that section from a clubmate’s girlfriend. Thanks Michiel and GF who’s name I forgot! I suffered and doubted my sanity but always had enough in the tank to continue.

Though gravitationally challenged the downhills come naturally. Yes, I’m proud to note that I’m skilled at just not touching my brakes and letting the wheels do their work. Perhaps I was too enthusiastic though. The roads were sometimes quite rough and upon getting in a group at the foot of one descent I noted that my bike steered “funny”. Flat tire. All added up I saved perhaps five minutes in the descents and then lost somewhat more swapping out the tube and mini-pumping.

By the top of Grand Ballon it was clear my plan was working. All that energy I’d been diligently saving was beginning to pay top rate interest. Each time the road pointed toward the sky i reeled in dazed, exhausted riders. After 185km there was a climb with and undulating 2km of crazy steep 14-15% walls. With fresh legs you grit your teeth and stomp over these little bastards. I was anything but fresh but I’d saved just enough to keep moving. That was enough to ride past dozens of despondent souls, either stationary or in slow motion.

I’d been watching my average speed with an eye toward that second goal. I was on target to come in under 9:40… that is until we rounded a bend and saw a sign announcing 20km to go. Hearts sank. We all looked at our hyper accurate computers and though “20km!? Fuck that, it should be 17km to go!” We attacked those last humps with a vengeance in the big ring, organized ourselves into a smooth working group and hammered out those last, mostly flat, 20km at over 40kph average. Just before racing over the timing strip at the finish I saw 9:39.59 on my Garmin’s screen.

I found my clubmates, several of whom had finished more than an hour and a half earlier, and I ate my very much needed pasta meal. On our way back to the car I returned my timing chip and checked my result at the diploma tent…. Time: 9:40.01, Argent. 🙁

Considering that the course was extended by 3km without extending the time limits I’m just granting myself a virtual gold here folks. Was it fun? Yes, aside from much of the second half of the ride. All in all it was a great weekend and fantastic training. Will I do more of these? Yes, and of course I immediately got to thinking how I could go faster: Lower gears, riding in the mountains more often, another year of training in the legs, carrying handier food and wasting less time at the water stations, just riding less conservatively… A couple kilograms lighter bike would also help but that would mean spending real money which isn’t part of the plan. After all, even adding up all of these improvements I’ll still be finishing an hour behind the leaders.

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I believe Brevet d’Argent means “Jeez you’re slow!” in Alsacian.

PS: I know that almost no racers ride steel bikes anymore but I figured that I’d have a few retro-compatriots at a cyclosportive. Surely there’d be some old guys on old bikes, or perhaps some more modern ferrous fans. Well, I looked amongst hundreds of bikes at the start and didn’t see any. I checked out every bike that passed me, every bike I passed, and tons of bikes parked at the finish. No, there was not one, single other steel framed bike. Nor did I see any titanium bikes. In fact even aluminium frames were few and far between. Carbon, carbon and more carbon.

Racing Bikes at Workcycles? Really?!

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

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The Workcycles crew, plus and minus some at the Amsterdam Velodrome. Is it still there Johan?

Yeah really, seriously. A point I’ve been repeatedly hammering home over the years is that, in typical Dutch style, we just dig cycling in all it’s many flavors. Just because one gets around by bicycle doesn’t mean they can’t also get a kick out of cycling just for the fun of it. I write periodically (as periodically as I can manage at least) about bike touring with my family, bike racing, my weekly training at the velodrome and this is totally typical of the Workcycles crew and the Dutch in general. Amongst us we’ve one ex trackie/roadie, a couple globetrotting bike tourists, several vintage bike nuts and the tiniest, cutest little BMXer you’ve ever seen. And you can’t work here unless the bike is your daily transportation. Show up for your job interview on a scooter, no job dude. After all, how can you be an expert in bikes if you don’t ride one? All in all there’s a whole lotta bike love going on here. A bit of scooter dissing too, but for good reason. Not only do we ride all kinds of bikes, we also build, repair and restore them… more about that below.
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