Tinseltown hits the cutting room floor

29 11 2010

There’s few things better than catching a movie on a rainy Friday afternoon.

Parking is easy to find. There’s no line at the ticket counter. No chatty, rambunctious teenagers checking their text messages during the movie. And plenty of seats to choose from in the sparse theaters.

If there’s a Hollywood blockbuster that catches my fancy, I’ll usually stay out here in the ‘burbs and head to one of the SilverCity multiplexes. If it’s more esoteric, independent, arty fare I seek, I head downtown to the Fifth Avenue Theater or the Tinseltown.

The Tinseltown is no more. Now it's just another notch in the corporate belt of Cineplex-Odeon, the scourge of quality movie exhibition.


Alas, that last option is no longer available. While the Tinseltown is still in business, it’s now owned by Cineplex-Odeon, the same company that’s turned movie-going into a noisy, over-stimulated endurance test with its ubiquitous SilverCity’s.

I suppose it was inevitable. Cineplex-Odeon has been buying its competitors for years, inflating ticket and concession prices and limiting access to smaller movies along the way. In many cities, they’re the only movie player in town.

As the only Canadian outpost for the Texas-based Cinemark company, Tinseltown was ripe for the picking. When they came to town as part of the highly-anticipated upscale International Village shopping center on the edge of Vancouver’s Gastown and Chinatown neighborhoods, Tinseltown was supposed to be the beachhead for a Canadian invasion.

But the International Village was a dud. The food court is moribund, many of the stores are still empty. In fact, about the only thing that has been a success down there is the 12-screen theatre.

Tinseltown is a great place to catch a movie. It’s a short walk from the Stadium skytrain station, so it’s convenient. It has great deals for matinee admissions. The seats in the theaters are spacious and recline. Commercials prior to the main feature are minimal and are shown before the scheduled start time for the movie; so when a screening is supposed to start at 1 p.m., it really does start at 1 p.m., not 20 minutes later after Toyota and feminine hygiene product commercials and the trailers for upcoming films.

And, most importantly, its programming goes beyond the normal Hollywood blockbusters. It takes risks with small, independent films, film festival holdovers, foreign films and even the occasional Canadian feature that otherwise couldn’t buy its way into screen time at a Cineplex.

Cineplex-Odeon didn’t waste any time putting its stamp on its new acquisition; they changed the name to the cumbersome Cineplex Odeon International Village Cinemas, the cheap admissions for early matinees are gone, and there’s not a single foreign film in this week’s lineup.

It’s likely only going to get worse.

Cineplex-Odeon’s standards have been slipping the past few years. Most of the concessions are no longer open for weekday matinees. Staffing is minimal. The movie-viewing experience is deteriorating; I’ve endured sound problems, framing issues, and this past Friday I walked out of Russell Crowe’s latest, The Next Three Days, because the projection lens was dirty or smeared, robbing the film of all its contrast and color saturation.

So long Tinseltown. It was great while it lasted.


Baby, it’s cold outside

22 11 2010

It’s cold.

Toe-freezingly, lip-dehydratingly, don’t-even-think-about-going-out-without-a-hat cold.

Go for a ride? Forget it. Flip on the gas fireplace and surf cycling websites is as close as I’m going to get for a ride as long as we’re in this cold snap.

This is what winter looked like on the weekend.

Thing is, I never used to be such a cold weather wimp. I grew up in Ontario after all, where winter usually starts in late October and doesn’t loosen its grip until sometime in April. I even spent four years in Ottawa, often skating on the frozen Rideau Canal in -30 degrees and blizzards.

Now I shiver just typing those words.

Moving to the West Coast has that effect.

My first year here, 1991, I don’t remember seeing any snow at all. Except on the tops of the North Shore Mountains. Where it belongs.

That’s how most West Coasters think about snow; it’s great, as long as it stays in the mountains. That way we get to decide when we want to frolic in the white stuff, rather than letting the snow get the better of us.

Which is exactly what happened two winters ago, when we seemed to get snowstorm after snowstorm through December so that by the end of the month the whole Lower Mainland was virtually paralyzed.

There is one thing I do like about snow, though; I love shoveling it! When I was living in my old apartment, I bought my own shovel so I could shovel the sidewalk in front, and a few parking spots along the curb, partly to increase my odds of retaining a clear spot for my car when I got home from work or running errands, but mostly because I just loved the exercise, the cold air filling my lungs, the muffled sounds of the city in the snow.

But now that we’re living in a condo, with underground parking, that occasional slice of winter joy is no more; winter’s just cold and unforgiving again.


A winter’s tale

20 11 2010

I need a winter bike. And it’s not even winter yet.

Since my rare November road ride more than a week ago. my Orbea has been a mess.

The roads were actually dry that day, except for a stretch of Southwest Marine Drive through UBC that never seems to dry after September 1 because of the shadow cast across the shoulder by the low fall sun. The sand and grit kicked up by my tires got everywhere.

Yes, that's fresh snow on the neighboring rooftops.

The cold weather and short days make it difficult to find the time and inclination to set up the workstand on the balcony and hit the degreaser. But with my bike sharing office space where I compose these very blogs, as well as other creative genius, its messy, grubby, sandy state was making me increasingly glum. I like a clean bike. I like the orange frame to gleam, the chain to sparkle. On many I ride I’ve been complimented that my bike looks like new, even though it’s got eight seasons of riding in it. And it’s probably why it still rides like new (well, that and a whole lot of new components over the years).

So this afternoon, with five or six centimetres of fresh snow on the ground, and the waning sun barely above the horizon, I bundled up and cleaned it up. The long-range weather forecast for the end of next week suggests it might be warmer and dryer, so another November ride could be a possibility. It has to be in good riding shape.

However, if the Orbea was my winter bike, and I had a shiny new Lapierre or Look or Pasculli hanging in the office, I wouldn’t have to fuss over it so much.

Of course, where I’d store it is a whole other problem…


Dipping into the Dark Side

17 11 2010

I’ve dipped into the Dark Side.

And it wasn’t pretty.

Since we returned from our holiday, Katie has been in a bit of post-marathon run funk. In fact, she hasn’t run at all. And she’s been getting increasingly dismayed about it.

I know what that’s like. I’ve gone through riding funks myself. Usually after completing some sort of epic ride. While the first few days of such a funk may be physical, allowing your body to recover from a big effort, anything after that is usually mental. You start to find excuses to dismiss your commitment; it’s cold, it’s wet, it’s dark, your favorite socks are in the laundry.

But at some point you’ve got to crush those excuses and just get out there.

So on Monday, when Katie said she really wanted to run, but she was worried about heading out alone into the dark, cold, windy night, I volunteered to accompany her. I volunteered to put on my sneakers and run with her…

Ooooh, the sacrifices I make...

Pause here to appreciate the significance of my sacrifice.

I’m not a runner.

It’s way too freakin’ hard, all that pounding on the feet and knees, all that standing up, all those sidewalk hazards like cracks and slippery leaves puddles and dog poo. And for all that effort, you don’t really get too far; give me a 100 km bike ride over a five km run any day!

But if Katie needed a little support to get back up on the running horse, by golly I’d suck it up and lace ’em up.

Fortunately, she wasn’t planning to repeat her marathon distance, or even air it out for 10 km. She just wanted to get out there, a limber up run of about three km along the waterfront and back.

Twenty minutes later, I was winded and sweating. Running fitness is different from cycling fitness. I felt like I’d just played two games of road hockey without a break. I also felt a bit exhilarated; the little burn in my lungs and legs felt great, the cold night air tickled my skin. I’d kept up most of the way, and I didn’t trip or step in dog poo!

But most importantly, Katie was smiling. She’s back!

...but they're worth it!


Shopping for a bike

15 11 2010

It’s no secret; I’m jonesing for a new bike.

The Orbea has been a great bike. But it’s got a lot of kilometers on it, and aluminum frames are so 2003.

Carbon fibre is where it’s at.

On our recent trip to Europe, I was hoping I’d get a chance to¬† visit some bike shops and check out the exotic European brands that aren’t so ubiquitous around here. Amidst all the Treks, Specializeds and Cervelos I see on my regular rides, it’s rare to spot a Lapierre, Focus, Canyon or Museuw.

Testing my new water bottle from the famous Plum bike shop in Ghent.

I didn’t want to turn our holiday into Mario’s bike-shopping adventure, but when we stumbled upon the famous Plum bike shop in Ghent (well, maybe not so accidentally), I had to pay my respects. It’s been around for 100 years, and even has its own museum in a back room.

But it seems city bike shops in Europe are more about everyday get-around bikes than catering to racers. The various departments in the store were stuffed with all manner of urban bikes, commuter bikes, delivery and carriage bikes and even little trikes for kids not yet old enough for bikes.

Aside from a couple of nice Eddy Merckx racing bikes hanging in the front window, the only other racing bikes represented were all from… Trek! Aaaargh, it seems the ubiquitous American company is exotic in Europe.

In Berlin, there was a small bike shop right across from our apartment, but it was more of a repair outlet. The few other shops we passed had little to draw me in.

That is, until I read about the Pasculli bike shop, in the Wilmsersdorf district, on Rapha’s website. It’s more like a boutique or gallery, selling only its house brand of custom-fitted bikes constructed at a small factory in Italy. It was started as a sideline project by Christoph Hartmann, an oboist for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with a passion for cycling; Antonio Pasculli was a virtuoso oboist from Sicily who was known as “the Paganini of the oboe.”

Walking into the shop was like walking into a Mercedes or Ferrari dealership. Instead of greasy wrenches huddled over their workstands, a well-dressed woman greeted visitors at a reception desk. The foyer featured a sitting area of couches and easy chairs grouped around a stylish coffee table stacked with cycling books and issues of Rouleur magazine.

Is it a bike shop or an art gallery?

Actually, it's a bit of both.

There are about a dozen bikes in the Pasculli oeuvre, aluminum and carbon fibre racers, a time trial bike, a cyclocross bike, commuters and a mountain bike. They’re beautifully built and finished, hand-painted in your choice of color patterns. They’re elegantly displayed, against a backdrop of photographs by German cycling photographer Timm Koelln.

Now this is the way bikes should be sold.

Overcoming the epic hangover

12 11 2010

Cyclists live for the “epic” ride.

It’s a test of our fitness, our resolve, our capabilities.

It also makes for great stories, endlessly told over beers years on to the point of becoming legends.

But what of the ride after the epic ride?

It never gets any love. It’s rarely the fodder for bar stool braggadocio.

Yet it’s often more difficult than the epic ride that preceded it. At least mentally.

I’ve always suffered a bit of a let down after an epic ride, a sort of cycling hangover.

It was almost three weeks until I got back on the road bike after completing the Fondo. Friday, I took advantage of a rare dry day in November to do a 62 kilometer jaunt out to UBC, almost two full weeks after our epic cobbled adventure in the wind and rain of Flanders.

It's not quite the cobbles of the Kwaremont, but the broken and heaving pavement on the Camosun hill at the eastern edge of UBC make it almost as bumpy.

I like to savor my epic rides, let them roll around in my memories for a while, filling my heart with the glow of their achievement. Getting back on the bike after an epic ride is like hitting the reset button, or reformatting the memory card in your camera, wiping out all those awesome photos you took on your last vacation (presumably you’ve already downloaded them into your computer, or else we’re dealing with a whole other kind of metaphor here).

There’s also something romantic about ending the season with an epic ride, as if every ride through the spring and summer was leading up to that one great cycling experience. And when it’s done, you’ve got the whole winter to bask in it.

Curiously, that’s usually how my cycling season on the road actually does play out, with one big awesome ride sometime in the early fall and then thud, nothing but trail rides after that. Partly it’s to preserve that epic ride, partly it’s the shorter days and lousy weather that usually sets in in early October and doesn’t let up until sometime in March or April.

In fact, today’s ride was the first time I’d been on the road bike in the month of November in six years. Maybe that alone is enough to qualify it as epic…

Into the night

11 11 2010

It’s winter.

Oh sure, according to the calendar winter is officially still more than a month away. And the weather forecaster has yet utter the dreaded “s” word.

But for all intents and purposes winter started last weekend when we changed our clocks back to standard time.

Don’t get me wrong, I love sleep-an-hour weekend as much as the next person (in fact, it’s probably the best non-holiday holiday of the year), but turning time back by an hour means it’s always dark. We wake up in the dark. We drive home from work in the dark.

We ride in the dark.

My riding buddy Dan, getting ready to tackle the night.

There’s no more sliver of dusk to alight the mounting of our bikes on the roof rack. There’s no more fading gloom that allows you to see 100 meters up the trail at least at the start of an evening ride.

We suit up under the phosphorous glow of a street lamp. We ride by the little cone of white or yellow light created by the battery-powered head lamp mounted on our handlebars.

We ride fast to stay ahead of the cold. We ride conservatively because roots and logs and muddy bogs have a way of leaping up out of the shadows created by the cones lighting our way through the forest.

But, most importantly, we ride.

It’s not easy though. When it’s always dark, and usually cold and wet, there’s any number of excuses to keep you from the bike: It’s dark; it’s cold; it’s wet; it’s muddy and not worth the post-ride cleanup; there’s too much to watch on tv; there’s nothing to watch on tv but at least watching tv is preferable to getting cold and wet and muddy.

Overcoming those excuses is probably the biggest challenge of our evening trail rides through the winter. We’re not always successful, but when we do, inevitably it’s worth it.

Our rides are short, about an hour covering just a tick over 15 kilometers. The route is almost always the same because nobody want’s to be taken by surprise in the darkness. But the burn in the lungs from the night air is invigorating, the burn in the legs from the climb up from the beach is enlivening. The twinkle of the stars bright enough to fill the city sky is awe-inspiring. And the water in our bottles is always cold.


A sudden fondness for Fondos

9 11 2010

Suddenly there’s Fondos a-poppin’ up everywhere.

When the Whistler Gran Fondo was announced almost exactly a year ago, it was a first for Canada. It sold out in weeks.

At the time, the company staging the fondo said it would be organizing more across Canada. A few weeks ago they unveiled the Kelowna Gran Fondo, to be held July 16. That’s just a week after another venture just down the road in Penticton, the Axel Merckx Gran Fondo.

Axel is jumping on a North American trend started last year by Levi Leipheimer, who has his own Gran Fondo in northern California. European pros often lend their names and star power to Fondos in Europe.

Next year there will also be new Gran Fondos in New York City and Philadelphia.

What’s with all this Fondo love all of a sudden?

They’re not cheap; registration for next year’s Whistler event runs $270 all in, and that’s not including the cost of a hotel room and meals if you decide to make a weekend of it.

They’re not easy; at 120 kms, the Whistler Gran Fondo is actually one of the shorter events as most of the Fondos in the US are 100 miles.

And there’s only so many MAMILs to go around.

In case you missed it, a MAMIL is an acronym for Middle Aged Male In Lycra, a phenomenon coined last summer by the BBC for men treating their mid-life crisis by buying expensive carbon fiber bikes and taking up cycling. I’m quite proud to include myself in their ranks, although I’ve been cycling all my adult life, and my current bike is aluminum but it does have many carbon fiber bits.

Are there enough MAMILs and MAWILs to support all the Fondos that are being organized in North America?

When I was shivering in the pre-dawn darkness in the starting corral before the Whistler Gran Fondo, I remember looking around at all the cyclists stretched up and down Georgia Street as far as the eye could see and thinking I never realized there were so many roadies in the Vancouver area. Sure enough, most of them were just like me, men, and a good number of women (I guess they’d be MAWILs) in their 40s and beyond, aboard a dizzying array of impressive Treks, Cannondales, Specializeds, Cervelos, Litespeeds, Merlins, etc, all wearing lycra with varying degrees of panache.

But are there enough MAMILs in BC to sustain three Gran Fondos in a single year, including two in the same week? I’m skeptical. And this early in their North American evolution, a failed Fondo could be bad for the surviving Fondos.

As we saw with the first Whistler Gran Fondo, putting on such an event is a huge logistical undertaking. The organizers got a lot right, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. They’ve acknowledged that and vowed to make changes to further improve safety and the riding experience.

With all these newfound Fondos popping up, I’m treading carefully; I wouldn’t want to send in my registration fee only to see the event go up in smoke because the organizers bit off more than they could chew, or registration didn’t measure up to their financial obligations. I’m eyeing Levi Leipheimer’s Gran Fondo in Sonoma; it’s in its third year and it already has a great reputation. And it’s likely to be a heck of a lot warmer than Whistler in September.

Travel reflections: Home again

6 11 2010

The bad thing about holidays is that inevitably they end.

We’ve been home for a week now. After a couple of rough nights, we’re over the jet lag. We’re back at work, back into familiar routines, for better or for worse.

The memories of our trip hit at odd times, like “a week ago we were walking up the Ku’damm in Berlin,” or “two weeks ago we were getting bundled up for our assault on the cobbles around Ghent,” or “I’d rather be riding the Metro in Paris than being stuck in my car in this traffic jam.”

Three weeks of getting around on foot, and by Metro, U-bahn and S-bahn was heaven. Driving in the Lower Mainland is hell.

Cooking dinner at home isn't just cheap, it's also an adventure in shopping.

I love the compactness of the neighborhoods in old European cities that allows you to get pretty much everything you need for day-to-day life within walking distance. In Paris, Florence, Barcelona, NIce and Berlin, the baker, the butcher and the produce market never seemed more than a 10-minute stroll away. Because space is tight and fridges are small, most people do some grocery shopping every day, for the food they’ll eat that day, and maybe the next. That means you tend to eat fresher, healthier, less processed and preserved food. Plus it’s a whole lot more fun.

An omlette at home is just a quick and easy meal, but in Barcelona it’s an adventure in acquiring eggs, peppers, onions and ham at a local market, in Spanish. And what could be more Italian than buying fresh pasta, sauce and bread at an outdoor market in Florence, or more German than assembling the ingredients for a meal of wurst, kartoffle salat, gorken salat and armbrot from the gourmet counters on the expansive food floor of the KaDeWe in downtown Berlin? I’m getting hungry just typing this…

And when you do have to travel further afield, the subway systems are incredible. I’ve come to love the challenge of dropping into a European city and figuring out the puzzle of their transit system, following the colored lines on the map, putting together the lines and transfer points to get us to our destination.


Of course my favorite subway line in Berlin was the U2!

Even buying the tickets is fun, once you overcome the tentativeness of figuring out the system and learn the tricks to get the best value. When we couldn’t find a tour bus to take us around Berlin for the last night of the city’s Festival of Lights, a concierge at a hotel advised us to catch the #100 city bus and it would take us across the city, past all the important buildings and monuments, at one-tenth the cost. And since many of the city buses in Berlin are double-deckers, the view is as good as any tourist bus!

But if there’s one thing I won’t ever miss about Europe, it’s the phone system. The symbol and number sequences and dialing codes just mystify me. And don’t even get me started about the calling cards and complicated instructions to make a simple call from a public phone! Aaaaarrrrrggghhhhhhh… I just want to make a phone call, not dissect the human genome, thank you very much.

Click on the photo below to return to Berlin with us.

Believe me, I'm not this excited to be back home.

Travel reflections: Belgium

4 11 2010

Here’s the sum total of what Katie and I knew about Belgium before we traveled there:

chocolate + beer = Belgium

Actually, that’s not totally accurate. I also knew Belgium was a hotbed for cycling. And prior to departing, we did watch the Colin Farrell movie In Bruges to get a glimpse of what we might see.

What we discovered after we got off the train at Saint Pieter station in Ghent was so much more:

really good chocolate + 780 brands of beer + crazy, passionate cycling fans = Belgium

Plus throw in some steak and frites, tumultuous history involving torture, nooses and sweet, gelatinous purple noses. The towns we saw were compact with expansive central squares, the homes small, surrounded by tidy lawns and gardens. The people we met were warm and welcoming.

So many beers, so little time...

It’s also a country with it’s own cultural and language divisions between the Dutch speaking Flanders and the French Walloonia, not unlike the divide between English and French Canada.

And it seems we’re not the only ones to have been charmed by Belgium, and in particular, Ghent. The city was just named as one of Lonely Planet’s top ten world cities to visit in 2011.

Click on the photo to discover some Belgian delights, including chocolate and beer!


Composer Gustavo Santaolalla poses in the back seat of our cousin's old car.

(Incidentally, the music in the presentation is by Gustavo Santaolalla, one of the composers featured at the World Soundtrack Awards, which conclude the annual Ghent International Film Festival; the track is from the film Babel, and was also used in Michael Mann’s film, The Insider. Santaolalla was also one of the composers featured in a series of photos by Belgian photographer, Kris Dewitte, who shot a number of film composers in the old car owned by our cousin, Filip.)