Sunday, August 10, 2014

Up and down the Swabian Jura

The Schwäbische Alp, in English known as the Swabian Jura, is a mountain range in the southwest of Germany, only a few kilometers from where my parents live. While the mountains are not particularly tall, they offer lots of punishing climbs, especially when leaving the paved roads and ride on the numerous gravel paths.

My original plan had been to ride to Heubach, traversing a steep incline I found on the German quaeldich pass database, and then figuring out the return route as I went. On the way to the incline I took a familiar way to the Rems valley and then started a gentle climb up on a rail trail. The little connecting path from rail trail to a lower road offered a rare 30% incline warning sign. However, I'm fairly sure that that was greatly exaggerated.

The way towards Bargau started climbing again and offered nice views of the mountains I would soon ascend.

The Himmelreich climb starts in Bargau, and with a length of 2.7km and 203m of elevation its quaeldich rating is at 3/5 toughness points. It certainly felt tough enough to me. My front derailer has some issues with getting onto the small ring, and at some point the was not low enough any more and I had to stop and manually shift onto the ring. Dripping with sweat I arrived at the intersection where I would have turned down towards Heubach. I saw, however, that I could also continue straight on a paved road with a grade no less relentless than the previous one. The pavement soon ended, and with the gravel came even steeper grades, maxing at somewhere between 25 and 30%!
The steepest part, requiring a photo break.
At the top I was greeted by a large crucifix, and even as an atheist I was tempted to pray: “Dear Lord, please have mercy and spare me any further climbs like this!”

The high plateau of the Alb, the Albhochfläche, provided much needed recovery. I had planned to take the main road back down to Heubach, but it was closed due to construction. I knew that there was an alternative route on forest trails but didn't quite know how to find it. In the little village of Bartholomä I found a hiking map and a sign-posted route in the right direction.

As this was supposed to be a hiking trail I was a little concerned if I would actually be able to ride it all.  In the end, though, it was mostly comfortable gravel trails through fields and forests with only a short section of grassy single trail—not a problem even for someone of my mediocre mountain biking skills.

In Heubach it was time for a longer stop, first at the Triumph factory outlet and then at a bakery. The two options I considered for the way back home were either to ride north and then take the new Leintal bike path to Welzheim or to climb the Alb again and continue towards Geislingen—the much longer option. Feeling adventurous, I opted for the latter. The first step was to climb back up the Rosenstein mountain.

Ruins of Rosenstein Castle
 In spite of the 13% warning sign, the climb wasn't particularly bad. A quick detour led me to castle ruins, providing stunning views.

Heubach from above

Bridge to the castle

Through the castle window
 From here on it was rolling hills and a final descent to Geislingen on either trails or quiet roads. In Geislingen I got a little lost but eventually found my destination, the WMF factory outlet cafeteria, where I refueled with Espresso from a futuristic machine, fries, and a Weizenbier.
Former granary, now housing a “treasure chest museum&rdqou;

WMF 8000 S—starting at 13 500EUR...

From Geislingen I followed the Fils valley downstream. The valley is densely populated and therefore the bike trail had lots of twists and turns. Fortunately, the signage was good, though, and I didn't get lost.

Bath and wash house of the 19th century worker housing project in Kuchen
 I wasn't quite sure how to best get from the Fils to the Rems valley and decided to just do it by sight-and-go: Aim at the Hohenstaufen mountain, located in between the two valleys, and try to get through somehow. This worked reasonably well but involved plenty more climbing, some of it in the 20+% range. In the village of Hohenstaufen I figured I might as well try to make it all the way up the summit but couldn't find a way that looked ridable. Oh well.

Tiger duck Club :-)

The elusive summit of the Hohenstaufen

View towards the Rems valley
 Through switchbacks I descended into the Rems valley, and after a final climb I was back in Welzheim. My legs and myself were pretty toast. Too bad we only had about an hour before riding another 15 kilometers to visit an old friend...

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Black Forest Passes

I'm currently spending some time with my parents in the southwest of Germany. Yesterday my mum had a doctor's appointment in Bad Krozingen, giving me a couple hours to go riding in the Black Forest. On a tourist website I had found a suggestion for a "Black Forest Pass Tour," crossing over three ridges. The route was rated as difficult and also was a bit too long for me to make it back in time. Fortunately there was a link that would allow to cut short the route and do only two of the three passes.

After some flat riding on the outer edges of the Rhine valley, the climbing began. I passed the former St. Ulrich's priory and made my way up the mountains on a road with good surface and surprisingly little traffic. Further up the hill I saw a sign that explained the latter fact: For motor vehicles this was a dead end; only local and non-motorized traffic was allowed to descent to Horben on the other side of the ridge.

Switchbacks and cows

It wasn't even that hot, but I was dripping with sweat

Looking back down at St. Ulrich
 Once I made it to the top, I was rewarded with a marvelous view in all directions, including a view of the Schauinsland mountain, my next destination. First, however, I got to reap the other reward for climbing: A fast descent on a narrow one-lane road.

No through traffic
 At the bottom of the descent was the base station of the aerial tram going up the Schauinsland. The sign on the road, announcing a 12% grade over 12 kilometers sounded a little scary, but it didn't feel nearly as steep. There were still signs and road stencils from the Schauinslandkönig, apparently Germany's largest mountain time trial, which had taken place just a day ago. The length of the climb—and the fact that I was wearing Birkenstocks with their flexible soles—made matters challenging.

 But the low gearing of the MTB got me all the way up, and once again I was rewarded with great views. I turned off the main road and rode a few hundred meters to the upper station of the tram, which also offered a restaurant with a terrace. Because we had had to be on the road so early in order to make it to Bad Krozingen in time, I hadn't had anything to eat yet, just a double espresso at the clinic. I also hadn't brought a water bottle, and so I was very happy to snarf down a shandy (which in Germany is known as Radler or cyclist) and a bottle of fizzy water.
Looking down towards Freiburg and the base station of the tram

You can't see it on the pick, but people were waving and cheering at me
 The temperatures up on the mountain were markedly cooler, and in my sweat-soaked state I didn't want to stay too long.
View towards the Münstertal
What followed now was a screaming descents into the Münster Valley. The road was narrow and full of sharp turns, and so I quickly got stuck behind a car. Awesomely, though, the driver soon pulled over and signaled me to pass. Thank you, unknown driver! Once in the valley, the rest of the ride was a gentle downhill all the way back to Bad Krozingen. What an awesome ride!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Almost like a Brooks? Part 3: Long-term Review of the Velo Orange Model 1 Saddle

A leather saddle—at least in theory—should last a long time, and therefore I wanted to provide an follow-up to the two previous review posts about the Velo Orange Model 1 saddle. I've now ridden the saddle for about 2.5 years and 11 000 km. It has seen all kinds of use, from all-year everyday riding around town, multi-day loaded tours, and single-day rides of up to 200km. So has my previous, positive assessment changed since the July 2012 review?

By and large: no. The main points still hold true.

In summer of 2012 the saddle was already well broken in, but it has continued to slightly change its shape. The picture on the left shows the saddle in 2012, the one on the right in its current state.

2012: Broken-in
2014: Moar broken-in

The asymmetry and “hammockiness” definitely have gotten more pronounced (even though the camera angle does distort things a bit). I haven't touched the tension screw yet and so far have no plans of doing so. The leather is still far away from the rails, the saddle is comfortable, and I'm an adherent of the school of thought that believes once you start turning the tension screw, you'll have to keep going until the saddle is dead.

The saddle rails are still going strong and I have no reason to expect them to fail any time soon. But obviously one never knows ...
The leather has aged very nicely. I try to be conscientious about covering the saddle in the rain but must admit that it has gotten wet more than once. And, ahem, I also sweat a lot in the parts that touch the saddle. After the initial treatment with Proofide I haven't done much to care for the leather, and this doesn't seem to have had any bad effects.

There are a few spots, especially near the rivets and in the place where the saddle sometimes scrapes against the wall or other objects, where the leather looks worn and I'll apply some Proofide soon. Other than that the saddle actually looks better than when it was new. The surface texture and crinkliness I pointed out in earlier reviews has turned into a mostly smooth surface, as you can see in the pictures.

2014: Pretty shiny
2012: Still a little dull

It is still not quite as shiny as my Brooks Swift and B17 Imperial, but the looks are definitely closer now than they were initially. The hammered rivets, made from stainless steel, haven't changed their appearance at all and are still flush with the leather. A minor advantage over my B17 Imperial is that the saddle is completely quiet, whereas the Brooks had phases of squeaking and clicking.

What about the arguably most important characteristic of a saddle, comfort? Once again, there are no essential changes to report. The saddle continues to be comfortable, as evidenced by my ability to do 200km day rides or multi-day tours in relative comfort. As I've remarked previously, when riding without padded bike shorts it does make a difference which underwear I'm wearing. As long as the seams are in the right spot I can do up to 60km without issues; anything above that is better done in bike shorts. The center ridge may have gotten slightly more pronounced but still doesn't bother me at all.

So to conclude, I do not regret buying the VO instead of a Brooks at all. I don't have anything negative to say about the saddle. If aesthetics are very high on your priority list, then maybe you should go for a Brooks instead. And if the center ridge negatively affects your comfort, you might want to consider going for a non-hammock saddle. Other than that you can't go wrong with the VO Model 1. Oh, there is the little problem that Velo Orange currently doesn't sell the saddle;but they have said that they “may bring it back eventually” and maybe this review will help with that.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The ride that has it all: Covey Hill 200k

Yesterday I rode what is one of my favorite routes in the Monteregie region south of Montreal.
 After riding on the St. Lawrence Seaway dike and a short section through the suburbs on the South Shore, I headed south on this great road. Having been repaved only last year, it's super smooth and has almost no car traffic.
 On one side of the road is a little river, on the other side agricultural lands and pretty little houses with old trees in front of them.

 The wind turbines were spinning rather slowly today, with the wind seemingly changing direction all the time.
 After a short stretch on highway 221 into Saint-Michel I was back on another long, straight, and quiet back road. Rue Principal ends at a T intersection, and once you turn left the asphalt soon turns into gravel.

 With the 35mm tires on my Cross-Check this was pleasant to ride, and for kilometers the only other person I encountered was a farm worker on his MTB.
 The soil here is rich and dark, forming a pretty contrast with the green tones of the freshly planted vegetables. The landscape is still all flat here, but in the distance one can see the foothills of the Adirondacks.

 After the gravel section ends, the landscape turns from fields into a forest with lots of wild flowers lining the sides of the road. Last time I rode here the pavement was rather rough, but most of the road must have been repaved recently.

 In Hemmingford, a charming little town, I stopped for lunch. There are several nice-looking restaurants and cafes there, but I just had my PB&K(imchi) sandwich and two 1.5l bottles of water on a bench in front of the town hall.
 Just before the US border, the route now turns west towards Covey Hill. On Sundays there is quite a bit of tourist traffic on this road, but it's still not too bad. The road is a mix of little rollers and several long false flats. In the blistering noon sun this was quite draining.
 But hey, the orchards, old churches, and stone walls along the way provide plenty of distraction.

 The actual Covey Hill doesn't look like much from a distance, but the last bit up is quite steep, especially after having done all the previous false flat climbing.
The compensation for the climbing comes with the gentle downhill on the other side of the hill, passing through green maple forest and crossing gurgling little streams. You can also catch a distant view of the Montreal skyline and Mont Royal (too distant for me to get a decent picture), but you have to pay attention, as most of the time trees are blocking the view in that direction.
In Saint-Antoine-Abbé I had planned on having an espresso break at the local bakery, but unfortunately they are closed Sundays and Mondays.

??? No idea what this refers to
 Heading northwest now, I passed through a distinctive landscape featuring flat rocks, little swamps, and stubby hard pine trees.

 And an explosives factory.

 Once I reached the Chateauguay River I saw an old railway bridge just a little bit down the road and decided to check if this was part of the bike trail I had read about earlier. And indeed it was. The trail wasn't finished yet, but the bridge was easily passable.

 Now the route turn north and follows the Chateauguay River. Pretty much all car traffic happens on the other side of the river and I only had to share the road with the occasional motorcyclist and a few other cyclists.
The visitor center of the Battle of the Chateauguay historic site appears to be permanently closed, but there are numerous informational markers along the road.

Took me a while to realize that they were reusing the rear sides of other road signs...

In Sainte-Martine I said goodbye to the river and headed towards Saint-Urbain-Premier. From here on the route can feel a little less awesome. However, that's not so much because it's actually bad, but more so because the other parts are so great. And maybe also because my behind started to get pretty sore...

Back in Sainte-Catherine I made a quick stop at the kitschy shrine of the eponymous saint and decided that instead of taking the direct way home on the Seaway dike I'd stay on the South Shore and cross the St. Lawrence via the Jacques Cartier Bridge. This would add a few kilometers but avoid the risk of riding through the thick cloud of insects that is almost guaranteed to be around at this time of year and day on the dike.

This turned out to be a good idea, as once I got to the little park on the de la Concorde bridge near the Old Port I encountered huge swarms of moths circling around the tree tops. Riding through this would not have been fun.

In the end the ride clocked in at just under 200km. I highly recommend this route, and if 180km (this would be the length had I returned via the Seaway dike) are too long, one could also turn this into a two-day trip, as there are a few campgrounds near Hemmingford and Covey Hill. I've written about this ride before, and you can find a cue sheet for a mostly identical route in that post.