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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: Everything's Eventual

After reading Duma Key, I resolved to read more Stephen King, since I found Duma Key so much fun. So I picked up Everything's Eventual (Dead Tree edition) just before the Tour Across France.

Everything's Eventual is a collection of short stories. Nearly every genre of horror is covered, ranging from the meeting with the devil (The Man in the Black Suit) to the haunted room (1408 --- this also appeared in On Writing in draft form).

The stories are quite uneven in quality, but I found Autopsy Room Four, Everything's Eventual, and The Death of Jack Hamilton particularly good. I got my money's worth, but unfortunately, I didn't think this collection was sufficient to get me to run out and buy more King books until I am back in the US and can sample his books using the sample feature of the Kindle. Still, at $7, I got my money's worth, so a mild recommendation is in order.

Review: Zoe's Tale

Zoe's Tale (Kindle Edition) is the latest book in John Scalzi's Old Man's War universe, taking place concurrently with The Last Colony.

Even though Scalzi swears up and down that the book is independent of The Last Colony, I don't think it can easily be read that way --- you would miss a lot of context, and that would lead you to think that this was not a very rich universe. Scalzi agonizes a lot on his blog as to whether he got the teenage girl's voice right, and he does. But I've never been a teenage girl, so I'm not sure I'd qualify to pass that judgment.

Unfortunately, it feels a bit like that's his only goal for the entire book --- there's not a lot of additional story, and while the travails of a teenage girl in a colony who's the Chosen one is entertaining, it strays too much into Buffy territory for me, and unfortunately, Scalzi is no Joss Whedon.

If you like the previous Scalzi books, then you'll eventually pick up Zoe's tale, but I see no reason not to wait for the paperback version (well, ok, I picked up the Kindle edition).


Having ridden the France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Italy, I have to say that the food in France is better, but you do pay a price for it --- you sacrifice 2 hours a day of riding time at least for the food if you go for the fixed price menus that are the best value --- if you just order a plat it can take much less time. Grocery store lunches are fine, but it can be tough to find a grocery store at times.

The scenery in Switzerland and Austria is definitely better. If I were to advise a first time tourist in Europe who was reasonably fit, I would recommend that they start in Switzerland --- the food is good if you know where to go, and with Jobst's Tourof the Alps collection on-line there's no excuse for not knowing where to eat and where to stay in Switzerland. (Some day, I'll go through his logs and extract all the good places to stay and put it up in a wiki) The scenery is spectacular and the drivers very very polite. Plus the Swiss aren't too snotty to speak English to you. French drivers aren't nearly as polite and frequently drive a bit fast for the conditions, though not as badly as the Italians do.

The big problem with riding in France is the trains --- long distance trains are a nightmare as far as bringing a bike is concerned, and the German speaking countries definitely are far more accommodating of bikes on trains. I don't think there's a serious price difference between the countries.

All in all, I'm not surprised that Jobst can tour the Alps year after year for 40 years --- the Pyrenees was fun once, but my next mountain tour in Europe will definitely be in the Alps. Though Mike, Roberto and I are contemplating Japan or Taiwan. It would be nice to tour in a country where I speak the local language for a change.

Review: Exposure Lights Joystick Maxx

When I learned that my commute was going to be 50% unpaved, I realized that my Lumotec/Shimano generator hub combination wasn't going to cut it. Unfortunately, the cheap LED solutions such as the Cateye 301s weren't going to cut it, so I asked Pardo what he used, since he had a fancy, tiny flash-light looking thingy mounted on his bike. His answer was the Exposure Joystick Maxx.

This is a tiny light (18mm diameter), and it's light --- 80 grams! The mount is a simple U-shape mount that the light snaps into, and it claims a 3 hour run time at a 240 Lumen rating, with other modes lasting as long as 24 hours in the lowest beam, and a near infinite lifespan in flashing mode. It also comes with a helmet mount that I didn't bother to test (why mount your light further away from the ground?).

In head to head with the Lumotec light, there's no question. At maximum beam, the Joystick kicks its ass, even though it's mounted higher. At low beam, it's only as bright as the Lumotec. The beam pattern is clearly not as good, but with the overwhelming amount of light provided, it doesn't have to be to provide sufficient light off road for riding.

I then took the light on the Tour Across France. We didn't use the lights much, but it was a test as to whether the self-discharge rate of the battery was low enough that it would last 3 weeks of intermittent use. It went through the tour with flying colors, with the battery indicator indicating that there was plenty of charge left at the end of the tour.

My one big criticism of this unit is that the built-in battery is not user-replaceable. Of course, I hate that, but on the other hand, not having a separate battery pack makes this unit lighter and more compact, and that's why I bought it, so that's really not a valid criticism. It is also expensive --- $240. Then again, Dinotte charges almost as much for a light that's not as compact or as light. Recommended with the above caveats.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Bourg-en-Bresse Rest Day

This rest day composed mostly of us riding around meeting Roberto's old friends, then coming back to the Solers' house where Roberto & Mike did some heavy lifting by moving firewood out of the yard into the garage. After that we moved into a hotel in Bourg-en-Bresse and Roberto treated everyone to a get-together dinner.
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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Athens Slideshow

The last slideshow I have from Greece. This was the day I spent walking around Athens.

Note you can view the high quality version by double clicking on the video and going to the Youtube website directly. The pictures look a TON better there!

Remuzat to St. Julian en Vencors

We woke up in the morning to consider whether or not to go over to Rosans to attempt Col de Pommerol (1072m). On second look, not only was the traverse to Rosans a red road, it was also a climb in itself, and I didn't know if we had time to do 4 climbs today, so we headed North on D61 while the day was windless, riding through la Motte-Chalancon and Bellegarde before the road went over Col de Premol (964m). The descent from Joncheres was pretty enough, but at the bottom we had no choice but to head North on an unpleasant main road in the area, D93 towards Die.

That in itself wasn't too bad, but the road headed directly into a painful headwind, lending only morbid amusement to the phrase We are going to Die! Even with moderate pace-lining, my legs weren't what they should have been by the time we entered Die for a light lunch and some grocery shopping.

Then we began the climb up Col de Rousset (1367m). This was a tough climb, not because it was steep, but because several places in the climb, I was blown to a complete stop. I got to the point where I had to draft Roberto while going uphill, which was a pain in the neck, something I only had to repeat before in St. Christophe in 2005. Near the top of the switch-backs, the wind helped up some sections, but I got hungry so I stopped to eat a banana. Roberto would say that this was the first time he'd ever see me stop because I was too tired to keep going, but I guess the previous times I'd done it he wasn't anywhere near to see it.

Col de Rousset ends in a tunnel, and we zipped through that with a tailwind, and immediately stopped on the other side to put on everything we owned because it was cold! We descended D518 down towards La Chapelle-en-Vencors, but fortunately, there was not much wind there. At St. Agnan-en-Vencours, we chose to take D103, the scenic white road towards St. Martin-en-Vencors, and scenic it was, running along a babbling brook, with farmland to the right, and a hill on our left.

In St. Martin-en-Vencors, we found that the only hotel in town was under reconstruction, so we had no choice but to ride on past Herbouilly and St. Julien-en-Vencors, where the hotel in town was fully booked. However, the owner was kind enough to call around, and found us a B&B named The Tranquil Coin. By this point I was bonking, and despite chewing through a couple of gu packets still wasn't quite myself. But The Tranquil Coin wasn't too far, so by the time we got there it wasn't too bad.

Nevertheless, we had a complication --- the owner had an event at 7:30pm, and wasn't intending to serve dinner. We asked if there was another restaurant nearby that was open, but when she called it, it wasn't open. Looking at us in pity, she immediately offered to cook us dinner at 6:30pm, which we promptly accepted and then had the fastest 4 course French meal we'd ever had!

Exhausted by 109km of headwind, and 1831m of climbing, I slept like a log that night.
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Orange to Entrechaux

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We woke up to a breakfast buffet that was satisfying, and then started riding North to Entrechaux. A stiff headwind blew in from the North, which I took as a good sign, despite the presence of clouds overhead. Riding into a stiff headwind is no fun, even though I had Mike and Roberto to paceline behind much of the time. Since we were heading North-East, and a big mountain was directly to the East of us, we soon faced a headwind, which made pacelining impossible given that we couldn't use the full width of the road.

At Rasteau, we finally had to head south for a little bit, and the relief was immense. Then we rode through Vaison-la-Romaine, where I realized we should have headed the day before, since there seemed to be plenty of lodging in this town. A stop at the bike shop to search for a replacement center-set screw for the one that had fallen off Mike's bike yielded nothing. Riding out of Vaison, however, Mike suffered another front flat, which once again proved to be a glass shard.

Riding into Entrechaux, we spied a castle on the hill, but in town did not find a tourist information center except a map with hotels listed. Calling the first hotel yielded no answer, but the second hotel answered and we made a reservation and rode there to find that it was actually a vineyard near St. Marcellin. We booked a Demi-Pension and then went in for lunch.

After lunch, it was 3pm, and the overcast clouds started to threaten rain, so doing Mt. Ventoux was out of the question. I rode into town instead to get more batteries to feed the GPS, some snacks, and some soda, and got rained on a little for my trouble, but the rest of the afternoon and evening was uneventful.

A super short day, with only 48.7km and 432m climbed, though the stiff headwind made me glad to finish.

Long Term Review: Custom Frame from Carl Strong

I first got my custom frame in February, just before moving to Munich. Since then, it's seen almost daily use, whether on my commute, or on long tours through Germany or France. It's seen a lot of rain, wore through 2 chains, and wore through a tire. It's seen century/day rides, and slow plodding days. It's seen mountain days in the Pyrenees and flat days in the Salzburg Lakes.

The bike's been everything I wanted, and my only regret is not buying it years ago when I started touring the alps. The Tektro caliper brakes work much better than cantilevers ever did, while surviving wet Munich relatively well. (I'm almost through one set of Kool-stop Salmon brake pads)

The bike has a dual-personality. With 25mm tires, it rides as nice as my old Fuji, with a little less immediate responsiveness on out of saddle springs and climbs, but with a little more give here and there (which I didn't believe until I observed the fork flex during braking). With wide tires and a load, it behaves as well or better as the Heron Touring frame back when I was using one, with the supreme advantage that the brakes don't suck.

Things I'll change about the bike in the future: ditch the spoke holders --- they only serve to interfere with the chain. I would also raise the brake bridge a bit (to 54mm) so I don't have to file down long reach caliper brakes to get the pads to square with the rim.

But otherwise, all I can say is that all bikes should have this geometry. I see no reason to change! Thanks, Carl!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Review: Traffic

Tom Vanderblit addresses a problem as old as the first cities --- traffic. Each chapter of this book (Kindle edition) is relatively independent, and addresses just one or two topics, making this an easy read for those who are frequently interrupted. Topics covered include: social interaction on the road, and why bad drivers never get better.

One of the most fascinating points the book makes is that most of us never get feedback about minor carelessness or infringement --- that's because most of our weaknesses don't cause accidents most of the time. So if you're a bad driver, there's no feedback telling you that you're a bad driver, so you just get more and more reckless and worse and worse until you finally crash.

Another interesting segment of the book is the section on traffic calming --- it turns out that things like bumps and traffic islands don't do a lot of good, but making the street clearly different from an inter-city highway changes things dramatically.

There's also another section on varying culture's approach to traffic. For instance, Americans happily accept that 30000 people will get killed on US roads every year, 10 times that of the September 11th terrorist attacks, yet everyone seems to think that there's nothing you can do about it. The opposite approach is Sweden, which at only 60 deaths a year, wants to reduce it to zero.

Even stuff I knew about, like Risk Compensation is covered well and the book is in general well written enough that I was always happy to read "just one more chapter before going to bed."

Recommended for both entertainment and edification.

Equipment Review: Vibram Five Fingers

When one of my colleagues mentioned that he used Vibram Five Fingers as his touring shoes, I was intrigued. These shoes looked like they compressed very well, and they looked like they might well be comfortable. For my last 2 or 3 bike tours, I had made to with only wearing cycling shoes every where, and while it was OK, cycling shoes do have a tendency to dig a bit here and there, and after a day of cycling in them, the prospect of having to wear them for dinner puts me off a bit.

So I gritted my teeth, ordered a pair for me and a pair for Lisa, and had Roberto send them over.

First of all, they take a bit of practice before you can put them on fast. The trick for me is to spread my little toe a bit and slide that into the pocket, and then pull on the rest of the shoe. Otherwise, it can be a bear! You also have to be careful not to snug up too much the strap, or you can end up cramping your toes.

The shoes have no padding at all. Let me repeat. Zero padding. You walk in them and you can feel all the texture of the ground beneath you, whether it is grass (pleasant), cobble (less pleasant), or asphalt. It really does feel like walking barefoot, which means that as someone who's not used to running around barefoot outside my apartment, I am actually a slower walker in these than in my cycling shoes! And of course, they don't take orthotics. There's all sorts of debate as to whether that's good for you or not, but I figure I didn't walk enough in them to make much difference. These are, after all, off bike shoes. They do look like they'll be great for sailing, so I'll try them for my next sailing trip. But would I use them for long distance hiking or running? No way.

What I was not prepared for, however, was the kind of attention these shoes would get me. My first clue was when I tried them in the office and walked around in them. First of all, women notice shoes. The very next day, I had women from the office ask me where I got them, how they felt, and can they try them on if Lisa's pair would fit them? The cuter and more fashion-conscious the woman, the more attracted they seemed to be to those shoes!

My next clue was when Guy Kawasaki visited Google. He derailed his talk for 3 minutes to talk about those shoes!

Then in Bordeaux, while wearing those shoes out to dinner, I got so much attention from the women on the tram that we took to and from the restaurant that I felt, for the first time in my life, as though I was attractive to women. (I was not --- but my shoes definitely were!) Then in Argeles-Sur-Mer, a beautiful blond approached me while I was doing the geekiest of all activities, playing Air Hockey with Roberto. All because of these shoes.

All I can say is, if you're a single man, get yourself a pair of these shoes right now, before they become so popular that they become common! Your guy friends will make fun of you, and call them Monkey Feet, but you will be a hot person for all of the time it takes before the novelty wears off. And if you're a dorky guy like me, that's a novel and strange experience, and well worth the $70. (Heck, if you're not a single guy, buy a pair for yourself and your girlfriend... then you can be hot together)



With the weekend forecast to be sunny, I wanted to do a ride, but not something painful, since we'd just come back from the Tour Across France. When Radina suggested a ride to the Chiemsee and back, using her newly discovered method of using the MVV ticket on the Deutsche-Bahn, I agreed. Radina, Mike and I met at the Munich main station at 9:20 for the 9:40 train, which arrived in Assling at 10:15am. Meeting us there was Frank Spychalski.

Since it was Radina's route, she led the ride, though occasionally from behind, as Mike and Frank seemed to be feeling strong today. It was cold and overcast, surprisingly so, and I found myself in need of food as soon as we crossed the bridge at Rott-Am-Inn. Riding with a 1:75000 map, we still occasionally got confused and found ourselves lost every so often. Nevertheless, as we approached Gstadt-am-Chiemsee, the sun finally broke through the clouds and we got ourselves a little warmer at lunch.

After lunch, I saw Mike putting on sunscreen --- an optimist! I myself kept my arm and leg warmers on, and eschewed the sun. We rode off along the Chiemsee for a bit, with beautiful views to the left of us --- it was quite windy, as evidenced by the number of sailboats out with sails full, but with the wind behind us it was much nicer than having the wind in front of us. Nevertheless, it still felt chilly in the shade.

Past Rimstim, we rode towards the Simsee, but missed a turned and climbed a purely gratituous 9% grade before turning around and riding towards the Simsee for more beautiful views. At that point we got lost trying to get to Vogtareuth, and ended up at the local airport. Fortunately, a local pointed us in the right direction, and soon we were along the Inn river bike path, and then crossing the bridge.

Once over the bridge, the GPS took over and we navigated quickly towards Grafing, but Frank chose the direct route back to Assling. The sun was now low in the sky and we were treated to gorgeous sunset views of the surrounding houses and landscape --- Germany at its best. Unfortunately I'd forgotten my camera and Radina's camera wasn't good for shooting on the move.

We rolled into Grafing Bahnof just as the S4 pulled in, so we boarded in the nick of time at 6:00pm. A surprisingly beautiful ride at 1134m and 108km of riding.
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Friday, September 26, 2008

Pictures of my feet on Guy Kawasaki's blog

Guy Kawasaki visited Google Munich on the day of my departure for the Tour Across France, so he caught me wearing my Vibram Five Fingers and was so taken with them he derailed his talk for about 3 minutes. (I don't know if his talk's up on YouTube)

He also took a picture of Mike Samuel's Smoothie ES because of his cowbells:

I'll post a thorough review of these weird shoes later as part of the Tour writeup.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Equpiment Review: Bagman Saddlebag Support

After years of using a saddlebag without saddlebag support (and wearing holes in my Nelson Longflap as a result), I finally gave in this year and bought one, mostly because I had switched away from my beloved Brooks B-17 in favor of a plastic saddle that won't go bad in the rain. (This also saved a ton of weight)

Bagman saddlebag supports are apparently quite hard to find, but a call to Wallingford Bikes turned one up. I ordered one without the quick release (because Ti versions weren't in stock), but the one that showed up turned out to have the quick release feature instead (which weighs a bit more).

The support snaps onto the saddle rails with an allen screw, and installation takes no more than 3 minutes, even if you loc-tite the assembly. However, the Bagman has a fatal flaw, which is that the struts supporting the bag proper are mere rods that slip into a hole in the saddle attachment, which is then held entirely with friction by a couple of small screws (about 3mm in diameter) and a bolt.

Whoever designed the Bagman has never done a major bike tour involving rough roads or rough stuff, because even though I applied loc-tite to all of these screws, after about 15 days of rough riding (or 3 months of daily commuting on my Munich Commute) and the rods would slip out. The first time this happened it was in heavy Munich traffic, which was quite disconcerting. Fortunately, the design is such that you won't lose the small screws if that happens.

Since then, I've tightened the screws periodically, and just before any long tour. Even so, during this past tour, my bagman came loose in this fashion not once, but twice. The proper solution is to undo all the screws, mark the rods, and then put in divots in the rods to prevent this sort of motion in the future. But seriously, it's poor engineering to expect the customer to put in fixes for obviously bad design.

The quick release feature also turned out to be quite a bit of a mixed blessing. First of all, it truly is only a quick release --- putting the bag back in is just as laborious as the pins aren't precise enough for you to thread it through and already looped leather strap --- or at least, I can't do it. Secondly, the pins are basically tied to a screw tip which pushes back against springs. Guess what --- they unscrew themselves with sufficient bouncing on the saddle, and come off. If this happens during a tour when you happen to drop the pins and the springs, good luck! So on a tour you have to check these pins for tightness and periodically tighten them.

I cannot therefore recommend the Bagman for serious cycle tourists who are not mechanically savvy and willing to perform the modification. This is a pity, since I still think saddlebags are a better solution than panniers for light touring, but given my need for CPAP therapy, perhaps my days of light touring are past. The search for a better solution continues...

Luz-St.-Sauveur to Arreau

From Screen Captures

We had shopped for groceries the night before, so we ate breakfast in the hotel room, and got ready for an early start for the Col du Tourmalet (2115m). The climb started out gently enough, and in fact never really exceeded about 8% grade throughout the entire stretch, reminding me a lot of Sustens pass in that respect. It was, however, wild and desolated as promised, with relatively little traffic except those of the van-supported 6-day Pyrenees riders.

The summit, however, was quite cold, and when I got there I immediately put on arm warmers, leg warmers and a jacket. Mike had been waiting for quite some time, and by the time Mike and I got into the cafe and placed our orders for lunch, Roberto had just shown up. We had a nice meal in quite a reasonably priced restaurant, then put on everything we owned before starting the fast and extremely steep descent on the East side of the pass. Whatever else I can say about the Pyrenees, the descents on the East side of the passes are as rugged and fast as anything I've encountered anywhere.

At the bottom of the hill, we looked for water at St. Marie-de-Campan, but the only fountain in town had an Eau Non-Potable sign attached to it. We went ahead and started climbing Col d'Aspin (1489m) anyway, trusting on faith that we would find something. That faith was justified a little later when I saw a man in a driveway pulling his bike out of his car. I stopped and asked if he could give us water --- even though my French was next-to-non-existent, as soon as I pointed to my bottle he knew what we needed and proceeded to fill up our bottles.

After Col du Tourmalet, Col d'Aspin felt like a really short climb to me! We wound around some hill sides, seeing paragliding lessons being given to a few clients by a local outfit, and then into a line of long, lazy switchbacks that eventually led us to a beautiful overlook which turned out to be the summit. What Aspin lacks in height, it makes up for in scenery --- it is really beautiful, with long views down into the valleys in the region, as well as good looks at surrounding peaks. While the Pyrenees aren't as spectacularly pretty as the Alps, they have their own beauty that makes them worth a visit.

We hung out there at the summit for about 15 minutes admiring the view, before deciding to brave the descent to Arreau to spend the night. The descent was fun! At a steady 9% or so, great sightlines, dry roads, and few motor-vehicles, we all hit speeds in excess of 55kph. In Arreau, the tourist information service pointed us to only two hotels. The 3 star Logis de France place was far too expensive for us, so we took a room at the other spot.

With plenty of time left in the day, Roberto & Mike visited an internet cafe while I bought some groceries for breakfast the next day. Dinner was at a local restaurant where we met some British cyclists who were there for a few day rides and then a drive to see a stage of the Vuelta. Using discount airlines and good timing, their flights were cheaper than our train tickets! But then they had to rent a car for their entire trip of only a few days, so it was probably a wash.

A relatively short day at 62.4km but with 2037m of climbing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cycling Culture Differences

Sitting in the office cafeteria the other day with Sara-the-Intern, we had the following conversation:

"I don't like cycling."
"But why do you bike to work?"
"It's faster than walking, and cheaper than transit."

So there, there are many women in Germany who dislike cycling, and yet ride their bikes to work. Conversely, there are many women in Mountain View (an arguably better place for cycling year round) who won't even consider cycling to work.

When asked why, most women would say that it's just too dangerous, even if they lived close enough to work to do so. But Munich is just as dangerous --- the bike paths have intersection conflicts that will drive most American League Cycling Instructors wild.

The big difference is in perception --- very few utility/commuters in Munich wear helmets. Cycling to the average person, is no different than walking --- you wouldn't wear a helmet to walk, even if the statistics tells you otherwise. (In fact, if you believe the statistics, you should wear a helmet when driving your car --- head injuries are a common cause of serious disability in car accidents!)

The minute cycling perception shifts to: it's so dangerous to ride a bike that you must wear a helmet, then most women give up cycling. Not just because it's dangerous, but also because wearing a helmet will screw up your hair, which many women know is a no-no, even if they refuse to admit to that little bit of vanity. The resulting reduction in the number of women cycling (by darn near 100%, if you compare the number of women cyclists on the road in Munich versus women cyclists in Mountain View) does eventually make cycling more dangeous, because the easiest way to reduce cycling accidents is to make cycling more popular!

I've heard this opinion articulated before, but living in Munich has really driven it home to me --- it's not uncommon here to see a woman go out on a date on a bicycle --- complete with high heels, making up, and dresses, and of course no helmet. By making cycling seem dangerous, cycling safety advocates and helmet advocates have really made cycling more dangerous for everyone, even those of us who do wear helmets. The irony is rich, and I wish I knew what to do about it.

Bielle to Luz-St.-Sauveur

We woke up this morning excited, because we were to climb none other than Col d'Aubisque (1709m), a storied climb that had seen many famous battles in the Tour de France. We started this morning with a detour onto a dirt road, however, looking for a beautiful place to photograph the mountains coming out of the surrounds. Then it was off to Laruns, where I ignored my pre-plotted GPS route in favor of following a few other cyclists up to the official start of the climb onto D918.

The initial part of the climb switched backed around the area, granting us a view of the Laruns area that reminded me of the climb up Alp D'Huez 3 years ago. However, past Gourette, the scenery takes a dramatic change that's all unique. You rise steeply up along the ridge, and on a sunny clear day, which that day was, it granted outstanding views of the valley and the roads below. At the summit there were 3 gigantic bicycles, one for each color of the Tour de France winner's jersey (overall, sprint, and mountains), and big groups of cyclists taking photos of themselves with the various memorials in the area. We ate a small lunch at the summit cafe, omelettes and bread, and looked forward to more riding.

If the Col d'Aubisque climb was beautiful, the Col du Soulor (1474m) climb was even prettier --- after dropping down through two tunnels, gentle winding climbs along a ridgeline, with fog or clouds blowing through, you arrive at a beautiful intersection with a steep and fast descent down towards Argeles Gazost. When laying out this ride on Garmin Mapsource, I had taken the trouble to wind the route through small roads which also stayed as high as possible before getting to the Gorge de Luz. The net result was that this was one of the prettiest rides through the area, with short climbs interrupting middling long descents next to rivers, falls, and staying out of high traffic areas in a way that I wouldn't have been able to do with paper maps alone. The GPS unit definitely paid for itself that day.

At the bottom near Villelongue, Roberto got a glass flat, which took quite some time to fix. Looking at the map, it looked like Luz-St. Sauveur was at the bottom of the gorge, so I told Roberto we could stop there if he liked. "I like." came the reply. Unfortunately, I had lied about the height of Luz-St. Sauveur --- it was at the top of the Gorge, but since there was a massive tail wind blowing us along the road, I didn't complain --- it wasn't very steep, and even the two tunnels were not very threatening. Nevertheless, tailwinds help me more than they help Roberto, and when we got to Luz, he was lagging a bit. At an intersection, I asked Mike if he thought Roberto would kill me if we kept going up the hill. Mike said, "There's no if about it."

So we stopped, even though it was only 4:30pm. It took a couple of tries, but we found a nice hotel in a relatively quiet area, and ate dinner near it. This was when I learned that French dinners could take not just 2 hours, but could easily be 4 hour affairs. It was becoming clear that the Amazon Kindle is an essential French dining accessory, if only because of the long waits between services.

With only 74.5km covered and 1762m climbed, we looked forward to the highest point on the tour, Col du Tourmalet the next day.
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Day 3: Oschagavia to Bielle

Despite Roberto's protests, he seemed quite recovered the next day, but in the interest of trying to cover some ground, I gave up on the idea of attacking the triple climbs Portillo de Lazar (1129), Portillo de Eraice (1578), and Col de la Pierre St. Martin (1760m). I will admit that part of that was driven by the desire to escape from Spain as quickly as possible.

The alternative, Port de Larrau (1573m) and Col d'Erroymendi (1362m), was marked as scenic on the michelin map, and indeed it was quite pretty, but for most of the climb we were dogged by a large number of flies which whirled around our head creating an annoying buzzing sound. As we neared the summit of the climb, we saw the reason for them --- there were lots of horses, goats, and sheep on the road (no cows, though), and the fecal matter on the road was substantial. Once we got through the summit tunnel, however, we were exposed to a North wind that got rid of most of the flies and descending speeds meant that no flies could keep up with us.

Past Col d'Erroymendi, the road got really steep, and the descent was amazingly fast. Even Roberto admitted to pulling on the brakes out of fear at some points during the descent. In Larrau proper, Roberto asked for a lunch stop, and we treated ourselves to a two hour French lunch after the anemic Spanish equivalents the evening before.

Unfortunately, French lunches take no less than 2 hours, and it wasn't till 3:00pm that we ste off again down D26 towards Tardlets-Sorholus. Once we got to the intersection with the minor road D759 at Atherey, however, I couldn't resist the white road and chose to head towards Haux and Montory instead, which took in the minor pass Col de Serra (368m). That dropped us off on D918 where a minor climb to Lanne-en-Baretous led us to a descent towards Aramits, then Arette, and the major road towards Escot and the Col de Marie-Blanque.

It was at this point that we first encountered the official Raid Pyrenees groups --- unloaded cycle tourists who'd committed to doing 18 cols and 720km in 6 days. Being unloaded meant that they could do longer distances a day, but having to have support meant that they couldn't decide which hills to do on a daily basis, since the Raid Pyrenees organization decides which Cols must be done. They passed us in a maze of color, and we watched them go buy, knowing that we were paying half their costs by carrying lugguage ourselves.

Co de Marie-Blanque (1035m) was our first tough pass, averaging between 10-13% grades almost the entire way from about 300m or so. Coming in at the end of the day, it was a fun challenge, but the overcast skies made the climb quite enjoyable. Light traffic meant I could eschew my helmet in favor of my cycling cap, and made me feel like I was really touring. I was hoping to get to Laruns that day, but by the time I got to the summit, it was nearly 6:00pm, which made that unlikely. Fortunately, I ran into a French cyclist at the summit who knew the local hotels, and he called and made us reservations at a hotel in Bielle, though apparently the hotel was not serving dinner that night, so we'd have to go elsewhere to eat.

When everyone arrived at the summit we started the descent. Given the fading light, we could have gone fast but the descent was so pretty that we slowed down often or even stopped to take pictures. Not that photographs could have done the scenery justice --- the descent was gentle swooping curves overlooking a valley, with pastures and beautiful houses to the side, and an occasional rise so you could see how much more descending you had to do and how high you were with respect to the valley.

The hotel was a Logis de France operation, and pointed us at a restaurant in Castet a good 3km away, so we had to drop our lugguage, put lights on our bikes, and ride to the restaurant for dinner. All in all, a good day with 97.9km, 2116m climb, as respectable as a day in the Alps.
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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Appendix B: Tour of the Pyrenees Statistics

We totaled 1649.7km of riding over 28331m of elevation gain. The spreadsheet with daily breakdowns show that while in previous years we had many multiple days exceeding 2400m, we had none this year. We also had no days exceeding 113km, while in previous tours we usually had one or two days in excess of 150km.

Most of this was the result of us being out of shape at the start, but part of it was due to the French lunches --- at 2 hours per lunch, it really cuts into your riding time. Our longest days were the days when we chose to forgo a sit down lunch and went with a grocery store lunch instead.

The short riding days and the small amounts of elevation gain make this the easiest single bike tour in the last few years, even though I at least felt the difficulty more, showing that condition is by far the biggest variable in what makes a tour easy or hard, rather than the actual physical distance covered or elevation gained.

Day 2: St. Etienne to Ochagavia

We woke up to cloudy overcast skies. Roberto felt that the pace yesterday was a little too much, and asked for a shorter day. I didn't point out that some of the excess miles were due to a language misunderstanding rather than a desire to drive hard and exceed 2000 meters the first day. Using the GPS to guide us, we rode to St. Jean Pied-de-Port and proceeded immediately up D953 to Col de Ibaneta (1057m), our highest point so far, passing a couple of recumbents and a group of elderly cycle tourists. Roberto had brought a Pizza and I had brought an Apple, so we ate that at the top of the col, and then proceeded down the relatively short hill to NA 140 towards Alto de Remendia (1040m).

The day was quite warm, and we had to fill up with water any chance we got, and the scenery reminded me of California desert --- low shrubbery, but with quite a number of streams that told us that this place got regular rain. At the top of Alto de Remendia, Roberto asked if there was a lot more to go, and I said that there might be a retro grade between here and Ochagavia, but that was about it.

Well, there was a retro-grade, and then a swift descent past quite a bit of construction. Uncharacteristically, I descended ahead of both Mike and Roberto and waited at the intersection at Ecaroz where the road turned uphill again towards Ochagavia. We arrived there at 5pm, got a map at the tourist information, and then proceeded to discover that the hotels, B&Bs, and other tourist places were either closed or not responding to visitors knocking on their doors. This experience soured us badly on Spain, and we made it a point not to stay anywhere in Spain for the rest of the trip.

We ended up backtracking and finding dormitory accomodations at the campground outside town, which served mediocre food and a passable breakfast. We only covered 78.8km and climbed 1765m, but judging from Roberto's noises, it still wasn't considered easy.
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Monday, September 22, 2008

Introducing Piaw Routing

I own a Garmin GPSMap 76 CSX, and used it extensively on the Tour Across France. One of the things that made it really useable on a bicycle tour is that you can set the driving speeds, which leads the Garmin unit to route roads the way a cyclist would --- small streets are best, and the smaller the street, the better the cycling. The results have been nothing short of astounding --- I would never have found many of the roads the GPS unit found, since my Michelin maps just aren't detailed enough. The routing software ignores elevation information, so frequently we found ourselves on beautiful, isolated nice climbs that only locals would know about. In a fit of egoism, I'm going to call this set of settings "Piaw Routing".

"Piaw Routing" is not perfect. Sometimes, it leads the unit to route you in a loop for some perverse reason, and occasionally the main road is traffic free so if you're in a hurry, Piaw Routing is not for you. And of course, you have to like hills, since frequently the smallest roads are on hills. (Piaw Routing once put us on a hiking path --- it was gorgeous and ridable but steep!) But you should never use your GPS unit blindly --- you always have to think anyway, so for the judicious user, Piaw Routing in addition to the other tips on using the Garmin unit, makes a Garmin GPS unit (and appropriate maps) not just a nice toy, but an essential tool for cycle touring in a foreign land.

Note that I only have a PC with MapSource --- I don't know how to change the settings on the Mac, so if you're a Mac owner, you're on your own.
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Day 1: Hendaye to St. Etienne-de-Baigorry

From GPS Tracklog

We caught the 7:10am train to Hendaye from Bordeaux, a splitting train which forced a last minute scramble to switch train cars before the train took off. That part of France being flat, the train moved relatively fast, and the train even had a bike car, though with only two bike spots. I ended up having to put my bike on the disabled parking spot. Roberto found a Frenchman to practice his French on, and in the process found out that there wouldn't be much competition for lodging --- most people ended their holidays a couple of weeks ago.

Arriving in Hendaye, I immediately turned on my GPS and loaded in the first part of my pre-planned route. But first, a ride to the coast to ensure that we started at sea level was in order. The route out of Hendaye wasn't too bad, with traffic being left behind relatively quickly on a Sunday. When we came to the first pass, however, excitement caused me to opt to go up Col d'Ibardin instead of doing the two shorter Cols that the RAID Pyrenees route selected. That turned out to be a mistake, since the top of Col d'Ibardin was in Spain, and was indeed a border town where Frenchmen went to shop for goods at a discount.

The weather was warm and humid, it having rained the night before, and by the time we reached the top, it was time for an early lunch. The descent into Spain was relatively traffic free, and the ride over Col de Lizuniaga unremarkable but pretty. That brought us back into France again, followed by another isolated climb over Puerto de Otxondo, followed by another pass (Col d'Ispeguy) back into France to spend the night.

In St. Etienne-de-Baigorry, we found a hotel but it was a bit expensive, so we rode on. As we rode through town center, a man playing a strange squash hybrid with his son stopped us and gave us help in finding lodging. Arriving at the hotel, however, through a misunderstanding, Roberto thought the hotel didn't serve dinner as it was after 7:30pm. I pointed out that it was only 6:00pm, but he was too impatient to try to sort things out so we ended up riding back into town for Pizza and a really excellent Gateau Basque, a really excellent local cake. It was only after we returned to the hotel that Roberto realized that he was mistaken.

Nevertheless, a good day with 98.5km and 2026m climb.

Tour Across France 2008

At the end of August in 2008, Mike Samuel, Roberto Peon and I toured across France, starting in Hendaye on the Spanish border, and then riding across the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean coast. There, we took a train transfer to Montpellier, and then rode North through Languedoc, Provence, and the Rhone Alps to Bourg-en-Bresse and then Geneva. The journey totaled
1047 miles with 92949 feet of elevation gain . This post will gather all the information about the tour, from photos to GPS tracks, and of course, my day-by-day trip report.


Tour Across France Pictures

Sunday, September 21, 2008

More Greek YouTube Videos

Well, I know no one likes looking at a gazillion pictures, so I decided to just YouTube the best of them. The first is a collection of food pictures I take...I absolutely adore eating so I try to make a picture roll of them wherever I can.

The second video is about the people I met.

Watch the high quality version if possible!


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Nantua to Geneva

From Screen Captures

90.9km, 1467m climbed

We left at 9:15 and immediately started to climb to Le Replat at around 900m. Unfortunately due to a navigation error we climbed the wrong hill, turning right onto D55c towards Col de Belleroche (1056m) instead of towards Col de Berentin (1144m). By the time I figured it out the others were so far ahead of me I could not catch them before the next intersection. Fortunately it was a really gentle climb with beautiful scenery, so we all enjoyed the climb.

So we descended from 1044m and went up first Col de Berentin (1144m), which was a pass surrounded by forests, then descended a bit before climbing Col de
Curvery (1178m), our last col of the trip, which was a bit desolate but not too windy. Then it was a scenic descent to Bellegarde (420m), which would have granted us a grand view of Mont Blanc if it wasn't so hazy and muggy that our visibility was restricted.

In Bellegarde, we ate a lunch at a Boulangerie before starting towards Geneva via the road to Collonges, which had an annoying amount of traffic before we turned off onto the secondary road, which was straight but also quite hilly. Just before the merge back to the main highway, I told my gps to navigate us to the train station in Geneva, and lo and behold, it gave us a series of small pleasant roads to ride on (with some climbing) by crossing into Switzerland early and winding around some roads. The moment we crossed into Switzerland I knew right away because the road
immediately got smoother!

There was any occasional headwind but only the last 5km were in nasty city traffic and we got to the hotel with no problems. The tour total was 1047 miles, which was not too bad. We had 5 flats in total, 1 shredded tire, one broken saddlebag loop, loose chain ring, loose crank, the center adjustment screw came loose off Mike's brake, the shifter came loose on Mike's bike, and his saddle bag leaned against the barrel adjuster tightening it (forcing a shim from a plastic bottle to keep the bag away from the brake)), a buckle on Roberto's handlebar bag broke. Roberto's improvised fender, however, held up for thye entire trip.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bourg-en-Bresse to Nantua

From Screen Captures

From Bourg-En-Bresse, it was a short ride today, though we first did a a brief tour to see folks we had stayed with one last time before departing --- first to the tourist information center, where we met Doriane, and she got us a reservation at Nantua, then over to the Soler's in Montagnat so I could pick up a tube of moisturizing lotion that I left the day before.

Mr. Soler had told us the day before that even though the road to Geneva on N84 was a red road on the Michelin map, there was a freeway to Geneva that paralleled it, which meant that N84 was actually worth riding. And so it proved true --- we had light traffic on rolling hills until past the river L'ain, where we were faced with 10-15% grades up from 350m to 780m over about 3km to Col du Berthiand (780m). The sun came out, so even though it was cool, we had clear views and of course, the cool weather made for nice climbing.

Mike's saddle bag hoop detached from the saddle and his right shifter came apart but both were fixed --- the saddlebag strap was attached to a seat rail instead, and Mike disassembled and reassembled the shifter. All our bikes are creaking, clicking or making strange noises that they didn't make at the start of our tour so it's just as well that our last serious day of riding was tomorrow.

We descended from the Col into Nantua, arriving at 1:00pm, in time to have a 2 hour lunch, and then a relaxing day by the beautiful lake, either walking around or shopping for groceries since the hotel we were in had expensive breakfasts. We made a reservation in Geneva for the next day, and slept well.

Not bad for 49.7km, 939m climbed, since it would let us to more riding tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

La Tour du Pins to Montagnat

From Screen Captures

We woke up in the morning to a beautiful clear day. Having bought breakfast so we could eat in the room, we checked out in record time and proceeded to ride out. Unfortunately, record time was way too fast, since I ended the day with the hotel key in my pocket! My problem today was that as we moved away from the highlands into lower areas, I was running out of scenic roads to ride, and it would be a challenge to keep us away from the big roads. We first rode out towards Morestel, and then from there headed towards Creys Mepiu.

After that, the problem became to get across the freeway and bridge near St. Maurice de Remens, so I ended up setting the GPS and getting it to do the navigation. This was Piaw Routing in action, and I was impressed by the result --- it picked a really hilly route that dumped us North of where I expected us to end up, which was not a bad thing at all, since it got us closer to the Bourg-en-Bresse. We had a quick pizza lunch, mindful of the need to get into Bourg-en-Bresse at a reasonable hour so that Roberto could find his old friends.

From there on, it was a straight shot to Bourg-en-Bresse along the river L'ain, which despite the looks of the map was not a flat road at all, but rolled up and down. Finally, a zig and a zag along D109 brought us to Les Rippes, 5km away from Bourg-en-Bresse, then we were forced to ride on the National Highway for about 2km, before turning off onto a quiet road into Bourg-en-Bresse, arriving at 3:15pm.

At that point, Roberto took over and navigated into a neighborhood where someone shouted out his name and came over and hugged him. That was how we met Mr. Soler, who led us to his home, and then together with his wife, graciously invited us to stay over for the night. We accepted.

105km, 938m climbed.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

St. Julien-en-Vencors to La Tour du Pin

From Screen Captures

After yesterday's all day battle with the headwind (109km, 1831m climbed), we woke up to nearly calm weather, albeit quite a bit of fog. We started the morning descending to Gorges de la Bourne, which then led to with a gentle climb up Col de Romeyere (1074m). The light was beautiful, with sunlight filtering down through the clouds, lighting up the hills with patches of light, and on occasion as we rode up the pass, the light would come down at just the right place to light up a church, a village, or a building. As we rode up the pass, however, we were soon into the fog, and could not see much past our headlights. We even turned on our tail-lights, just in case, but the traffic was so light that we didn't have to worry very much.

At the top, we started a descent down the Route des Ecouges, and it was wonderful. We first descended in the fog and then hit an intersection which gave us views of a gorge below. We then entered a 400m long unlit tunnel (single lane only), which put us on notice that we were in for an exciting adventure! After that, the road was lined with waterfalls, sharp dropoffs, and views that might as well have come out of.a Chinese painting. Then at the bottom of the hill in St. Gervais, we found a beautifully paved bike path along the Isere river which took us to Tullins for lunch, which was much needed by then because I was so cold!

The rest of the day was filled with gentle rolling hills, a lake (Lac de Paladru) and then more hills till we got to La Tour du Pin at 5pm. La Tour du Pin looked like a nice place to stop, despite it being only 83.6km with 1067m climbed. Looking at the map that night, I saw that we would make Bourg-en-Bresse tomorrow if we got an early start and did not eat a long lunch.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Neil Med Sinus Rinse Nasal Irrigator

This is a short review.

So you guys have read about my forays into nasal irrigation. I really liked it, liked it so much that I decided to buy a 10 dollar package that consisted of a squeeze bottle and 50 packets of salt. So how does it compare to the 100 dollar irrigator that I bought two months ago?

Its as good. =).

Perhaps even better because if you really wanted, you could squeeze the water through at high speeds. It works just as well in that the water was sent thru and squeezed out all the yuucky stuff that congregates there during the night/day.

I was stuffed up during the flight, and once I irrigated in my hotel room, I felt like a new man. Gosh, how have I ever lived without nasal irrigation? Its true what they say, once you've tried it, you get hooked.

Anyway, the low sides of the irrigation unit I got was that it only had enough water for one side, and you had to squeeze two or three times to get it all through. Meaning that you'll squeeze the bottle enough to get 1/3 of the fluid through, take the bottle off your nose, let it refill with air, and then repeat to get the next 1/3 out. It was a bit disconcerting at first, and I had to learn when to stop or else I'd fill my nasal cavities with air bubbles when the bottle was nearly empty.

But it does the job as well as the 100 dollar automatic irrigator, and I think when my Grossan unit breaks, i won't replace it. The hand held unit is great, and even better, it travels. =).

Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Greece Vacation Slideshow Video

Went to Greece for two weeks of which 4 days was on vacation. This was the results of it. =)

I might do another one with the rest of the "interesting" pictures I have, but for now, this will have to do.

Now in High Quality!

Entrechaux to Remuzet

From Screen Captures

Mike felt queasy last night, to the poont of not finishing dinner. From the veranda of our hotel, we looked out South and the same dark cloud bank on top of Mt. Ventoux from yesterday was still there, continually renewed by fresh clouds. We decided there and then that even if we did the 1600m+ climb, we would not see much from Ventoux, so I plotted a route out of the area, heading down D40, past Pas du Ventoux (312m), and a second minor 300m pass. At Reilhanette, we turned off on D159, where Col d'Aulan (845m) began. The road took us up along the Toulourenc river, along a lovely gorge with very little traffic, though one driver did give us a thumbs up as he drove the opposite way. At the top we were rewarded by views of a mostly intact castle, but elected not to visit this time.

We then descended to St. Auban where the only restuarant was closed but the next town over had a restaurant with excellent pizza.

After lunch, we had a choice, Col de Perty (1302m) or Col de Peyruegue (820m) and Col de Soubeyrand (994m). The ominous clouds that had gathered bade us chose the lower climbs. Peyruegue was short and easy, but Soubeyrand was the prettier, granting us views of the surroundings in mixed artist's light as we climbed, ever changing. The constant wind had kept the air clear, granting us amazing visibility.

Past the summit, we went right into dark clouds again, so a quick descent into Remuzat was in order where we found a well appointed hotel with Creme Brulee flavored ice cream at a good price.

Another relatively easy day with 80.6km traveled and 1540m climbed.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

St. Marcellin

48.7km 432m climbed

We left Orange and immediately headed into a massive headwind. Riding
into Vaison where we had some relief due to the Mountains to the
North, we saw a bike shop but they did not have a replacement lateral
adjustment screw for Mike.

One more km later, to add insult to injury Mike got another front flat
from a glass cut. The wind got nastier and I saw to my dismay that
Ventoux was shrouded in clouds.

We stopped in Entrevaux and called a couple of hotels before finding
one that would take a call. They had a room for us and when we showed
up we were a little surprised to find it right in the middle of some
vineyards. I called for a short day in light of the impending weather.

After lunch I riode to town to pick up groceries and it rained on me a
bit. I guess it was destined to be a short day one way or another. If
this is typical Provencal weather I wonder why anyone thinks it's
great touring country. If I'm to be rained on I'd rather be in the

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Ales to Orange

From Screen Captures

We decided that we would make an attempt at Ventoux. Roberto had emphasized that he wanted to visit Bourg En Bresse before the end of the trip, and it was on the way. (Plus, who could resist another tall mountain?)

From Ales we headed East towards Salindres and Navacelles. Just before Salindres, however, I got my first (and only) flat of the trip --- a glass flat, no doubt picked up by having wet tires roll over city streets. The terrain was rolling, with views of the hills around us. This was classic Provence touring country, low shrubs with no forest, and wild desolate scenery that was reminiscent of the American West. At Lussan, we stopped for lunch, and then rolled towards Bagnols-s-Ceze, but turned off to visit Cascade du Sautadet, a beautiful stream side road, before heading North into St. Laurent-de-Carnols, where we picked up D23.

At the top of the hill, there was an old castle, Chartreuse de Valbonne, which elicited a detour from us. The castle was very nice, but I beheld an even rarer sight there --- a woman cyclist touring by herself (I could tell she was touring by herself because she had 4 panniers), and no companions. We would espy her later at Pont-St-Esprit. Unfortunately, with the push to Ventoux, we didn't stop to talk to her, and rode on towards Pont-St. Esprit after getting a few pictures.

At Pont-St. Esprit, we crossed the river Rhone for the first time, and made our way towards Mondragon on as small a road as my GPS uni could find, but the wind was so strong and annoying that not only did the bridge crossings feel precarious, so did any road sharing! From Mondragon, I picked up D152 towards Rochegude, an unremarkable road following vineyards and winding up some hills. Rochegude had another old castle, but one used as a hotel. It was a four-star place, however, so one look at the price list sent us running (or rather, cycling) for our lives.

From the map, it looked like St.-Cecile-Les-Vignes had lodging, and indeed it did, but because it was a Friday night, everything was taken. The local Logis-de-France place told me that the nearest place would be Orange, so off we went, down D65 towards Orange. This was a scenic ride, and very pleasant, now that there was a tail-wind with us. We made that 15km run in well under 30 minutes to take a cheap place in Orange after very little hunting.

A relatively flat day, with 113km cycled and 1226m climbed.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Causse-de-la-Selle to Ales

From Screen Captures

We left Causse-de-la-Selle around 9:15am, heading towards Ganges. The road was pretty, running along the same river we had ridden yesterday, but it didn't take an hour before we ran into a mechanical problem --- Roberto's cassette was loose! Fortunately, each of us carried an NBT2, intended for removing cassettes for replacing a broken spoke, but it can also be used for tightening them up, and after a bit of fiddling, we got it to work. I bought a supply of those in 2005 in Switzerland, and they are definitely worth carrying in the saddlebag.

We then rode through Ganges in a hurry, and rode towards Laselle via a series of small but scenic roads all labeled D153 through country villages, local hills, and lovely rock formation. I decided that I liked the road enough that from lasalle, we chose to continue along the road to St. Jean-du-Gard, where we had a grocery store lunch.

From St. Jean-du-Gard, the road to Ales was marked as being closed, but I bet that bicycles can get past any road block, and indeed, when we got to the road construction, the construction crew paused a moment from their work and let us through, no trouble at all, granting us a relatively traffic free ride from then on, though the locals that did drove the road went pretty fast.

The climb up to Aubignac demonstrated Piaw Routing in a big way, leading us up along a hiking road (paved, but steep) before descending into the backside of a campground and then joining the main road. This was pretty riding but tough. There was a bit of drizzle on the climb to Col d' Uglas (539m), but it went away relatively quickly, and I thought nothing of it... untilthe descent, when it poured. I don't mean regular heavy rain, I think we had an inch in about 15 minutes. Not only did the brakes work less well, it also made for poor visibility. In several places the road was flooded and we rode through with ankles soaked, repeatedly dunking our bottom brackets into the water.

To top it off when we got to Ales, all the hotels reported being booked, so we had to ride to a suburb to find one with room for us. They didn't have a restaurant but there was a Chinese buffet place across the street --- Restaurant Aux Delices Des Etoiles, with reasonable prices, and run by a family that was actually from Zhe-Jiang from China. We ate our fill and I had a nice chat with the family.

With 101km and 1606m climbed, we hoped for dryer weather tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Montepellier to Causse de la Selle

From Screen Captures

Our train didn't leave till past noon, so I got in a swim at the beach (again) before leaving. If you're ever in the area, mornings are the best time for the beach --- there's very little wind, and you get the beach all to yourself. The water's a little cooler, but not noticeably so.

We checked out, bought a grocery store lunch, and then rode to the train station, which was about 2km away. There's plenty of horror stories about bikes on french trains, so on this trip, I tried to avoid taking French trains as much as possible. The Argeles-Sur-Mur to Montpellier run could easily have been another horror story --- unlike German and Swiss trains, the French regional rails don't have bike cars, so we loaded up our bikes into the entryway of the bike. Obviously the conductor was unhappy with that, but fortunately he was a nice guy, and rather than throwing us off the train (which I've heard of happening), he asked us to move our bikes into the disabled parking spot for wheelchairs, etc. We had to unload our baggage from the bikes, and then tie handlebars and wheels down. This meant that to unload ourselves in Montpellier we had to form a human chain to get everything down in the limited amount of time.

Once in Montpellier, I once again relied on my GPS unit to get us out of crappy riding as quickly as possible by first setting a course for Grabels, then Murles, then Cambous. It was 20km of riding before we got out of the the suburbs of Montpellier. This was the Languedoc area still, and got great views of the vineyards around as we rolled around the area. Then we headed north out of St. Martin de Londres towards Causse de la Selle. The climb was ok, but the descent was gorgeous, winding around lovely rock formations, rivers, lakes, and finally crossing a bridge before the final approach.

Causse de la Selle was a one hotel town, with a Logis de France place. They looked closed, however, and when I called them they confirmed that they closed on Wednesdays. A minute later, however, they called back and said they would open just for us, but there would be no dinner service. That was fine by me, so we accepted and got ourselves a room for 3 for the night. There was a restaurant in walking distance.

A short day, with 50km, 696m of climb.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Rest Day: Tour du Madaloc

From Screen Captures

Mike and I got up at 8am, ate a quick breakfast. And rode towards Colliure, hoping to pick up the trail to Tour du Madeloc. Soon, we saw other cyclists on the road and on a hunch followed them. That was a good choice, since they led us up a road that wasn't on my map onto D86 and confirmed that this was Tour du Madeloc. The views from the climb were as pretty as I remember from 10 years ago, with the Cote Vermeille off to our left and the pretty seaside village of Collioure gleaming away in the distance.

At the junction we turned right after a short retrograde and then right again after climbing to 450 meters. Then past the no-entry sign (regularly ignored by everyone) the grade got steep as it climbed to 652m in steep pitches that almost had my
front wheel lifting off the ground.

Fortunately our gears were low enough and we were at the top of the mountain. After pictures and admiring the scenery we headed down the mountain, but didn't get far before I heard a pop. It wasn't my tire but it was Mike's. We booted the tire but Mike didn't trust it so he decided to walk down while I rode to the hotel to get a spare.

On the way back,I got a call from Mike saying that a he had gotten a folding 23 from a passing van, so we agreed to meet in Collioure where we had lunch (our waiter happened to be one of the Mountain Bikers who had guided us this morning!).

Back at the hotel, Mike fixed up his brake (which rubbed against the tire causing it to explode), and I mailed maps I didn't need anymore back to myself. Roberto bought train tickets to Montpelier, and I took a brisk swim at the beach. Dinner was at a Turkish restaurant which gave me a pear-based dish that was quite good!

46.5km, 1124m of climb. Not bad for a rest day.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Gincla to Argeles-Sur-Mer

From Screen Captures

We set off this morning up D22 to the top of Col d'Aussueres (1020m). It was cool to the point where we had to go hard to warm up, but the top of the Col was in sunlight, with views of pastoral farmland before descending down to the Pyrenean desert on the other side.=. The descent down to Sournia was on pretty but narrow and rough roads, with only occasional traffic. Once there, however we took a wrong turn towards Campoussy instead of towards Col des Auzines (606m). What really irked me about this mistake was that I had my GPS unit there, and I have even written a blog post on dynamic routing, my I had neglected to put my brain in gear and use it when the intersection was signed ambiguously. Fortunately, we did not have to do much extra climbing before turning around and heading towards the right place --- Col des
Auzines. The approach to this pass was classic Pyrenean desert with chapparal and rock outcroppings --- the only thing that told me it wasn't California were the old ruined castles and the like. From just past the Col we could see our first glimpse of the Mediterreanean.

With the beach in view at last, we were pulled towards the coast with ferocity. The descent was fast and furious, and the corners well graded and banked, so soon we were in Ille-sur-Tet.

The last 30km or so to the beach was a drag --- stiff headwinds, heavy beach traffic, and warm weather, a shock to my system after the cool morning. The roads were also rough --- much worse than the mountains. As we approached Argeles-Sur-Mer, Mike discovered that his saddlebag was leaning against his rear brake cable, causing an annoying noise. We stopped at a supermarket to pick up Orangina bottles, drinking one immediately to cut the bottom into a shim to fix this problem. Riding into Argeles-Sur-Mer was such a headache that I resolved to take a train out of the area if possible.

After asking at the local Hotel de Ville (city hall), we were directed to the tourist information center, where we got a list of hotels, and picked a cheap one with air conditioning. We got an obligatory picture of the three of us at the beach with our bikes, and by 5pm I was on the beach at Argeles-Plage, swimming and getting ready for a much needed "rest day", after having ridden 96.3km and climbed 1024m.

The night, I discovered the true purpose of the Vibram Five Fingers --- while playing air hockey with Roberto, a beautiful blond woman came up to me and started talking to me excitedly. Since my French was nearly non-existent, I was non-plussed until I'd figured out that she was talking about my shoes! I obliged and took off my shoes and showed it to her.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Tarascon-sur-Ariege to Gincla

From Screen Captures

We left Tarascon this morning late as usual and headed in the wrong direction to pick up a beautiful road known as route des corniches which starts in Bompas with a scary 15% grade which turned out to be a false scare as the road itself (D20) was relatively level. It was a lovely road, shaded by trees with farms and lots of things to look at. Riding along the ridge I was struck by how beautiful this road was --- it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip despite the relatively low altitude, winding its way high above the ridge where we could see the main national highway before, with views of the villages below us.

The descents were gentle and swooping, giving us lots of time to admire the views, and the climb was relatively gentle. Upon looking at my Michelin map, I saw that there was a trail marked from Cassou directly to Col de Marmare (1361m), bypassing Col de Chioula (1431m). Well, a rough stuff traverse this convenient begged to be tried, so we took it, knowing that it could be quite a bit of work. The trail started out nicely enough, with butterflies of varying colors fluttering before our wheels, and views of the surrounding peaks. About a couple of kilometers into it, however, the trail suddenly took a sharp left turn, and went up at what looked like a 30% grade.

Looking at my GPS unit, it looked like we only had 1km left, but we had to climb 300m in that time, so we got off our bikes, and braced ourselves for a slog. And a slog it was. It turned out to be a horse trail, and the hiking was tough, necessitating several stops to lift our bikes over rocks, tree roots, and other obstacles. We had to rest quite frequently, and by the time we summited we were tired. (And there was also a sign that said no bikes, which didn't do us any good!)

Our reward a 4 course 2 hour lunch with Creme Brulee as the dessert. We then went over Col des 7 Feres (1253m) and descended on D20, a gorgeous slot carved into a gorge along a river. By then it was getting late but we got to a tourist information center off the main road at the Axat intersection before it closed and booked a place in Gincla.

Riding into Gincla, we were impressed by the hotel we had booked sight unseen --- it was a Logis de France place, but because of the isolation it was very expensive.

A relatively easy day with 89.3km and only 1512m climbed (except for the rough stuff).

Saturday, September 06, 2008

St. Lary to Tarascon-sur-Ariege

From Screen Captures

We woke up in the morning to the sound of rain, and so took our time with breakfast hoping that the rain would go away by the time we left. This turned out to be a strategic mistake, as the rain didn't stop, and so we didn't leave till till 10:40am. It drizzled mildly as we descended into St. Girons with mildly annoying traffic. In St. Girons, I tried to navigate us onto a small road along the Gorges de Ribaouto, but it turned out to be one way only in the wrong direction so we had to ride the main road along the river to Masat, where we stopped for a huge 4 course lunch. It was so big none of us could finish the main dish and Mike had to decline the dessert.

There, we debated the wisdom of various alternate routes to Tarascon that might be more scenic or less traffic'd, but the rain that came down as we left the restaurant decided that for us --- we ended up riding along the main road onto Col des Caougnous (947m) and Col de Port (1250m). The rain was quite warm, so much so that I had to shed my rain jacket halfway up as it got too hot. The rain started getting heavy as we arrived at the summit, and then we had the cold descent in the rain before we arrived in Tarascon. In Tarascon, we looked at two hotels before settling into the Hotel de la Post along with another group of van-supported cycle tourists. That turned out not to be such a bright idea as the hot showers were only luke-warm when 20 or 30 cyclists tried to use them at once, but the food was decent. Our Kindles which had become our primary defense against the incredibly slow French food service industry, drew a lot of attention in the dining room.

A soggy day with 87.1km traveled, and only 1019m climbed. We hoped for better weather the next day.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Arreau to St. Lary

From Screen Captures

We woke up to sunny skies, and proceeded down the road towards Col de
Peyresourde (1569). The Col was marked on my Michelin map as a double chevron, supposedly well above 8%, but the reality was that the road was straight and didn't feel very steep at all, with nice tail wind helping us push all the way to the top. The only real challenge was a deliberately set brush fire that generated a ton of smoke which forced us to sprint through it. The summit had a cafe where a couple of British cyclists were sitting down, having passed us unloaded. Being friendly, we sat down with them and ordered lunch and had a good chat.

The two of them had done the full Raid tour the year before, and hence could give me information about the surrounding areas. My GPS-set route had us going South from Bagneres-de-Luchon into Spain, but my companions still did not want to brave the hospitality industry in Spain. It turned out that the road I was trying to ride around, D125 had wide bike lanes, so we didn't have to route around it. I also spotted a white road (as described in Raising the Bar). This wasn't on the official Raid tour, but since we couldn't give a rat's ass about that anyway, and the OCD guide gave it good reviews, we decided to go for it and ignore the rest of my carefully routed GPS routes.

The descent from Col de Peyresourde turned out to be just as fast as all the previous Cols, and we arrived in Bagneres-de-Luchon delighted to find a tailwind waiting for us. We quickly rode the flat 18km to Marignac, and turned off onto D44 towards St. Beat. The warm day had left Roberto already with empty water bottles, so he filled up at a cafe in St. Beat despite the owner's unhappiness at not making money off the transaction. The climb up Col de Mente(1349m) felt quite a bit tougher than Col de Peyresourde, ranging above 8% most of the time, but fortunately the sky chose to cloud up at that moment, which made the climb relatively cool.

At the top, I put on a jacket, arm and leg warmers and ate my apple. When everyone had showed up, we first looked at the lodging available right at the top of the Col --- it turned out that while they had rooms, they had no food, so we began the descent towards Col de Portet d'Aspet (1069). All through the descent we tried to find lodging but had no luck because I had stupidly thought that France's area code was 43, rather than 33, so every phone number at every B&B returned a busy signal.

Well, we thus had no choice but to climb the Col, riding past the memorial for Fabio Casartelli. By the time we arrived at the top, Mike was out of water, I was nearly out as well, and Roberto was still climbing. So Mike dumped his saddlebag, filled up bottles at the fountain, and went down to get Roberto. On the climb, I noticed an advertisement for a Logis de France hotel in St. Lary, so I knew we could find something if we kept going. Riding down to St. Lary, we followed the signs to a very nice hotel. This was doubly surprising because the advertisements had announced that it was not just a hotel, but also a bar and a tobacco shop. We ordered the demi-pension, and got a nice suite much better than the 65 Euro charge would have implied. The waitress was also quite pretty, so Roberto went back to the hotel room to get his camera so he could take pictures with her.

Of all the days we had while riding, this felt the most like a day in the alps: 84.5km, 2204m climb.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Tour of the Pyrenees so far

Day 1 Hendaye to St. Etienne, 98.5km, 2026m climb
Day 2 St. Etienne to Ochagavia, 78.8km, 1765m climb
Day 3 Ochagavia to Bielle, 97.9km, 2116m climb
Day 4 Bielle to Luz, 74.5km, 1762m climb
Day 5 Luz to Arreau, 62.4km, 2037m climb

Yes, it's quite rugged out here. Our mileage is dropping even while
our climb stays the same. The descents have been steep but fun.
Consistent 9-10% grades, with controlled tight turns. Feels a bit more
like sky diving than cycling when you're dropping out of the sky like

Even Roberto admits to feeling fear on some of these descents. He even
braked on sone straightaways! The roads are pretty rough, and it's
been warm. A nice change from Germany.

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