Friday, March 30, 2012

The Quick Release

Photo credit: Velominati
I take it for granted. That shiny lever on the axle. You know, the one that you can flip open, release your brakes, and quickly remove the wheel. Or loosen, reset the wheel so it's centered on the forks or dropouts, then re-tighten. It's even a simple maneuver to take off the front wheel and place your bike in the back of your van or squeeze it in a trunk.

The quick release is also a godsend for fiddling with saddle height. Raise it a quarter inch, lower a half inch until the seat feels like primo adjustment—the sweet spot between sore knees and your butt sanding the seat.

It's a standard feature today, and as you can imagine it eases the bike salesperson's job. But for years bikes weren't equipped with quick release mechanisms. My Trek originally didn't have it, nor does my husband's recent purchase. As I recall, most bikes in the 80s didn't come with them, nor do I remember the Schwinn Varsity and Continental of my youth ever having this feature. So I was surprised to discover that the quick release has been around since 1930.

According to Cyclopedia, Tullio Campagnolo invented this gadget out of necessity. As an amateur racer he was riding over a pass in the Dolomites when he had to change gears. In 1924 it involved undoing wing nuts on the back wheel to move the chain to a different sprocket—by hand. Hard to imagine, especially when the freezing temperatures created stiffened digits, too stiff for the racer in this particular instance, to loosen the nut. Because of this frustration Tullio didn't win the race. He worked for the next six years in his father's ironmongery in Vicenza to develop the very invention that's become so common today.

So why did the quick release fall out of favor? Or did it never catch on until the late 1980s? I'm not sure. It may have something to do with economics, users not properly re-tightening the levers, or the possibility of theft. So the next time you flip that special lever, think of Tullio. I may never own any Campagnolo parts, but I appreciate the invention of this simple tool.

Wikipedia's history and description here.
How to properly set the lever here.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Trees on my Commute

There are two trees that I've been inspecting for years along my commuting route. Both sit alone, which may be part of their appeal; one is in a field and the other rests on a knoll. I've fallen in love with the shape of one and the bark on another.

This champagne glass-figure is not a common sight these days. Years ago a disease destroyed most of the towering elms in Burlington. This one is further south. It may have survived because of it's solitary position or it's possibly a young'un trying to put a toe-hold in the earth. Nevertheless, it's intriguing and this time of year in bloom. I had an inkling to it's identity, but wanted to run it by my boss so he could take a look the next time he drove past. When I mentioned the tree's location, he didn't hesitate. "Oh yes, that's an elm". Apparently he's noticed it too.

Two miles away along the same route sits this tall, scraggly thing wedged between the roadway and the bike path. The network of branches reminds me of witches and long pointed fingers. As with all trees in the winter, you notice and can appreciate an individual one's framework.

But up close is where this tree shines. A Shagbark hickory displays a trunk full of peeling bark like a flaky coat. There are more of these around the area, but this specimen is within a shoulder of my bike when I pedal by. I sometimes wonder if those tendrils are going to grab me.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hands Off, it's My Toolbox

I didn't want to do it, but necessity dictated that I have my own toolbox. For years, I've succumbed to the dreaded search for a hammer, a wrench, even a simple flat head screwdriver from the bowels of my husband's collection. But he has more tools than will fit easily inside a simple, organized container. Tools spill over onto the work bench, a cardboard box in the furnace room, the back of his Honda, hanging in the garage, etc. Some sprouted legs, it seems, and are at camp or his parent's house. I could't find a friggin' hammer! (Beware if you have this propensity with tools and live with a rabid spouse.)

Several years ago we were at the hardware store purchasing something when this beautiful red toolbox spoke to me (if tools can walk why can't plastic boxes at least whisper.) I bought it on the spot. With time and the initial grandpa legacy, any singular tools of his were—by nature of relationship—rightfully mine. A rubber mallet, ball-peen hammer, and a wooden-knobbed awl which had been my beloved grandfather's were immediately moved to the red box. I added duplicate items from the house to supplement my collection. I have a good assortment of flat bike-specific metric wrenches, especially the 15-17mm ones used to adjust axles. But I was missing 9-11mm sizes that are necessary for finicky cantilever brakes. My husband has these sizes in his bike box, but that requires that his bike is in residence and the tools actually in the Rubbermaid plastic tub. At Christmas my brother provided the last tools needed: a cute Stanley set of tiny, shiny wrenches. And yes, I do think some tools are endearing and even sexy...but I digress.

My kit is complete. I can make most minor household and bicycle repairs. There is a pencil for marking, an old toothbrush for cleaning god-knows-what, a tape measure (is the chain stretched?), Phillips and flat-head screwdrivers, adjustable wrenches, Allen wrenches, a ratchet set, pliers, two hammers, and rubber mallet (to discipline the kids - just kidding!). I love my tools.

All this came in handy on Friday when I stood in the pedals, climbing a hill after dropping off number two son at his school. A vibrating, grinding noise emanated from the rear wheel. I stopped for a moment to access the problem. The axle had loosened in the dropouts. The Ross doesn't have quick release. I would simply tighten the nuts when I got home. No more frantic searching for the right implement. A quick and easy project. Done.

For the warmer months my toolbox rests near my bikes, right where I need it. Unfortunately it's also in view of our children who love to create, or in our youngest's case, modify Nerf guns. I've been known to chase down my children after they've borrowed something (they leave the lid open). I wag my finger. Where's my hammer? I dunno, maybe over there? Jeesh, sometimes the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree. (Sorry love, I couldn't resist that one.)

Should you live nearby and want to borrow a tool? Don't even ask.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Paint, Seeds, and Fabric

I lock  my bike to wire bins at Joann's Fabrics. The official rack is at the other end
of the strip mall, too far from the places I frequent.
A colder wind today brought us back to March reality. I set out to buy paint for our front door, fabric for a couple of Annie Projects along with vegetable and flower seeds. I was thinking about planting early leafy and root vegetables. It's also time to sprout tomatoes and basil indoors.

I dug out my fleece gloves and down vest to add to my errand wardrobe. Socks inside sandals were borderline on the ride to the stores and inadequate for the return. With the onset of cold rain later in the day and a whopper of a sinus cold that hit me in one hour, the projects were put on hold. Time for lots of tea and a humidifier.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Netherlands - Cycling Culture and Elephants

Follow New Posts in the Around The World series on Mondays. Click here for the Introduction.

50 miles, Thursday, August 11

After the previous long day we relaxed this morning, setting off later than usual. We putter along back roads, still sailing with the wind. The terrain is truly flat. We cruise the river bottomland west of Antwerp through Puers and St. Gillis-Waas before approaching the Dutch border. All morning a menagerie of cyclists pedal toward us, all ages and sizes, going about life on two wheels. It seems like we’ve come home—at least in our hearts—and are not the anomaly­ for a change.

By midafternoon we pass from De Klinge, Belgium into Clinge, Netherlands. This unique town straddles two countries. Bank hours vary by region, and we find we must rush to Hulst to withdraw Dutch guilder. As with many of our transactions it’s a simple withdrawal, using a VISA card. But as providence would have it, we came to a halt when three elephants crossed the road ahead of us. What? Elephants? We laughed and laughed. Each animal ambled along, strung together like a Barrel of Monkeys, trunks hooked around tails. Their ringleader directed them to a line on the right, eventually to a tent where a circus performed. And as these opportunities only come once in a lifetime, I had Andy snap a photo of me with the elephant train.

Typical Dutch bike. Photo credit: Infrastructuration
We learn there are two bicycles to each person in Holland/Netherland, in Dutch Nederland. In small towns cyclists do not lock their bikes, a sight that is unusual for an American. But Dutch bikes are more utilitarian. Most are black single speeds. Bike paths are separate from roads; red signs and arrows, for the most part, are understandable because of graphic symbols. I was amazed at the numerous patterns of stone and brick that comprise the bikeways – all without mortar. Occasionally loose bricks sound like wooden chimes under wheel. It is a serenade only for cyclists. Andy and I admit to enjoying the paved pathways more. It’s easier on the fanny after long hours in the saddle.

From De Vodel campground in Hengstdijk. Photo credit: Panaramio
In Hengstdijk we pulled into a huge campground on the edge of a pretty lake. For 10.5 guilder (1.8 guilder to 1 USD) we are treated to a prime tenting spot near water. Most of the grounds house permanent trailers. There is a restaurant, bar, a pen of rabbits, and a caged area for guinea pigs and birds. I thought it odd to have animals until we understood that six weeks of vacation is standard. Children must love romping with the pets. Andy and I strolled the campground then peeked in on the bunnies before settling down for the evening.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Clouds and Peepers

On Thursday it was a double headwind day. A warm wind in my face in the morning; a cool blast in the evening. But oh, the painted heavens! I was treated to this sky just before sunset. Streaks of sunlight back-lit the clouds. And the first peepers of the season serenaded my ride home. Ah, this is the life.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

My Entry in the Bike Give Away

Well I did it. I entered  Bicycling's Bike Give Away  contest. I tried my best to limit my word length to less than 150 words. The gist: describe what my bike means to me, describe where it takes me, and why I need a new one. Winner chooses a bike reviewed in the April issue. I'm pining for the lowly Breezer, and I use the term "lowly" tongue-in-cheek, because ironically it happens to be the least expensive bicycle up for grabs. But it's the one I would take, should I miraculously win. Here's my entry:

Thanks for rescuing me from a neighbor’s sale. You gave me purpose, adding fenders, racks, even an orange flower to color my beefy black frame. I’m charmed you wrote your name in gilded Sharpie on my tubing. I know I’m not pretty; I’m buffed that you pedal with your son to his school or take me on dirt roads and Burlington’s waterfront trail. I know you desire curvy handlebars, a sexier finish, and less heft. I can’t compete with the Breezer Uptown. I know it’s your heart’s desire for a plucky yet retro-styled ride. But I’ll remain your soul mate for as long as you’ll have me. I’ll brood and shed tears of dust when I must go, but hope you donate me to Bike Recycle or to a lady that will love me as you have, anything but abandoned to the wreckage of another garage sale.

And shhh, don't tell my Ross what I'm up to. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

With the Guy on a Ride

It's nice to get out with the bearded wonder again. Last weekend our boys were engaged with friends, a nice separation between siblings for a breather from one another. We took advantage of our time as a couple and pedaled a slow pace on the waterfront path, ostensibly to check out a camp that a neighbor is considering buying, but also for my guy to test his commuting legs. His ride to work is much longer than mine and he's an early riser. He leaves our house at 5 a.m. for a short drive before hopping on his bike  at 5:30. I know, in the dark!

Every time I look at photos of  my guy wearing his helmet I realize how much I admire this particular style. It's a Bell Citi which has a commuter/retro look to it. I will need a replacement for a Giro that I've been using for years; part of the bracket that cups the head recently broke. I used to own a yellow Bell—you'll see it in the Around the World photos. I wouldn't mind owning another one of the same color.

My husband's yellow fenders always attract comments. And, it matches his brain bucket. He wouldn't admit that he planned the coordinated color scheme; it just happened. A few years back I bought him a bright yellow rain jacket so he's a highly visible presence on the road in cooler and/or wet weather—exactly what you want in low light riding.

Since this adventure last weekend my husband has started his commute, and he couldn't be happier.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Quest for Balance

Views from Spear Street overlooking Lake Champlain.
I've have the wonderful pleasure of reconnecting with a friend. We cycled a 35 mile loop on the loveliest of Sundays mornings: a warm southerly breeze and temperatures near 70F. Like the rest of the country Spring has arrived early. Cyclers were out in droves. We even met up with acquaintances at a country store. My lovely friend is always a source of  thoughtful conversation. She is older and wizened and well-connected. And she is a foody like me - also a passionate Italian who teaches cooking classes. Suffice it to say she brought homemade spinach frittata, carrot bread, and dark chocolate in her trunk pack. It's no surprise that she refused my packaged granola bar contribution.

Homes Creek covered bridge in Charlotte. Photo credit:

I was gone from home longer than I expected. My friendly Italian is not fast, certainly not moving up Vermont's short, steep hills. But my bike has wider tires and between my braking descents (I'm not a fan of screaming downhill) our overall speed was eerily in sync. The route followed a ridge with sweeping views of Lake Champlain then a roller coaster drop to the lake rolling into the cutest covered bridge, mainly because it nearly kisses the rocky shore. A pleasant diversion on a dirt road past an apple orchard (one I've never pedaled on) and a unique pedestrian/bike only access on private land opened my eyes to possible routes to explore at a later date with my husband. This lady is adventurous, especially with her one-inch tires.

Broad-winged hawk. Photo credit: Greg Lasley

Which brings me to the title of this post. I was giddy when I returned home, realizing how much I'd needed her company. Although there is comfort in a regular buddy, the refreshing reconnect and discussion prompted me to tend to a family matter. I've always admired her can-do attitude. I also looked up a bird we'd seen on a wire (unbidden, my friend trudged into a field to flush the hawk off it's perch so I could inspect it's wing shape, inadvertently soaking her biking cleats and new shoe covers). It turns out to be a broad-winged hawk, pretty common east of the Rockies, but I'd never seen one before.

I'm also ready to volunteer in the bike community again. I was on hiatus, delving more into this blog which I will continue, but I miss the comaraderie of like-minded souls. I have a wonderful supportive partner, who also happens to be an admirable parent, filling in on weekends so his antsy wife can get away.

And a reminder to all you scrambling to get outside for earlier than normal bike rides: don't forget the sunscreen. I never expected to come back with a red nose. Jeesh, it's only March 18th.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Serendipity in the Morning

Despite the chaos with children in our household who need prodding to prepare for the day, there are moments of sublime wonder too.

It took my breath away to find my sweetie had already done the grocery shopping—by 6 a.m.. He also left a bar of dark chocolate in the cupboard, which could only be for me.

Smokey contemplates his wheel.
I save a moment for my gerbils. I hand them a bit of cardboard so they are busy for the day. Plus, they take sunflower seed treats. They are cute little creatures that never fail to make me smile.

Geese honking overhead on the commute are glorious. It's a common occurrence these days, morning and evening.

It's like froth on a latte to discover dry dirt road instead of wheel sucking mud for the last mile of my ride—the best way to start the day.

It's true that we shouldn't sweat the small stuff. My son broke a window last week just before heading out the door, but thankfully no one was hurt. Instead, I try to appreciate a smile, a wave, chirping birds, flowers pushing through the soil. The beauty of Spring. What could be better than discovering steam escaping the sugar shacks for a heavenly scented ride?

Monday, March 19, 2012

France & Belgium - Obsession and Calamity

Follow New Posts in the Around The World series on Mondays. Click here for the Introduction.

45 miles, Tuesday, August 9

We bucked a strong headwind for most of the day, rolling up and down the ubiquitous farmland we’d come to love. Andy and I comfortably draft one another; we are attuned to each other’s riding styles and moods, and weather the hot blasts from oncoming trucks. Wistfully, we move on captivated by the farm machinery in the golden fields. Haying is underway. Old style balers tie string around the bundles and shoot the cubes into a towed trailer. It was a mesmerizing process and the miles passed by with ease. I’d nearly forgotten about the problem with my bicycle and, in fact, the noise had miraculously lessened.

Boulangerie assortrment. Photo credit: Travelpod

Of special note: Andy had a boulangerie attack during the morning and abruptly stopped, maneuvering his bike onto the sidewalk. I nearly ran into him, but halted just in time. “I gotta have something,” he said. We each gobbled a thick square of bread pudding and in addition Andy devoured an apple turnover. Sometimes these cravings catch us unaware, until the sight of a bakery unabashedly pulls us to their doorstep.

We called an old friend, Hugo, in the Netherlands and made arrangements to meet by the weekend at his home in The Hague. A bed and nice companionship were thoughts that buoyed our spirits. After 6 weeks on the road we needed a break. I longed to make food in a kitchen, maybe homemade pizza. But we needed kinder weather to propel us onward.

We’re fifteen miles short of the Belgium border. I’ve grown accustomed to camembert and baguettes at lunch; I wonder how much will change. And just when I’ve learned enough French to get by we’re moving on. I presume this will be a common thread as we perpetually rove eastward.

80 miles, Wednesday, August 10

A whopper of a tailwind propelled us for most of the day. We purchase two baguettes before entering the borderlands of Belgium. With the European Community in transition, the crossing went unrecognized; we observed license plates and signage colors changing, though we still pedal through the French speaking Belgian farmland.

Annie on her bike. Note the red marked lanes for cycling in Belgium cities.
In Mons we switched currency to Belgian francs – only enough for one day as we expect to be in the Netherlands soon. There is something satisfying about this task–it means another country, and I’ll search for a Belgian cloth patch to add to the growing collection on my panniers.

A mishap with directions waylaid us by an hour, as we struggled with crossing two canals in Mons, before frantically pushing our loads up an embankment onto a busy road. A driver honked and yelled that bikes weren’t allowed. Baffled, we carried the bikes over a pedestrian walkway – the effort breaking my body into a sweat. All the while the putrid canals smell like dirty socks soaking in water.

Belgian farm country is more populated than northern France. We find little privacy and relieve ourselves in cornfields, near a train trestle, or on the curve of a road. The miles flew by and we pledged to make it to a further campground, even with another calamity costing an additional five miles. The clouds moved in, obscuring use of the sun for position. It further endorsed the value of a compass. But still encouraged by the tailwind we are obsessed with forward motion and eat our evening meal on the road.

The little country of Belgium. Photo credit: Belgium Embassy
The traffic intensified as we skirted west of Brussels. Flemish signs are as foreign as the Welsh language in Great Britain. The popularity of bicycles is uplifting. We fit in, riding the red tinged assortment of cobbled, paved, and sidewalks specifically designated for bikes. We were thankful for their assistance through the dinner hour congestion. It was on such a path that I picked up a black Casio watch. Later, in the tent, I discovered it still worked while my current timepiece had recently lost battery power. It was serendipitous.

Rain starts to fall ten kilometers from the campground. By 8 p.m. inner resolve silences the evening, spinning wheels our only companions. The unmistakable hissing sound of a flat tire interrupts our thoughts. And it’s on my bike. It’s times like this that despite groaning and a long day in the saddle, there is nothing to do but deal with patching the tube while rain drips off the brim of my yellow slicker. The patch didn’t hold and I soon replaced the tube. We had to keep moving. Fortunately, the rain stops as a wrinkled elderly gentlemen came out of his house. His blue eyes vibrant, he spoke to us in Flemish until he understood we couldn’t communicate. He lifted his hand and disappeared, but returned a few minutes later with a younger man who spoke French. It turns out to be his son. We swapped a few words about America then learned that the apple orchard nearby belonged to them. This sweet encounter propels us onward.

At 9:30 p.m. we pulled into the campground. We’ve learned to ask directions as we near the town that displays a camping symbol on the map. There is no indication within the village either. But after such a long day we are thankful to have made the comfort and security of our home for the night. Huddled in the tent, the flashlight glow is like candlelight as we consume bread and cheese; dinner on the road had long since worn off.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Procrastination and Maintenance

I'm almost too embarrassed to mention this, but it proves I'm still, after all, only human. A human with a tendency towards procrastination. At least for some things. I'm good at oiling and wiping a chain. Okay, quit stalling. Confession time. I've been riding the Ross around since I've owned it, approximately 6 years, with a wobbly crank. No kidding, it's been forever. Did I think it would just go away and the cogs would magically straighten themselves? Well, I was kind of hoping...

The excuses go something like this:
  1. It's just going to be a parts bike.
  2. After 2 years both wheels seized up, so I repacked/regreased the bearings. I'm tired. I'll get to the crank later.
  3. It needs fenders.
  4. It needs a back rack.
  5. Neat, I found green pedals to match the frame color. 
  6. Year 5. Cool. The front rack is a swell addition.
  7. I learned how to add swanky golden lettering and pin-striping to the frame. The Ross definitely needs that...
  8. Hmmm. I'll get to the crank maintenance this winter when I stop riding. It's a good project to do in the basement.
  9. Egads, what if the axle is bent, or the cogs? It won't be worth fixing and it's currently functional. Leave well enough alone.
  10. I'm not planning on keeping the Ross so why get all greasy? Let the next owner deal with it.
You get the picture.

The crank symposium didn't happen because I never stopped riding this winter. At least that's what I tell myself. In actuality, it's not an easy or sexy task that adds a colorful splash, kind of like emptying the dishwasher. I also haven't taken apart a crank in a good many years. I don't recall that it's difficult, per se, but you need the right tools, which we have. When I can get to it. There I go again.

So last week when I drove myself home with the bike on our van's rack, I made a spontaneous detour to the bike shop and paid to have them look at the problem. And just like that, in two hours the cups were greased (no pitting either), the axle straight, beautiful cogs. The bike runs like a dream. And surprisingly the mechanic said I have a sweet bicycle. "They don't make bikes these days with quality components like this one."

Oh brother. After all this I may have to keep this thing.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Stuff I Haul to Work

Unpacking panniers in my employers' garage.

With the time change I started my 22 mile roundtrip ride to work this week. It's been reasonably mild weather with only one morning in the 30sF. Somehow I escaped the bit of rain that danced around the valley. It's difficult to wake when it's dark outside, scramble to eat with the kids then, en route, ride with our youngest child to his school—not to mention assembling a lunch and packing panniers.

Arriving at work is such a relief and accomplishment!

I lean my bike against a work bench in my employers' garage, conveniently on an old carpet. Rather than haul the panniers indoors, my items have been presorted. I remove each sack, hang my helmet and glasses on the bar end then head for the door. One cotton bag holds a complete change of clothes (shoes and sweater remain at my desk), The white bag contains a lunch, tea for the week, and a baggie of chocolate chips. The colorful tote holds reading material, a date book, comb and various "stuff" I can't live without.

All set for another day in the office! How do you handle your baggage?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Trek 830 Antelope

It seems almost blasphemous that in a year and a half of blogging I haven't paid tribute to my Trek. I recently took it out for a pre-spring ride and marveled at it's lightness and maneuverability, its easy shifting and low 34 tooth freewheel. It's the best of my bikes in so many ways.

It was fall of 1986. We'd lived in Portland, Oregon for a year. Times were flush. Lots of job opportunities. Extra cash. Eating out with friends. Hikes and micro brews. Living the good life. Commuted to work on the Miyata—the only bicycle I owned. My guy and I were ready for the mountain bike craze. The upright ride.

These were the days of only a couple respectable bike shops in Portland. I know, hard to believe. Sales on bikes happened only once a year. A Halloween Sale. The catch: dress in costume and receive 10% off a bike. Hmmm. Picture my lanky husband dressed in a red union suit, homemade cardboard pitchfork, and hat with horns. A devilish partner. I still chuckle when I recall his costume. I've long since forgotten what I wore, but it was enough to score the discount.

We came home with a Specialized Rockhopper and the Trek 830 Antelope. Both were sweet bikes. Stable with upright attitude. Made city rides pleasurable, plowing through leaves, hopping curbs, riding the 11 mile Leif Erickson dirt road in Forest Park, Portland's fabulous west side wonderland.

Then, across Oregon on an organized week long ride. Up canyons, down passes. We rode the Seattle to Portland event—back to back centuries. And the culmination: riding around the world (see Monday posts) with racks and panniers. The Trek was my mainstay until 2008. That's 22 years! This bike can do it all. I'd venture to say I have 30,000 miles on the frame. Most parts have been replaced during it's lifetime. And I hope it'll keep on traveling with me.

I'm currently navigating Vermont's mud season, appreciating the bike's versatility once again. Go Trek!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Mechanical Pedaling Toy

I am often the recipient of truly wonderful bikey gifts. I've received everything from paper clipsjewelry, and a mug to this unique toy. On first look the faceless pedaler appears to be riding a Segway, yet his legs are moving, so that cannot be. Or maybe it's a two-wheeled unicycle (is there such a thing?). This intriguing contraption comes from Kenya. The whole toy is made of wire, wrapped with strips of fabric. Thanks, Sally and boys!

Monday, March 12, 2012

France - Boulangerie Truck, Pierremonds and Wine

Follow New Posts in the Around The World series on Mondays. Click here for the Introduction.

50 miles, Saturday, August 6

We left Paris this morning, working our way northeast across the city, eventually leaving behind busy roads of Denis before the congestion abated. The hazy sunshine beat down on us again. I thought about how useful a simple compass would be, taped to the handlebars, especially for general directions in metropolitan regions.

I believe this is Francois Mitterand, president of France in 1994.

Before the days of cell phones...

Most payphones in France require a Telecarte card, purchased at a La Poste or post office. 40 Francs for 50 units gave me 7.4 units per minute, calling the United States. I checked in with my father who promised to contact Andy’s family. He said it sounded like I was just next door.

We feel lethargic. The roads north of the city are flat. Maybe it’s the heat, or that we’re older than previous trips, or the bikes are heavily laden with hiking and cycling gear. Probably it’s a combination of all three. By 3 p.m. the slightest rise in the road causes burning in our thighs. With heavier mountain bikes versus lighter touring bikes I’d known that we couldn’t cover as many miles as our cross country trip, but Andy feels let down, wondering if he’ll make it through the Alps. What’s clear is that there are more logistics traveling in foreign countries: exchange of money, buying food, fuel, the language barrier, and locating camping is a daily ordeal. Any bike tourist knows they’ll be good days and bad days. I thought it best to lower expectations, at least as far as distance covered.

36 miles, Sunday, August 7
Photo credit: Sejour Travels

At 9:30 a.m. just when we were ready to push off, a white truck comes into our campground near Creil, blasting its horn. Andy and I perked up because we’d observed this before. A bakery vehicle makes its rounds, selling everything from baguettes to croissants – a rolling boulangerie. We were the first ones in line. Andy was so overcome by the aroma and sight of the golden loaves that his request for a baguette didn't come out correctly. I smiled. The seller knew what we wanted though, 5.30 Francs for a grande baguette, s'il vous plait. I strapped it to my rack for our lunchtime break. I thought, now that’s service we could get used to…

This is one of my favorite photos of our year-long trip.

By afternoon we entered Pierremonds and spied tall grey turrets above the treetops. And soon the entire chateau presented itself, standing like an armed fortress above the town. Castles evoke medieval scenes: chainmail clad knights on horseback, trumpets, and flags. We investigated the grounds. In the rear of the building two cannonballs sunk into a wall. The estate was mostly destroyed in the 1500s, but later Napoleon had it rebuilt. Now, the community holds summer concerts and plays in its courtyard. It was a perfect spot to rip into the baguette.

Castle at Pierremonds.

52 miles, Monday, August 8

It rained lightly all morning – a welcome relief from the hot past few days. We travel the back roads again through a cereal growing region. In fields the grain is cut and left to dry. It looks peculiar, as if someone laid all the stalks by hand in neat rows.

We’ve been told that northern France is flat, and for the most part it is. The towns are situated in tree-lined gullies. We spend the days struggling up from the villages resupplied with food and water; rolling across golden fields; coasting again, repeating the process several times. Often gusty headwinds accompany us.

A current La Poste bike. I don't recall if this was the style we saw in 1994. Photo credit:  Pendore

We exchange greetings with cyclists who tote a flat handlebar bag and leather rear panniers. They are out at 10 a.m., on the early side for the ordinary French person. Today we discover they are La Poste mail carriers.

We stopped at a World War I German cemetery. The crosses stick up in the landscape like thousands of black swords. There is an entrance shelter that houses a metal box. Inside is a neatly kept book, listing all the interred soldiers and their graves. It is a grim reminder of the French occupation in both world wars. I presume this will be common site as we move toward Belgium.

The flat farmland and former battle fields. Arrow at bottom of photo identifies cemetery.

Pushing on we made it to St. Quentin and are camping in a municipal park (least expensive). I’m worried about my bike. The crank area is grinding and clicking, signs that it could be a pedal, the chain, or the bottom bracket. Though we carry a comprehensive tool kit, we’ve forgotten a pedal wrench. But the bike is operable and we’ll take care of it when we locate a bike shop.

We are often parched, and drinking enough water is paramount, so consuming alcohol is far from our thoughts. But it would be sacrilege to leave France without experiencing a taste of local wine. For 8 Francs for a whole bottle (1.50 USD) we sipped a smooth red table wine with dinner. I must admit, it’s a welcome finish to a long day.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cold Toes Remedy

What to do when your toes are like ice? Check out this short video for my quick solution. If it makes you laugh or spit out your coffee, let me know.

In the future I'll try adding toe warmers to my hiking shoes. These shoes are pretty versatile in cold weather and with the stiff Vibram sole they also provide the support I need on a long commute. While the warmers didn't work last year inside my tight-fitting cycling specific footwear, there might be sufficient space in this pair for the chemicals to circulate.

Friday, March 9, 2012

O'Neil Road Loop

Circumstances were such that I was able to pedal for an hour from my workplace. At 5 p.m. I scrambled to get out the door. First I navigated the mile of wet, squishy dirt road back to the main highway—as main as can be between two rural towns. It only means that traffic might scream at 50 m.p.h. past your bike—yikes. The scenery makes up for it though. I spun up this hill in my granny gear.

Long shadows followed me as I coasted and continued on the flats until the turn onto O'Neil Road.

Oh happy day! With fat tires, I especially enjoy dirt roads. There is less traffic and it's a great excuse to slow down. Plus, it was 50F and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to explore roads I don't often ride.

I went by an organic farm. The road is a roller coaster. You can see the dip and rise just past the barn.

Holding the camera above my head...

As a cyclist I can avoid the potholes.

Ah, a moment of respite as the sun goes down.

Then I high-tail-it to continue the loop before darkness sets in. This weekend we set the clocks ahead. That will be a boon for us commuters who otherwise would race the sunset.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Courtesy on a Bike

As soon as the temperatures sneak above 40F the racers come out in droves along the roads of my commute. University of Vermont teams practice pace lines. And Green Mountain Bike Club members of all ages ride the straights of Spear and Dorset Streets. Sometimes there's a group, other times single riders, some obviously trying to catch the pack. Thankfully, there's a growing number of commuters too.

I've ridden these roads for 10 years and a strange phenomena never fails to emerge early in the season: lack of communication. You see, I have to train the riders to be polite. To verbalize. By that I mean to acknowledge my humble presence. Whether they're coming toward me or passing, they're mute. No "hi" or "howdy" or even an "on your left" warning. Heads are bent. Tighly knit forms bobbing, intent and introspective.

So I take a different tact. I make it my personal quest to initiate the exchange. Blast 'em with kindness, so-to-speak. And I persist, time after time, until a month goes by and I begin to get feed back.

It's not like we're isolated behind the wheel of a car. We all enjoy the weather, the simple pleasure of a ride. Spinning wheels. Alone or with friends. Fast group ride or slow commute. Bikes are bikes. There should be a baseline of camaraderie. Speed is no excuse; if you breathe you can say "hi". We're talking Vermont here, not New York City.

I have a license plate that reads "Annie" prominently displayed beneath my seat. It's my signature. My message to those behind, a simple sign of bike love. And when they pass—as they invariably do because I'm slow—many will say, "Hi Annie, nice day huh?"

But as I said, it takes time. One person will respond. Then another. Pretty soon the results astound me. Though for whatever reason, there will be holdouts who can't utter a word. For those, a hand wave or wagging finger will suffice. I'll take what I can get.

Mission accomplished for another year.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Snowman in a Tree

Oh the things you'll see
high up in a tree.

A snowman for you and me.

A basket for a hat.

A bit of snow on my ride, but it was soft and not too difficult to get through.

A basket on a rack.

Green bike and feet. Sam I am not. (Nor am I Dr.Seuss—sorry about that.)

Isn't it amazing what you can see by bike?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cabin Fever

I get cabin fever, especially with our two boys wrestling, playing video games, and then the fights...especially during vacation week. It was a Saturday with a brief, but welcome bit of warmth. I could've attended the Mardi Gras parade. Or retreated to the sanctity of my sewing corner. Or settled with a good book. But no. When I'm cranky and at my wits end, and my other half is at home, nothing calms me like a two-wheeled getaway.

Monday, March 5, 2012

France - Pedaling in Paris

Follow New Posts in the Around The World series on Mondays. Click here for the Introduction.

10 miles, Thursday, August 4

The campground is on the edge of a huge park, Bois du Boulogne. We’d contemplated taking public transportation, but Gerrit, a Dutch cyclist on a tour of France, recommended we pedal to the attractions. He cycled late at night during the coolest part of the day and still felt safe. Immediately we got lost. Several cyclists looped the park roads and one helped us navigate to the Arc de Triomphe before waving and continuing on his ride.

Goosebumps prickled my arms as the great arch towered above our heads. We rattled over the cobblestones and locked our bikes on the outside of the roundabout for the underground entrance to the Arc. The monument sits in the middle of the largest traffic circle in the world. It is also the confluence of 14 avenues, one of which is the infamous Champs Elysees. Traffic weaved in and out, curving around the monument. Horns honk. The amazing feat is that the drivers negotiate it all, six lanes wide, without markings. No wonder the tourist entrance is underground!

The Arc de Triomphe was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 1800s as a tribute to his army’s success, but was never completed during his reign. It was finished in 1836. A panel displays Napoleon with an angel flying over his head—a true depiction, Andy said, of his apparent arrogance. Various armies have marched through the arch, including Hitler’s soldiers as they stormed into Paris. There is a tomb for an unknown WWI soldier; its flame is rekindled every evening.

Bicycling through Paris was surprisingly easy. Our Dutch friend was right. Though traffic was heavy, the drivers were conscientious. And pedaling over cobblestones was interesting. The stones are laid in a diamond pattern as opposed to checkerboard fashion, allowing the wheels a smoother ride. It was all really confounding and the crazy traffic a bit overwhelming, but orderly nonetheless. I was giddy as we headed to the Eiffel Tower.

The iconic structure rises far above any other building in Paris and was originally built in 1870 for the World’s Fair. For a lesser charge, 12 Francs, we walked the stairs to the second platform for a magnificent view of the city. By then Andy and I were hot. We lingered for a time, soaking up the breeze. At 11 million inhabitants, Paris was my largest city to date. Only a few “bumps” swelled from the landscape. Otherwise it was mostly flat.

The view from the lower platform on the Eiffel Tower.
On the ground we sweated profusely and cycled under a sprinkler. Our bellies grumbled. Andy stayed with the bikes while I gathered baguettes from a storefront, fruit from another stand, then went inside a supermarche for cereal, yogurt and orange juice. We’d adapted to the French foraging way to buy things. I lingered in the dairy aisle for a moment of coolness.

By late afternoon the heat was unbearable. We were edgy and impatient with each other outside the Louvre. The line to get into the museum was 100 feet long. Instead, we crossed the Seine to visit the Musee de Orsay.

The museum is famous for its collection of Impressionist art. I lost myself among its Picassos, Renoirs, and Cezannes. It may have the largest accumulation of Monets; I saw at least 30 of his paintings, including a famous water lily scene. As I walked along the high ceilinged rooms among the great masters, it was an education to appreciate how many artists were notable (posthumously), while Monet continues to enjoy so much notoriety. I sat on benches, enthralled for minutes at a time.

By early evening we were exhausted. In 45 minutes we made it back to the noisy, crowded campground. I queued up in a 20 minute line, waiting for an available shower. The facilities are rather dismal, with perpetually wet and dirty floors, so it’s a balancing act to wash and leave with clean feet. One concrete block houses these “foreign” toilets, the hole in floor variety between raised stepping stone-style footprints, and a nearby water spigot—all without toilet paper. We avoid their use out of unease, preferring the conventional toilets, even though they’re further away.

Courtyard at the Louvre with glass pyramid entrance.
15 miles, Friday, August 5

A thunder and lightning storm belts the sky with high winds. We wait out the storm inside the tent, catching up on correspondence. Andy has become the “contact scribe”. He writes postcards and letters home to family and friends while I am in charge of the journal.

When the deluge and gusts subsided the air is less humid. Used to Paris traffic now, we brave the roundabout around the Arc de Triomphe. I held my breath, but the automobiles parted the way as if we were dignitaries. And then in the busy environment we rode right down the wide Champs Elysses to the Louvre. How truly exhilarating!

Impressive Venus de Milo statue.
The lines were fortunately short this time. We descended inside the glass pyramid entrance, a recent addition designed by I.M. Pei which seems to stand on the cobbles of the square like a child’s block. It’s also a modern accoutrement in a classic old city—a bit out of place to my eye. As the museum was formerly a royal palace, the building itself is a spectacular exhibit and we marvel at the interior as much as the exhibits. Frescoes, golden domes, and tiles adorn the ceiling. The floors are mosaics of marble. We could’ve spent 3 days in the museum but we concentrate on the cooler temperatures of the lower two floors and peruse the Roman, Greek, and Medieval displays.

But we couldn’t ignore the crowds around the armless Venus de Milo statue. This 200 year old marble edifice was found in the waters around the Greek island of Mios. Or pass up the opportunity to see Davinci’s Mona Lisa. Behind protective glass, the painting is much smaller than I expected. Unfortunately its mystique was lost in my glimpse above a sea of heads. I imagine there are only moments in a day when one can truly appreciate the masterpiece.

City traveling. Using the toilets or WCs under the street.
A red granite sphinx from 2000 B.C. sits alone. We circled the ten foot creature, noting a smoothly formed tail that swept back to his haunches and tucked beneath his body. This grand statue is an appropriate introduction to the medieval section. The remains of a 12 century castle are showcased within the grounds of the Louvre. It was excavated in 1984 to expose the base walls, crypts, and several pieces of pottery for display to the public. The lower portions of the perimeter turrets and inner tower are amazingly preserved.

The Latin Quarter

With our heads filled with wonder we left in the afternoon for errands: food, bank, post office for a phone card, then wandered towards the Notre Dame cathedral. On the way we walked the bikes though the Latin Quarter. Greek restaurants spilled onto the narrow alleys of cobblestones. Hunks of lamb sizzled on vertical spits. The smell of gyros and pastry was tantalizing, making our grocery purchases suddenly seemed inadequate for our taste buds. Oh, to spend whatever I wanted on the restaurant life!