The easy road

27 07 2011

Never look a gift horse in the mouth. Or easy kilometers.

Any cyclist who tells you they don’t appreciate the occasional soft pedal is either lying or a masochist. Whether it’s a flat, fast ride, cruising in the slipstream of a passing vehicle, or tagging along at the tail end of a pace line, the easy ride is the road to salvation and recovery for most cyclists. Heck, just ask any sprinter like Mark Cavendish, who hide out in the peloton all day until they have to fire their fast twitch muscles in the last explosive 300 meters of a long day on the bike.

A true fixie, affixed to the sidewalk in front of a bike shop in Steveston

After pedaling almost 600 kilometers last week, some of them in a driving rainstorm, many of them up and down hills, including the knee-bursting 25% incline of Killer Hill, I felt I’d earned an easy go on Wednesday. Plus there was the added incentive that the pan-flat route to lovely Steveston was just long enough to put me over my 1000 km goal for the month.

It’s getting harder to get significant rides in after dinner; the days are getting noticeably shorter. We haven’t even had summer yet and we’re already fretting about the imminence of fall.

Under my bum

24 07 2011

Summer! Finally!

Sunday was the first time I’d suited up for a ride with less than three layers of Underarmour and cycling jersies. It was the first time I didn’t even consider packing along my arm warmers, or putting on my knickers. It was sunny and it was warm. It was July 24!

Of course, all that sun and warmth is a mixed blessing. Suddenly I had to worry about slathering on sun screen and adding a tube to my already stuffed pockets for reapplication halfway through my ride. And I had to measure my pace to ensure I didn’t overheat.

Usually these are things I have to worry about in May, then have totally acclimated by July. But that’s how crummy our summer has been.

About those pockets; they’re causing me some dismay.

As I don’t want to besmirch the smooth, sexy lines of the Lapierre, I refuse to add a seat bag to carry around those essentials for minor repairs on the road. In fact, I didn’t have a seat bag on the Orbea either. So the spare tube, CO2 cartridges, tire levers, allen keys, ID and money, condo keys, cell phone and camera must all go in the pockets of my jersey. It looks quite bulgy. And I can never remember in which pocket I’ve put what, so it’s often a scramble when the phone rings or I want to take a photo. My riding would be so much easier if I had a team car accompany me.

As Katie had planned a run in the country at her parents’ place, I headed that way as well, a 90 kilometer trek with two significant climbs, including the knee-bursting Killer Hill, with its 25% gradient for about 500 meters!

My lunch stop was going to be one of my favorite bistros, but when I went to place my order for their salmon sandwich on a baguette, I was advised they didn’t sell sandwiches on Sunday, only brunch. Um, isn’t lunch the unch component of brunch, and aren’t sandwiches a usual component of said lunch? And it’s not like customers were busting down their doors for their brunch menus; I was the only one in the place!

I moved on to my backup bistro in a development called Newport Village.

For the most part the suburbs are a disaster of dashed mixed-development dreams. Builders include street level retail space at the base of their condo towers then can’t find tenants or lease to payday loan outfits or 99 cent pizza joints. Retail of last resort.

But Newport Village is a planned development that works. Amidst the mix of tall towers and four-storey condos there’s a small town square occupied by a green grocer and an Italian bakery/deli, surrounded by wide sidewalks and a healthy mixture of stores like a butcher, fish monger, clothing boutiques, a sushi restaurant, a pub, a running store and more. The planted trees are thriving, there are plenty of park benches on which to rest in their shade.

Newport Village is one of my favorite places for a pit stop.

It’s a vibrant, lively little place that really does feel a bit like a village. People are walking about, visiting with their neighbors, doing their shopping. If only it was better served by transit, it would probably be easy to live there and not require a car, a pretty amazing achievement for suburbia.

It’s all about the parking

22 07 2011

There are two more days left in the Tour de France. But for all intents and purposes three weeks of some epic bike racing will come to a climax in Saturday’s individual time trial in Grenoble.

For three weeks I’ve been living in a Tour de France bubble. It’s all Tour, all the time, viewing most stages twice a day, live in the early morning, and then again in the evening. In between, I devour the various cycling websites for news tidbits, analysis, commentary and photographs.

Sporting events that are played out over days or weeks tend to be all-consuming like that. When the Olympics are on television, it’s pretty much all we watch. It was even more intense last year when the Winter Games were right here in our backyard.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to cover some sporting events that would end up occupying my time for a number of days, like a couple of Memorial Cup junior hockey championship tournaments back when I was working at a paper in Oshawa, Ontario, the Canada Games in Kamloops, the Indy car races in Toronto and Vancouver.

Covering events like those can be a lot of fun; you get a fancy badge to wear around your neck, people hold doors open for you, you get free access to areas the paying spectators can’t, you get to hang out with other media colleagues. But they’re also a lot of work.

Big sporting events have a way of distilling your life to its most basic necessities; getting to and from the venue, parking and food. If those things are taken care of, you’re free to concentrate on just getting the job done.

A sign like this is manna for the media assigned to cover this week's Canadian Open golf tournament in Vancouver; one less thing to worry about!

Experienced event organizers know this; that’s why they usually provide media with shuttle buses, parking privileges and free food.

Meanwhile, the paying spectators who thought they'd found free parking nirvana along the bike lane at UBC soon found their vehicles towed.

The Indy race, which is sadly no longer a part of the Vancouver sporting scene, was especially adept at the latter. Their salmon barbecue for the media on the Saturday afternoon was a culinary highlight. In the event’s latter years they arranged for some of the city’s bigger hotels to provide the meal service for the other two days.

I can’t imagine the logistical challenges and complications of covering the Tour as it circumnavigates France. I get dizzy just thinking about the photographers and cameramen tasked with telling the race’s stories as they’re perched on the back of a speeding motorcycles, twisting and leaning up and down mountain passes, enduring rain, wind, scorching sun.

When I was at the Tour in ’03, I heard stories about the splendor of the Village Départ, a sort of inner sanctum for racers, team and tour officials, sponsors and media to relax, enjoy a beverage or meal, exchange gossip and just get away from the non-stop circus that is the Tour de France. To my mind, their privileges are well-earned.

Mind over malaise

20 07 2011

Usually my legs are twitching to ride. But sometimes they rebel, literally aching for a break.

After three days of the former, I awoke Wednesday feeling the latter. Not even the first high alpine stage of Le Tour could fire my desire to ride. Gathering storm clouds and a coolish breeze weren’t helping.

This is July?

I was ready to call it a rest day, maybe go to a movie. I even pulled from the closet a pair of pants and shirt.

But something happened on my way to the shower.


This is, after all, my Tour / riding vacation, and I’ve got a mileage goal to achieve. Last week’s lousy weather had set me back from that goal considerably, and with the calendar ticking down quickly to August, time is running out.

So I told my tightening thighs to hush up. I challenged my pained calves to get over it. And I rode.

I set out with modest ambitions. A shower that started to fall just as I turned the pedals over for the first time didn’t deter me, nor did the bracing cross-breeze (it’s hard to believe this is late July; I shouldn’t still be wearing knickers).

Soon enough I found my rhythm, the stiffness ebbed from my weary legs, and the road ahead dried out.

I rode for 72 kilometers, an easy spin along the Fraser to UBC, with a lunch stop at Mix bakery. Not a full day on the bike by any stretch, but more than I’d anticipated when the day had dawned. A triumph of mind over malaise.

Maybe tomorrow will be my rest day.

A nose for the road

19 07 2011

One of the great things about cycling is the way it engages the senses. All of them. Especially in the city.

When you’re in the car, you’re removed from the world, insulated from most of its sensations by hundreds of pounds steel, plastic, glass and fabric. It’s easy to zone out. On the bike you’re immersed in the world around you, involved with it. Zoning out can kill you.

Sight is, of course, obvious. On the bike, moving at a slower pace, you see things you might miss from a car. Even on routes I ride regularly, I often notice something new from my bike.  And your eyes are your first defense to danger as you scan the road ahead for hazards.

I've ridden past this building dozens of times, but just the other day I was struck how much it looked like it belonged along the French Riviera

Your ears can also save your life, alerting you to the size, type and speed of vehicles approaching out of your line of sight. Cyclists who ride listening to music with ear buds are tempting fate.

Shock absorbers, upholstery and insulation wrap motorists in comfortable splendor; one road surface feels pretty much like all others. On the bike, every nuance of the pavement is transmitted to your hands, arms, shoulders and butt. Potholes are to be avoided at all costs. Fresh, newly-laid pavement is luxurious. And then there’s the wind in your face, the unexpected rainstorm stinging your skin, the heat of the sun, the bite of the cold.

Taste might not be the most obvious sensory experience associated with a ride; but really is there any better reward for a good day on the bike than a delicious indulgence afterwards or along the way?

A tasty reward for a long day on the road

Smell is probably the most underrated sense tickled by a bike ride. Sure there’s car and diesel exhaust ever present. Skunk roadkill can linger for kilometers. And who hasn’t experienced the olfactory horror of getting stuck behind an oozing garbage truck on a hot day?

P.U. It's best to ride quickly past this fish plant.

But there’s also good smells, like newly cut hay fields in the country, the salty sea air, the trees in Stanley Park, the Indian restaurants in South Vancouver, the piles of fresh cedar chips at one of the few remaining saw mills on the Lower Fraser River.

Umbrellas of the gods

18 07 2011

Dear Weather Gods:

What have we done to warrant such scorn this summer never-ending spring? Or, more specifically, what have I done?

There is less than a week left in the Tour de France and we have yet to complain about a heat wave/drought/tepid nights. Oh sure, the rest of the continent is sweltering as it usually does in July, but we’ve yet to be graced with an extended run of true summer weather. Instead, we get one or two nice days, interspersed with a run of damp coolness or interminable cloud.

The third week of July, especially, is as close to a guarantee of summer weather. But on Saturday my planned ride got washed away by a rainstorm that was only supposed to last a few hours but instead settled in for the day.

Sunday was grey, humid, and a little cool. Not ideal, but not bad enough to scuttle a ride; I did 105 kilometers.

Monday was supposed to be better. That’s what the TV weather forecaster said on Sunday. The clouds will clear and the sun will shine brightly by 10:30 a.m. said the radio weather forecaster this morning. She even added a guarantee. With that assurance I headed out on my first true holiday ride. I had lofty ambitions, a long jaunt into the country, some climbing, lunch somewhere on the road.

One of my favorite places for lunch on the road, in the old part of Port Moody

Forty minutes in, as I crested Burnaby Mountain under a leaden sky, I felt the first raindrops. In minutes, it was a deluge.

Not much need for this after all

What happened? Perhaps I had reminded Katie of my slothful schedule one too many times as she headed off to work this morning? Perhaps I had taunted the weather gods by cleaning the Lapierre on Sunday? Perhaps I had placed too much faith in the weather forecasters?

I eased my way down the mountain, wary to avoid pulling a full-fledged Jens Voigt on the wet pavement. At the base of the mountain, I had a brief respite. But moments later I rode right back into the rain, this time harder and more drenching than before. I took shelter under a tree for a bit, but the way my luck with the weather gods was going, I was fearful I’d be struck down by a solitary bolt of lightning. Eventually I found refuge at a picnic shelter and waited out the storm until it became a steady drizzle.

The gloom lifted by the time I reached Belcarra

Soaked and cold, I headed for Belcarra, a beautiful rolling ride along the north shore of Burrard Inlet, past big houses and amidst towering trees with a park payoff at the end. And the bonus of a glimpse of sunshine.

You say gyro, I say giro

15 07 2011

It seems too much cycling is keeping me off my bike.

Nevermind the 5:00 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. alarms so I can wake up to watch Le Tour live in High Definition. Nevermind the interminable lousy cycling-unfriendly weather that continues to deny us a proper summer.

It’s Superweek. Which means there’s some pretty decent bike racing going on locally.

Superweek is the confluence of a number of independent bike races that have all been scheduled in the same week to attract a top field of North American pros and amateurs. Svein Tuft, Chris Horner, Dominique Rollin and even Lance have raced in Superweek.

The first UBC Grand Prix

The races are a mix of criteriums, hill climbs and road races.

Tuesday evening Katie and I headed out to UBC to meet my riding buddies Shanksman and Dan and watch the inaugural UBC Grand Prix, a 50 lap crit in the middle of campus. The field and crowd were small, but there was a great atmosphere with live entertainment on a huge patio at a nearby pub that was also a race sponsor. Of course we indulged.

But the best part was the post-race refreshment on an outdoor patio

Thursday evening I covered the return of the Giro di Burnaby, a crit in the northern neighborhood of the city. It had been absent for a couple of years because of sponsorship issues, but it came back with a vengeance. That area of the city is very multicultural, many from European countries with a rich tradition and appreciation for bike racing. They were out in force, as the crowds along the barrier built through the evening until they were three and four deep in places. They clanged bells and cheered heartily whenever a breakaway or the peloton passed. But the party vibe of UBC’s race was lacking.

The fans cheered and clanged bells at the Giro di Burnaby

There’s no shortage of restaurants along the course’s long straightaway; Italian, Indian, Mexican, Thai, Asian, Fusion. There’s one pub and at least a couple of coffee shops. But few made any effort to open themselves up to the cycling fans who lined the sidewalks in front of their establishments. Perhaps it’s our uptight liquor laws and civic bylaws that discourage lively, open patios, requiring bar and restaurant owners to jump through all kinds of regulatory hoops if they want to spread their business to the open air.

One of my best memories of my trip to Le Tour in ’03 was sitting on a patio a couple times, enjoying lunch or a beer, awaiting the race to pass along the street in front of us. Businesses there decorate their windows and put on specials to celebrate the bike race and the customers it brings rather than draw the shutters and keep them out.

The racing at the Giro was pretty good, even if it lacked the star power of previous years

Nothing like watching bike racing to get motivated to ride.

There are two closed road areas along the main stretch of the Giro that would be perfect for beer gardens with barbeque. Why not create a VIP area in one for sponsors, guests, ViPs etc, and have some of the restaurants on the street team up to manage a beer garden/patio in the other? Keep the menus simple and selection limited, so the grills and coolers could be set up and torn down quickly. And seeing as this main thoroughfare has already been closed through the busiest traffic time, why not just keep it closed for a couple of hours beyond the racing to keep the festive atmosphere going?

Looking for Bono Vox

9 07 2011

I was looking for Bono. Instead I saw two deer and a family of raccoons.

A change in my work schedule this week freed me up to ride Saturday, and after blowing off my usual Friday ride in the hope the weather would get better, I intended to take full advantage.

Friday has been windy, cool and mostly overcast. Saturday was perfect, sunny, not too warm nor too cool, no wind.

I wrestled with my route choices until the last possible moment; head east into the countryside, or head west in hopes of a Bono sighting.

About a month ago, in the thick of the Canucks’ playoff run, a young player for the Edmonton Oilers, Gilbert Brule, who’s originally from Vancouver, was driving out towards Horseshoe Bay along the seaside route to walk his dog. Actually, his girlfriend was driving and he was riding shotgun. It was starting to rain when they passed a couple of hitch hikers in sweats, walking forlornly along the side of the road. The hockey player/passenger said one of the hitch hikers looked like Bono of U2. He asked his girlfriend to pull over; but she would have none of it.

Horseshoe Bay: destination of the (rock) stars?

Now, the possibility that it really was Bono wasn’t as far-fetched as it might seem; the band loves Vancouver – they rehearsed their Elevation Tour here and they often use the city as a base when they’re on the West Coast – and with a concert in Edmonton followed a few days later by a show in Seattle, a palatial rental home along the rugged West Vancouver coast made sense. Lots of celebs encamp there when they’re in town. Bono in sweats, however, that’s a whole other story!

After imploring his girlfriend they should turn around and at least see if it really was Bono, she finally relented – “I just wanted to get him to shut up about it,” she told a local sports radio talk show. As they pulled up behind the pair of pedestrians, the player called out, “hey Bono!” and sure enough, it was the lead singer of the biggest rock band in the world who turned around. Apparently he and his assistant (you mean Bono and The Edge don’t hang out 24/7????) had decided to go for a walk but got caught in the rain and just wanted to get back to their home away from home.

Of course the player and his gobsmacked girlfriend obliged and for their good samaritan deed they were invited by Bono to come up to Edmonton for their show the next night, get backstage and hang with the band. They even got a shoutout from Bono during the show!



Alas, I didn’t recognize any celebs on the sidewalk or even riding bike as I rode the rollers out to Horseshoe Bay.

But on the way down Burnaby Mountain, booking it at 70 kmh, I did zip past a couple of very large deer grazing right along the roadway. I shudder to think what could have happened had they been startled by my sudden appearance and decided to bolt in my direction.. Sadly, I was going too fast to catch a photo

And similarly careening down a hill in Stanley Park, I spied a family of raccoons ambling awkwardly towards the roadside. Again, I was moving too quickly to pull the camera out; beside, raccoons can be nasty creatures, so it’s best to just leave them alone.

The rest of the story

6 07 2011

“You didn’t tell the whole story.”

That was Katie’s reaction after she read my previous blog entry about my transformative trip to the Tour de France eight years ago.

So, in the words of late radio raconteur Paul Harvey, here’s “the rest of the story.”

Since acquiring my first car, a bulbous Toyota Tercel that perched on skinny little tires that looked too small, I have always transported my bikes on a Thule roof rack. They’re functionally stylish, versatile and durable. When my beloved red Acura was totaled by a runaway car that whacked me heavily right behind the driver’s door, my roof rack popped off in one piece and landed about 10 meters away; I installed it just fine on my replacement car.

The day before I was to leave for my epic trip to the centenary Tour, I started breaking down my sleek Cramerotti steel racing bike for packing into a traveling case. That bike had been my first major purchase after landing a full-time job in the West; it was Columbus SLX tubing, chromed forks and stays, kitted out to my specifications with Ultegra components and Campy wheels. It was a classic beauty.

To fit the bike into the case, I had to remove the wheels, handlebar, seat and pedals. Alas, I didn’t have a pedal wrench, so I loaded it onto my roof rack and headed to my bike shop to see if they could do me a solid and help me out. They happily obliged.

Of course anyone who’s traveled to Europe, or anyplace far flung for that matter, knows there’s a ton of little details that need to be sorted before departure. After my stop at the bike shop, I decided to get some of those out of the way and headed to a nearby mall.

I pulled into the lot, keeping an eye out for a parking spot when I heard a sickening crash and thunk above me. I had completely forgotten about my bike on the roof rack! And the lot was guarded by a low arch to discourage delivery trucks.

My heart sank and stomach roiled as I stopped the car and climbed out to survey the damage. It was catastrophic; the front forks were splayed out like a newborn calf trying to get its legs, the top tube was twisted and dented, the seat ripped right up off the seat post.

I was apoplectic. In 24 hours I would be departing for a cycling trip in France without a bike!

I raced home, hid the destroyed bike and tried to devise a plan. A couple of calls to see if I could borrow a bike were futile. I headed into the city to La Bicicletta, the big roadie shop, to see if they might have something suitable on the floor.

They did!

It was an aluminum Specialized Allez in the  crazy black and white Zebra stripes of the Acqua-Sapone racing team. It fit. I told my woeful tale to the sales person who shook his head sadly; “it happens more than you know,” he reassured me, then agreed to swap out some parts for me so I could have it by the end of the afternoon.

The new Specialized got me up and over Col d'Aspin on only our third ride together.

Sure enough it was. I squeezed in a quick shakedown before packing it away for the flight to France, where she would get a proper maiden ride.

And that’s, “the rest of the story.”

L’inspiration de la Tour

4 07 2011

July is traditionally my Big Mileage Month.

Since I started logging my rides online in 2005, I’ve broken 1,000 kilometers every July but one. My best month ever was July, 2008, when I rode 1,600,6 kms.

July is so prolific partly because of the good weather and lingering daylight, that allows me to ride for 60 or even 70 kms after dinner in addition to my long weekend rides. But mostly it’s because of the Tour de France.

Long daylight means longer rides in the evening

There’s no better inspiration to ride than watching the pros cycle through France for three weeks.

I started taking Tour de France holidays in 2002; I would book a week or two of vacation time during the Tour’s final weeks so I didn’t have to worry about getting to work on time if the stage went long. Then, duly inspired by what I’d watched in the early morning, I’d go for rides in the afternoon.

Live coverage of the Tour starts early here on the West Coast, usually 5 a.m.; but extended coverage of mountain stages can start as early as 3 in the morning. I set my alarm. I could watch it at a more reasonable hour on the PVR, but I figure if the riders are out there suffering for hours on end, then I can sacrifice a little myself to bear witness. I usually watch the recording, or parts of it, in the evening as well.

That first summer of Tour de France holiday, I was sitting at the computer while watching, idly surfing websites during quiet moments of the stages, when I searched for tour companies that specialized in trips to the Tour de France. I had no idea whether such companies even existed. I was enchanted by the idea of seeing the Tour live in person, maybe even bringing my bike along to do some riding.

My searching led me to an Australian company, Bikestyle Tours, that offered just that, riding tours to the Tour. Before I knew it, I had signed on and sent in an initial deposit to secure a place for the 2003 Tour, its centenary. It may have been the most impulsive thing I’d ever done; I’d never been to Europe as an adult on my own, I had limited knowledge of French, I didn’t even have a valid passport.

My tour would be for the Tour’s last 10 days, as it went to the Pyrenées, up to Bourdeaux, then inland to Nantes before the grand finish in Paris. As it was the Tour’s 100th anniversary, there was to be much hype and pomp;; plus Lance would be riding for his chance to join cycling’s immortals as a five-time champion.

To say going to see the Tour had been a lifelong dream would be an exaggeration, though I had been beguiled by images of the race in the 1980s, during the Greg LeMond era when CBS showed highlights on Saturdays and Sundays. I loved the spectacle of the peloton speeding through little villages, past fields of sunflowers, up perilous mountain passes, the riders squeezing through the throngs of crazed fans like multi-colored toothpaste, to be spit down the speedy, lonely descents.

I trained for my holiday; I was determined to climb some of those mountains, to ride as much as possible.

Signing on with a tour company afforded us me those opportunities. After a long bus ride from Paris, with an overnight respite in Cahors, we unloaded our bikes from the special trailers just outside Foix for the 60 km ride to our first encounter with the race, at Ax-les-Thermes. It was a sweltering hot day, and our route included two grueling climbs. By the time we got to the race, the sidewalks were packed three deep and my water bottle was empty.

We watched the publicity caravan speed by in the village, caught a few knicknack souvenirs, then headed a little way up the climb in search of shade. I settled into an early hairpin and waited. The pavement was decorated with painted flags and the names of favored riders in chalk. There was no way to know what was going on.

But at the sound of a distant helicopter, everyone perked up and edged closer to the roadway. Then, the first of the sedans carrying media, VIPs and race officials sped by. Then gendarmes on BMW motorcycles. Then more motorcycles carrying photographers and even commentators. Then finally a motorcycle with a tv cameraman, And then the first riders.

My first day at Le Tour

It was a magical, surreal moment. I think I was trembling. For years I had watched this event on television, and here it was, passing only feet in front of me, with all the organized chaos and roadside bedlam that makes the Tour one of the world’s great sporting spectacles.

In all, it took maybe ten minutes from the first sound of the chopper to the passage of the broom wagon.

Over the next week and a half we were able to see the Tour pass by another half dozen times or so. We rode to stages from our hotels in Lourdes and Bourdeaux, and we were able to ride parts of stages up to Luz Ardiden, where Lance had his famous encounter with a spectator’s musette, and from Cognac to Maxient St. L’ecole, where we evaded the gendarmes and had our own sprint finish to within 100 meters of that day’s finish line. Our plan to ride the full length of the decisive time trial into Nantes was washed away by a driving rainstorm that also cost Jan Ullrich his last chance to beat Lance when he slid out on the wet pavement and into a hay bale. We were right on the finish line, peering between two commentary trailers when Lance crossed with his fist punching the air, his fifth Tour victory a lock.

Crazy Basque cycling fans on the ascent up Luz Ardiden

The trip culminated with a special ride in Paris; as the Tour organizers closed the last 30 kms of the course to allow 10,000 pre-registered riders to have their own ride along the Seine, up past Bastille, the Tuleries, around Place de la Concorde and then, finally, up and down the Champs Elysée as a public celebration of the Tour’s centenary. Everyone got a yellow jersey, and a taste of glory on the Champs.

My own Yellow Jersey moment on the Champs.

It was an amazing holiday, life-altering. It affirmed my love for road riding and piqued my love for France; I’ve been back three more times, all with Katie. Hopefully there will be more. Katie says she too would like to see the Tour in person.