L’Alpe x 2

The online journal cyclingnews reported on September 25 that “on July 18, the Tour hits ‘XXL mode’ according to the report, with two ascents of L’Alpe d’Huez.  Starting in Gap, the peloton will head up the infamous 21 switchbacks before travelling back down via the Col de Sarenne on soon to be asphalted roads. The stage will the reach a crescendo with another ascent of L’Alpe d’Huez.”  (http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/report-ventoux-and-two-ascents-of-lalpe-dhuez-for-2013-tour-de-france )

So far, of course, it’s all rumor; the parcours of the most famous bike race in the world will be formally announced on October 24.  [For me, that will be the second most significant event of that day, since it’s my daughter’s birthday.]  But just the rumor is enough to give one pause.

Some of the hairpin switchbacks on the L’Alpe d’Huez climb.

Tour officials may be raising the bar too high, and trivializing a legendary cycling challenge, in order to create a sensational event.  L’Alpe d’Huez is a ski resort at the top of an arduous alpine mountain pass.  It has appeared in the Tour’s route frequently since 1952, when it became the first mountain-top finish ever in the Tour, and the first winner in that “golden age of cycling” was Fausto Coppi.  As a British cycling commentator wryly observed, the 1952 stage finish was such a spectacular success that the Tour returned for another finish there only 24 years later.  But since 1976 it really has been a staple, and a big fan favorite.  That’s one of the problems.  It’s become so popular that people camp out and party in droves for days prior to the Tour’s visit.  The place has become, in the words of Tim Moore, “the Glastonbury Festival for cycling fans.”

Technically, the climb is not the most difficult, averaging a 7.9% gradient for 13.8 km.  The climb is quite steady, and the length is more daunting than the steepness.  But the unique feature is the 21 hairpin turns, each named for a past Tour winner of the Alpe stage.  Many victories there have been memorable: Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault finishing arm-in-arm in false camaraderie in 1986, Andy Hampsten getting a well-deserved win near the end of his career in 1992, Giuseppe Guerini hitting an idiot spectator but still winning in 1999, and of course Lance Armstrong faking fatigue for most of the stage and then blasting past Jan Ullrich to humiliate him and easily win the climb, the stage, and the Tour in 2001.

Having the Tour do it twice in the same stage would both belittle the difficulty of the climb and diminish the glory of the final victor.  Except for a few stragglers and sprint specialists the peloton will go over the top together the first time, we may be sure, because they will be saving their energy for the end.  All the aspiring climbers will be marking each other, and almost certainly will be together at the foot of the climb for the grand finale.  The double climb will take place only three days before the finale, when many of the leading riders may want to be conservative anyhow, especially with a time trial coming up two days after L’Alpe.  So the stage might well be contested by lesser lights, further diminishing its impact.

All in all, the whole idea seems like ill-advised overreaching to me.  Maybe I’ll change my mind by July.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Thoughts While Cycling

  • Ever have one of those days when you were full of energy, never got tired, felt like you could ride 37 more miles when you came in from a 37 mile ride?  I had one yesterday.  Perhaps it was just so cool, dry, fresh, and bright (the temperature never got above 65˚) that riding was virtually effortless.  My legs still feel fine today, too.
  • Yesterday was the first day of the fall season when I had to wear long sleeves to be comfortable, and even then I was on the cool side for half the ride.  As runners say, dress for the second mile.
  • Wheeling my bike into the garage yesterday, it was strangely slowing at every revolution of the rear wheel.  Spinning it, the cause was clear enough: the wheel was out of true, and rubbing on the left rear brake pad.  Lance had one of those in his glory days, except that he climbed the whole Tourmalet with it, while I just did part of a trip to Ashburn and back.
  • But wait, there’s more: I bring the wheel in to Spokes, Etc. to get it trued, and what looks like a simple repair is, on closer inspection, an irreparable fracture of the wheel.  One of the spokes, under what must have been momentary extreme pressure, has ripped the part of the rim in which it is anchored.  Wheel replacement: $200+.  Oh, well, the new wheel, still a Bontrager, is a slight upgrade, and has the added coolness of bladed spokes, which are supposed to be stronger.  On order; arrives Friday.
  • Bicycling much in the news these days in D.C., with the National Triathlon having taken place lately, and front-page Post discussions about how bikes and cars can, should, and must share the road.  One of the triathletes rode a D.C. Bikeshare bike for that part of his race.  So dorky it’s hip.   And speaking of Bikeshare, they’re into Arlington, Alexandria, and who knows what’s next?  I can tell you that every night I go in to teach at Georgetown, the Bikeshare rack at 37th and O is empty (or almost) by 7:00 p.m., and they’ve enlarged lately.
  • The flowers on the W&OD are especially vivid right now, with one almost fluorescent purple kind, and two very different sizes of what I call “Yellow Daisies.”  Only a couple of early Wooly Bears so far, and nary a Monarch butterfly to be seen.  That’s disquieting.
  • They worked on the W&OD west of Vienna for 3 months; riders got it back mid-July. Now they’re back on the same stretch, ready to repave and line the part that the machines were all over during the earlier construction.  Absolutely necessary too, since the heavy equipment destroyed the surface of the pavement.  I just hope they don’t take the current work into mid-December.  But it should not take that long.
  • Too many parents do not tell their kids what “on the left” means before they take them out on the Trail.  I always assume the kid will go the wrong way, and often it’s safer not to warn them but just ride by, fully under control of course.  And yesterday I passed a proud mom teaching her kiddy how to ride a 2-wheeler out there.  I was feeling so good I didn’t even yell at her, though she deserved it.
  • About a month after returning from my last summer trip, I’m just now feeling strong enough to “attack” short stretches where more power is needed rather than downshifting and slowing up.  Bring on October!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Equinoctial Storms

I’d already planned to be off the bike today because of the projected weather.  For the second time in about ten days, a strong squall line was supposed to blow through with a cold front behind it.  Sure enough, the morning started dark and cloudy; the streets were wet from overnight showers; the air was a super-humid 72˚; the wind was gusty.  Showers came and went during the morning.  Local terrorist weather came along later with a tornado watch before noon, a flash flood watch second, and a heavy thunderstorm watch about 2 p. m.  The online Doppler radar showed a long, narrow area of intense storminess moving northeastward, as the whole storm slowly drifted to the east.  By 2:45 there was a heavy thunderstorm warning until 3:15.  Shortly afterwards the sky opened up for about 20 minutes, during which time you could barely see across the street.  Nary a flash of lightning nor a rumble of thunder to be heard.  Now it’s raining just moderately, it’s dark again, and the watch has extended to 4:15.  The temperature has “tumbled” by eight degrees, and it has rained 0.7” today.  Tomorrow is supposed to be dry, sunny, and bright, with the high temperature possibly touching 75˚.

When this scenario first occurred a week ago Saturday, the atmosphere was juicier, so the results were more dramatic.  The pre-storm air was in the low 90s.  I had ridden in the morning, and was at the end of my rope with the humid air, which created the impression that one was underwater and could drown just by breathing.  I confess it was not truly Caribbean in its stifling heaviness, but it was more than I wanted to deal with any more.  As that frontal system blasted through, the temperature plummeted over thirty degrees into the upper 50s, a few branches came down in the wind, along with two barrels of pinecones from the neighbor’s trees, and a few distant rumbles of thunder might have been heard.  Rainfall was about 1”.

But on the next day, and every day since, the temperature has been moderate, the air has been dry.  This is the time of great, dynamic change in our days.  Low overnight temperatures are in the 50s, not the low 70s.  The Autumnal Equinox, coming up in four days on September 22, ushers in more darkness, when daylight hours are theoretically shorter than nighttime.  Actually, though, because of the refraction of the sun’s rays in the atmosphere, September 26 is the first day on which there are fewer than twelve hours between sunrise and sunset.  And the rate of change in day length is maximum right now, because that length, when plotted out over time, is like a sine curve, steepest at the equinoxes and flattest at the solstices.  During September the amount of time lost per day has been pushing up from 2 minutes 25 seconds to 2 minutes 30 seconds, where it’s been since September 16.  After October 2 the rate will again start to decline.

As a cyclist, I love it, especially when summer ends as definitively as it did on September 8.  My concern suddenly shifts from worrying about how early I’ll have to start to get my ride in before it gets too hot, to when it will be warm enough to get out there.  I can launch into a ride without thinking about having to cut it short from the heat, and there’s far less chance of unexpected dehydration.  I don’t lose visual clarity from sweat coursing down over my glasses.  I have more strength because my body doesn’t have to work so hard to keep my core from overheating.  It’s all just more fun!

I ride with full appreciation of how good autumn is and how good things don’t last forever.  Soon enough it will be too dark, too cold.  So I’ll live for the moment, and enjoy what’s here right now.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012

Knackered

Last Saturday’s ride was standard enough: a roll down the W&OD to Shrlington, followed by a return via the Trail plus a little loop through a couple of miles of North Arlington’s suburban, hilly streets.
By the time I’d hit my turnaround point I could tell I was not on a good day.  My legs felt weak (“jelly,” as Andy Murray yelled at one point in his US Open finals match), the humidity was sapping my strength, the sweat was rolling down my face, and it seemed like a long way home.  I was knackered.
This quaint expression comes from the English, source of so much linguistic curiosity.  A “knacker” is somebody who buys broken-down animals such as cows and horses to process them for the value of their cadavers.  To be knackered is to be so exhausted as to be fit for nothing more than such processing.  Quite possibly the ultimate source is the medieval “nak,” which means “worthless bit.”
Worthless or not I pressed on as planned, abjuring the shortcut that would have made the day more comfortable.  I was glad I did, because the feeling of being back in the house, out of your wet clothes, clean and dry again, is all the sweeter when you’ve really pushed yourself.
Days like that make me feel the full weight of my 73 years.  But then I remember that there are reasons for episodes like that, beyond the fact that we’re all entitled to a bad day now and then.  I seemed to suffering from minor “flue-like symptoms,” so maybe I was a little sick.  Or maybe I was a bit out of shape.  I was doing the second day of back-to-back ridding for the first time since my Northwest trip.  In fact, I missed two eight-day stretches of riding in August.  Or maybe this was just one too many oppressively humid summer days this season in Virginia.
Anyway, two days later I was out there again, on our first cool dry day since early June, rolling along at full speed.

[Written and posted from my Kindle Fire]                                    ©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Thoughts While Cycling

Weather: Late summer trips to San Diego and Seattle/Eugene have really spoiled me.  Virginia’s stifling summer humidity, which has been hammering us just about non-stop for a couple of months, all of a sudden seems insufferable.  I now have been reminded it’s possible to feel blissfully comfortable when the air temperature is in the mid-80’s, to walk across the street without working up a sweat, to wake to a cool morning even after the thermometer hit 90˚ the afternoon before.  The jet stream has been abnormally absent from our region, so vast masses of hot moist air just sort of drift around.  Right now the stiflingly soggy remnant from tropical storm Isaac is muffling us with Turkish bath air.

Nature report: I saw a box turtle mid-trail this morning.  He tucked his striped head inside his black-and-yellow shell as I zipped past.  Recently I’ve spied two spotted fawns, one with mother and one without.  Before you say “awwwwwww, how cute,” remember that this year’s cutie is next year’s overpopulated garden vandal.

Trail Flora update:  Since my photo shoot a couple of weeks ago things have changed dramatically.  The autumnal Jewel Weed, Goldenrod, and (what I think are) primroses have taken over everywhere.  Morning glory is still hanging on—the wild kind, white with deep magenta centers, and a heart-shaped leaf that leads to its being called “love vine.”  Milkweed abounds, but I have yet to see one Monarch butterfly.  Plenty of Yellow Swallowtails around, though.

Whine of the Week: Brad Wiggins is complaining about how much he disliked riding the Tour de France, which he won, this year.  Too much Twitter, pressure from the press, drug allegations, and so on.  This guy strikes me as being a lot like John McEnroe when he was at the top of his sport, tennis.  Just can’t enjoy what he’s got while he’s got it.  There’s always some bug up his [nose].  Brad, I can assure you that if it’s that much of a burden, Cadel, Tejay, and Chris, among others, would be happy if you just spent next July somewhere else.  And so would a lot of fans, who like to imagine that champions enjoy their rare achievements.

Kid of the week:  On the other hand, there is Alex Rodriguez, sometimes accused of being an indifferent underachiever, who declared yesterday on his return to action after being sidelined from the Yankee lineup for six weeks, “you get the game taken away from you, you sure do feel like a little kid coming back.”  His stock just went up in my portfolio.  Go, A-rod.

A sure sign of fall: Today I rode the 24.1 miles from home to Crestview Drive in Herndon and back without passing or being passed by one single rider going in my direction.  There were perhaps six or seven who passed me going the opposite way.  Contrast this to yesterday, when I was thinking of taking a quick ride before kids and grandkids arrived for playtime and a holiday meal.  Out for early morning groceries, I noticed a line of at least fifteen cyclists waiting on the outbound trail for the light at Maple Ave.  I decided I could wait a day.  Glad I did.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Cycling in Copenhagen

Copenhagen bike modified as parcel carrier.

On the morning we left Copenhagen on our May trip to Europe, we spotted a strange contraption as we walked to the Metro for the trip to the airport.  It had begun life as a regular bike, apparently, but had been modified into a lightweight freight hauler.  Replacing the front fork was a vertical post extending downward to a tubular frame extension that ran forward from the bottom bracket a good three feet before angling upward to join with a truncated stem and fork that held a multi-spoked, smallish wheel with a fat tire.  An offset tube running from the stem to the bottom of the vertical post appeared to be the steering mechanism.  The space between this front wheel assembly and the bottom bracket held a tubular carrier, inside which was a box bungee-corded to that vertical post.  The arrangement would have allowed for a very tall box, though this one was about the size of a wine carton.  The rear end of the vehicle was fairly normal for a bike, though the seat post was exceptionally long.  There appeared to be no brakes, but there was a rear derailleur cable for some cogs, though just a single crank gear.

Bike Counter

Bike counter: reading Danish is semi-intuitive.

This amazing modification of what had begun life as an ordinary bike typifies the pragmatic urban use of bicycles in many European cities, but especially Copenhagen.  While it’s no Amsterdam, the Danish capital is full of bikes, which form a central component of commuting, tourist recreation, and even, as in the example above, business transport.  Right near the Town Hall is one of several major bike roadways in the city.  Essentially these are wide sidewalks, clearly demarked into pedestrian and bicycling sides.  Woe be unto the oblivious American tourist, unused to such cycling-friendly arrangements, who strays onto the cycling side.  While the Danes are very polite, and usually quiet and courteous in avoiding the errant strangers, there are just so many of them coursing along at all hours on their bikes that they are likely to overwhelm the outlying walker.  On the Town Hall bikeway there is an electric sign counting the number of riders passing that point on the given day, and over the previous year.  At 3:09 p.m. on May 15, 2012, six thousand, one hundred and eight riders had passed that point on that bikeway that day.  Yes, that’s right.  Not over the last week, and not over all of Copenhagen.  That point, that day.  Over the last year, 1,139, 859 had passed the counter.  You can see number 1,139,860 approaching on the left edge of the photo.

Those numbers are staggering.  Think of the difference this mode of transport makes in

Parked bike

Hanging loose: even I can make out the Danish prohibition against parking here.

traffic congestion, air pollution, and general public health.  All those bike commuters, though they don’t move at the speed of the professional peloton, are getting a good cardio workout every day on the way to and from work.  There is no sulfur dioxide from carbon fuel being pumped into the air from their vehicles, their VWs and Saabs are not on the road blocking others, their wallets and purses still contain the Kroner they are not paying for gasoline at the rate of $7 or $8 a gallon [I can’t stand American whining about the cost of gasoline when most of the rest of the [less affluent] world is paying so much more].

Tourist “bycyklen” in Copenhagen are simple, fixed-gear vehicles with (apparently) coaster brakes, mudguards (a really useful feature in this showery place), and fat seats, not to mention aero-discs on their wheels.  What is this, some kind of low-speed time trial?  The discs look cool, but I’d imagine they could be an impediment in a crosswind, and the maritime breezes do blow around there.  I do like the clipboards that give the rider a map of the city with the prime tourist locations indicated.  They look like an easy and enjoyable way to get around to the several palaces and castles and their extensive grounds.

Tourist bikes

A row of cute rental bikes for touring Copenhagen.

Though many bikes are equipped with small, unobtrusive, built-in locks, my impression is that many Danes don’t lock their bikes.  There seems to be a level of trust and honor there not found in every community.  Bikes are all over, and parking stands are generally provided.  That’s another issue when comparing the ease of bike riding there to that in my own American town, where bike parking is rarely facilitated.  One small issue I have with urban bike users in Copenhagen and elsewhere is the decidedly optional usage of helmets.  Individuals seem to have the idea that low-speed, urban cycling, as opposed to higher speed riding on more open roads, makes them immune to head injuries if they fall.  Many a seriously injured urban rider could tell them otherwise.  Generally, though, in Copenhagen bikes rule!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.