Friday, August 12, 2022

Albula and Flüela Passes: A two-pass loop from Davos


I love the Alps. I love hiking there, and I love biking there. Climbing for hours, fast descents, gazing at peaks and valleys. We're on vacation in Davos, and today is bike day. On the menu: a 120 km loop on the Albula and Flüela passes. About 2700 meters of climbing. It will be challenging, but I'm alsoconfident that I can make it.


Giving myself the chance to be slow, I start early. This will also avoid at least some of the heat of the day. With the recent heatwaves, even at 1550 m of elevation, it has been very hot. 

From Davos to Filisur

The ride starts all downhill. Well, mostly downhill. Filisur, at the bottom of the Albula, is 500 m lower than Davos, but doesn't mean that getting there is all coasting. I have two options to get there: Follow the main road or weave in a gravel segment. This early in the day, traffic on the main road probably wouldn't be bad. There's a hitch though: The road goes through the 2.7 km-long Landwassertunnel.

The gravel route instead follows the old path through the gorge of the Landwasser instead. We hiked that trail earlier during our vacation and so the choice is easy. The landscape is stunning: a deep gorge, waterfalls, and glimpses of the bold route of the railway with its tunnels and bridges. And with my 2.25" slick tires, the road is fun to ride. I am very happy with my choice of route. 

As I said, it's not all downhill to Filisur. It would be if I were a proper mountain biker: I could keep going down a trail that follows the gorge. But again, we hiked that section of trail, and it clearly is much too technical for my bike and my skill level. And so I merge back on the road just as emerges from the long tunnel, near the railway station in Wiesen. his involves a good bit of climbing up to and through the village of Wiesen before I then reach the final descent toward Filisur.

Church in Wiesen

Looking back down from Wiesen

Albula Pass (2315 m)


German pass rating website gives the western approach to the Albula pass 4.7 out of 5 points for its beauty. I had also seen parts of the road in the distance from a hike and it looked stunning. And so my expectations are high. And yet, the experience is even better! It's a long ascent, divided into two main sections: The lower section to Bergün goes through a narrow portal in the gorge. Vertigo-inducing drops are on my right. I pedal up to where river, road, and railroad make it through a narrow opening in the rock. The morning sun still low, I make it through this section in the shade and with pleasant temperatures. But the sweat stains on my jersey and top tube are already sizeable anyway.


When I reach Bergün, at 1350 m of elevation, it is high time for breakfast. Buns from a bakery, a banana, and a bottle of coke: The breakfast of grimpeurs. I take in the almost overpowering Swiss scenic-ness of the town square: Narrow, sometimes cobbled roads, a fountain, century-old wooden houses. And a sign toward the pass.

It's hardly 8 am and I have already climbed a lot. But the second section still leaves almost 1000 meters more to climb to the top. For a while longer the road criss-crosses the railroad route. You can often hear but rarely see a train. Is it to your left? Above you? Below you? In a tunnel? Hard to tell. Only once do I catch a glimpse of train in the distance.


My bike has a MTB triple drivetrain, which I am very thankful for. It allows me climbing away in whatever low gears I have, soaking up the sigh of ever-taller mountains around me. A few times people in cars or on e-bikes wave or yell at me: "Chapeau!" "Respect. I don't know how you do this." Maybe one's brain is more receptive to these encouragements in an exhausted state, but I really, really appreciate these.

 Speaking of an exhausted state: Just as I near the top of the pass I hear strange noises behind me. When I turn around I see a man on an e-bike. But that can't be the source of the noise, can it? No, behind the e-biker is a man on roller skis riding up the road! And he is catching up to me! Eventually he passes me, and when I get to the top of the pass, I see him next to what appears to be his bike... What an encounter.

Why does the Albula have 4.7 stars instead of 5? Maybe because the actual top of the pass is quite as spectacular compared to, say, the Stelvio. Rather than a pronounced pass height with views on both sides, the Albula flattens out. Don't get me wrong, it's still beautiful, but rather than taking a break at the café on the pass I continue down to La Punt, now in the canton Engadin.


This side of the pass is shorter and steeper. Before the start of my vacation I had noticed that the bearings of my front wheel felt rough and slightly loose. In normal riding this wasn't noticeable, but in fast turns I can feel the grinding. Nothing too disconcerting, but it makes me moderate my speed just a little. Bummer -- I hate braking.

The character of the ride changes. La Punt is in the Inn Valley, and for the next 30 kilometers I follow the river. Sometimes on the seemingly very popular Inn bike route, sometimes on the parallel road. The elevation profile is downhill, which gives me an opportunity to recover a bit. It also makes the now noticeable heat and sun more bearable.


But nothing lasts forever: I'm aware that the turn out of the valley and up the Flüela pass must be near. And I'm low on water and food. Unfortunately all the village fountains (which are very common in the area) in Zernez are dry and I must have missed the grocery store. No biggie, I think: There's still one more village, at the very base of the pass.


Susch indeed has a working fountain. A fellow cyclist had just stuck his head underwater to cool down. Susch also has a grocery store. A grocery store, however, with the not uncommon extensive lunch break from 11LI arrived there at 11:37 am, that is, 7 minutes after they had closed for their lunch break. The food left in my saddle bag consisted of nothing but a bag of fruit gummies. In our first week of vacation I had already ridden the Flüela pass, out and back, from the other side. So I have a rough understanding of what was ahead of me. With the water issue resolved, this seems doable. I stuff a handful of sour peaches into my face, dip my hat and sun sleeves into the cold fountain, and say my goodbye to the other riders. Compared to them, I have it easy: Just about 35 km to go, compared to their 120 km.

 Flüela Pass (2383 m)

The pass starts hard right out of the gate: A set of steep switchback takes you out of the village, the grade frequently above 10 percent. Now the road straightens and the grades relent. Unfortunately I am also leaving behind the trees and the shade that they provide. The other cyclist had warned me: You will be in the full sun for the whole descent. Yes, I could feel it. My bike computer shows the temperature: 44°C. On the one hand, it's obvious that it's not actually 44 degrees. But in my mind I nod: Yes, it does feel like 44 degrees. Again, I am grateful for my low gears. Just keep pedaling. I budget my water: Some goes into me, some goes onto me for additional cooling. At least I'm not the guy I pass now: Fully loaded with four panniers on his bike! I say hi, but he's too focused or exhausted to respond.

The road steepens again. No switchbacks -- just straight up along the side of the valley. The sour peaches consumed at the bottom all seem to have been burned up in my body. I need to stop. There aren't many pull-outs, but the one that appears next offers a fantastic view of a side valley and its peaks and glaciers. I'm above 2000 meters now, which means the air is thinner, but I also have climbed more than half of the pass. A construction site with one way traffic provides another rest and sour peach opportunity. I'm not the only one who's running hot: A car pulling a trailer is stranded on the road, steam or smoke coming from under the hood.


The pass itself only becomes visible once you're already very close. Here it is much more busy than it was at the Albula. Signs admonish you that the benches are only for paying customers, and absolutely no picknicking! While the prospect of an espresso or beer seems promising so does the upcoming descent. After the obligatory photo, I press on. As I stop for a quick photo of the beautiful valley ahead of me, I chat with some fellow Swabians in an RV. They say they passed me multiple times on the pass, and that I made it up there real quick. That's certainly not how it feels to me, but once again I'm elated by the short interaction. 


Now it's time to get into the valley. From my earlier ride of the this side of the pass I know that the descent is not technical and the pavement is good. Perched low on my top tube I get as aero as I can. What took an hour and forty minutes to climb takes 26 minutes to descend. I made it!

Celebratory generic can of beer in the park

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Sugar River 200 km Permanent

My randonneuring career started in Montreal. Physically, the idea of riding 200 kilometers seemed feasible. And the start location was just across the St. Lawrence, about 15 kilometers from where I lived. Since moving to Madison in 2015, I have only plenty of long rides. But only one of them was an official brevet. The reason? The local randonneuring club is based in Richland Center, almost 1.5 hours drive from Madison. Being carless, this made the logistics of getting to the start of their rides very challenging. 

An alternative to brevets are permanents: Same distances, same time limits, but you do them at a time of your choosing. When Randonneurs USA, the national organization, revamped their rules for permanents, I decided to finally create my own permanent route, starting right in Madison: The Sugar River 200k.


Start and finish are at Pacific Cycle, on the Southwest Commuter Path. You can easily reach the start by bike, and if you arrive by car, it's easy to find parking there. The route heads south, very loosely following the Sugar River downstream into Illinois. You ride on the Badger State Trail (trail pass required) until its paved section ends, and then transfer to quiet rural road. The first control is a gas station in Albany, and shortly after the control the unpaved section of the route, on the Sugar River State Trail begins. The surface is crushed limestone, but because the trail doesn't see a lot of use, grass will often take over a lot of the trail. Generally, the trail is easily rideable even on relatively narrow tires during the summer and fall. In the winter, spring, and after big rainfalls, take an on-road detour.

The trail ends in Brodhead and you're back on roads again. We're getting close to the Illinois border now. The only sign of the border: A sign for "State Line Road," and all the roads now have numbers. You don't go very far into Illinois: The southernmost control is a gas station near Lake Summerset, a gated community around an artificial lake.


Overall route is flat, but the terrain around the border has some ups and downs. We now go west and north toward the next control in Footville. The roads here are very sparsely traveled. Evansville is not a control, but if you're tired of gas station food, the route takes you right past a Piggly Wiggly supermarket. 


We continue northwest until we get to the next control in Oregon. There are stretches of on state or US highways in this section, but they add to less than a mile total and have paved shoulders. The official control in Oregon is a gas station. My recommended alternative for a stop: Firefly Coffeehouse just across the street. It's a great cafe with delicious baked goods, sandwiches, and cheese boards. They do close at 3pm however, and so depending on your pace, this may not be an option. 


Rather than taking the direct route back to Madison, we now head toward McFarland. This involves a beautiful stretch on Rustic Road 20, Dyreson Road. The highlight is a one-lane truss bridge across the Yahara River. McFarland is the last control before the finish. Just where you transition onto the Lower Yahara River Trail, take a photo of the Andrew Larson Park sign. The remainder of the route is all on bike trails, including Wisconsin's longest boardwalk. On weekends, these can be busy with people walking and biking, so be prepared to take it slow. 

If you have any feedback on the route or the cue sheet, please leave a comment here

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Boulder Gravel and Mixed Surface Rides: Flagstaff and Artist Point

I just returned from a week-long vacation in Boulder, Colorado. This was my first time in Boulder (and Colorado), and there was great biking. When researching my ride options I found it difficult to find good riding information in a single place. This series of short blog posts summarizes my rides. 

For context: I was on a drop bar bike with 38 (rear) and 42 mm wide tires and a low gear of 32-30.

One of several switchbacks on Flagstaff Rd

My bike was delayed on the way (thanks, United...). By the time it was delivered to Boulder it was already late in the afternoon. To make sure the reassembled bike worked , and also to get a sense how the altitude would affect me, I took a short ride on the classic Flagstaff Road. This is a steep and windy road, offering great views. There is a paved shoulder on some sections. Car traffic was moderate, and people were clearly used to lots of cyclists riding this road. This route is all paved.


View over Boulder from Flagstaff Summit

Picnic area near Artist Point

The short version of the ride took me to Flagstaff Summit, and I continued a little farther, to Artist Point. A wedding party with a photographer was just getting out of their cars there when I arrived. If it's good for wedding photos, it must be good for me as well, I thought, and so I walked a few dozen feet past the end of the pavement. Very much worth it, especially around sunset!

Vista from Artist Point

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Race notes: ZHQ FutureWorks Crit City Race C

 Since I'm doing this Zwift racing thing somewhat regularly now, I may as well keep race notes.

I've been zwifting every day for 7 days now (stupid badge hunting...), plus a bit of outdoor riding. So when I warmed up for the race today my legs didn't feel great. The Crit City course was familiar from a previous race: Just under 2 km, starts out flat, then a short and punch climb, flat again, then downhill rollers, and flat to the finish. I was able to hang with the pack, but it took a lot. Managing the effort on the uphill and then having enough in the tank to make it to the finish was hard. And so in lap 6 I couldn't do it any more. Fortunately I was not the only one: Three other riders got dropped as well and we did a good job working together. For the final lap I got an aero boost and tried using that to create an early gap on the flat. That didn't work out, but we did catch two other riders. In the final sprint I went a bit too early and maybe in too high a gear and came in 4th of our 5-person grupetto. 21st out of 31 riders.


Friday, December 24, 2021

Tried and Liked 2021

A year ago at this time of the year I was recovering from a broken wrist. Not a great mental place to write about bike stuff and so I skipped the tried-and-liked post for the year. Time to pick up the tradition again!


Smart bike trainer and Zwift

When I broke my wrist in October 2020, it was clear I'd be off outdoor biking for a while. Hesitantly I bought a direct-drive smart trainer, a refurbished Wahoo Kickr. "Hesitantly" because my previous attempts at indoor riding had fallen firmly into the disliked category: Too boring; can't do it. But I knew that I'm a sucker for gamification, and so I figured virtual riding on a smart trainer, with badges, achievements, group rides may just work. And it did! I have spent 47 hours on the trainer in 2021, have gotten the SO and some friends onto it, and recently started doing and enjoying virtual races. Indoor riding will remain a cold-season-only activity for me, but during that time it's really great! 

Indoor biking is a sweaty affair

Track cycling

A true tried-and-liked! I finally did a track cycling clinic at the Kenosha velodrome and loved. For practical reasons, this will remain a one-time affair, but it was one of my highlights of the year. Full post here

Having a competent shop fix things

I do pretty much all bike maintenance myself. The reason: I'm cheap; I can do it; I have traumatic experiences of crappy/expensive repairs at a shop; being car-less makes getting a bike to/from the shop for repairs a pain. But when the hydraulic brakes on my fat bikes needed to be bled, I decided to take the bike to a shop. I have little experience with hydraulic brakes and lacked some supplies. Neff Cycle Service took care of it quickly, competently, and at a very reasonable cost. The transportation problem was solved with the help of our bike share system: Bike to the station nearest to the shop; switch to the bike share bike while ghost riding the fat bike; drop off bike; take bike share bike back to station near home.


In the US I almost exclusively use Strava for planning my routes. While in Germany for a few weeks in the summer, Komoot was a much better alternative. A good route planner needs good underlying maps, a strong community, and a good user interface. In Germany, Komoot has all three of these. It was super easy to click on a couple of "Highlights" on the map and be confident that the proposed route connecting them would be fun (occasionally type 2 fun, but still). 

Silca Tattico mini pump

There is joy in handling a really well made product. The Silca Tattico mini pump is such a product. I bought the pump when it was on sale, and it is a joy to use. Is it functionally better than my ProBikeKit mini pump that costs less than half and that I reviewed favorably in 2019? Better: yes. Much better? Probably not. Is it as light as the Nana Ultralight carbon mini pump? Surely not. But I have no regrets about buying the Silca.

Mixed bag or to be determined

Expensive bike kit

Velocio jersey

My bike kit in the past has consisted of cheap stuff: Jerseys bought for less than $15 new, bike shorts from cheap house brands, ...There were a few exceptions over the years, such as Bouré bib shorts or Ibex wool tights. This year I decided to try some really expensive jerseys and bib shorts. Because prices for these are still ridiculous, I bargain hunted for used items on ebay, various bike forums, and I bought some "mystery jerseys" from Voler (these are overstock items with random graphics from events or clubs). The verdict is mixed: Construction and material quality on the jerseys is noticeably better, and they have neat details that look and feel nice. But all that's no good if the fit doesn't work. Here's what I tried and my verdict:

  • Velocio ultralight summer jersey: The fabric is super thin and airy, and the raglan sleeves make the fit work well for me. My favorite.
  • Voler race fit mystery jersey: Silly graphics, but the fit works great for, and for $29 you get a lot of value.
  • Rapha Brevet wool blend jersey: Awesome materials (the wool blend feels really nice) and a bunch of neat details, e.g. a liner in the back pocket that keep sweat away from your cell phone! Unfortunately the fit around the shoulders doesn't quite work for me
  • Rapha lightweight summer jersey: Similar fit problems as the Randonneur, but otherwise a nice summer jersey

For bib shorts I bought used ones from Search and State, Ornot, and Eliel California. Features I liked: wide leg grippers and compressive fit. Some of the chamois were fine, others were so so. I don't think overall I noticed a great improvement over the more affordable Bouré products.

All in all, at full price I would never buy any of these. I understand where some of the expense is coming from (materials, quality, county of manufacture, and yes, marketing), but $180 for a jersey? $250 for bib shorts? Nah. 

Crust Lightning Bolt

I bought and built up an XL Crust Lightning Bolt frame (cantilever version) and mostly like it. As described in this thread on the 650B group, the handling has some issues. Depending on how those get resolved, I'll make a final verdict on the bike. 

Cheap and expensive sensors 

I experimented with various heart rate and cadence sensors. The experiences have been a mixed bag. For chest-strap heart rate monitors I have found that cheap Chinese ones get the job done just fine. For whatever reasons that has not been true for cadence sensors. Maybe it is because they need to transmit over a longer distance (crank to handlebars vs. chest to handlebars for a heart rate monitor), but I could not make two different cheap ones work reliably. The more expensive Wahoo sensor that I eventually bought works just fine.

Touring in a large group

While in Germany over the summer, there was an opportunity to join large group touring ride. The ride was a multi-day protest ride from Frankfurt to Munich, and I joined for one stage. It was a great experience for many reasons, but I wouldn't have wanted to do this style of group riding for more than a day. The organizers were absolutely top notch. With 20-40 people riding on public roads, you need a high level of coordination: A lead and a sweep connected through radios; participants corking intersections to prevent drivers breaking up the convoy; maintaining a speed that works for everyone; dealing with angry people in cars. Not my preferred style of riding.


Monday, December 13, 2021

Madison Santa Ride 2021

Madison has a longstanding tradition of Santa rides (sometimes also referred to as the Santa Rampage). In past years, they have been pretty informal, but this year the Wisconsin Bike Fed stepped up and organized the ride. Shout-out to Bike Fed staffer Caitlin Hussey. I had a slow start into the morning and was running late. And as I left the house, I noticed that it was pretty icy. Time to quickly thrown on a studded tire in the front, which made me even later. I only caught the tail end of the ride. Just in time, though, to still catch some great shots. Enjoy!

Forward! With Bike Fed staffer Caitlin