Saturday, December 15, 2012

Observations from Berlin

Bikes are everywhere in Berlin, even in the famous food department of KaDeWe
Last summer I spent a couple of days in Berlin. I went to university there between 2001 and 2007 but haven't been back for a few years. Before moving to the US I did bike a decent amount, mostly for transportation, but would never have considered myself a "cyclist"--a bike is just what gets you around town faster and cheaper than the subway or bus. In addition to my changed attitude and behavior, cycling in Berlin has changed, too. The modal share has increased quite a bit and infrastructure keeps getting added or replaced. So it was quite interesting to be back and I wanted to share some of my observations.

The bike rentals

Bike rentals are everywhere, and they are dirt cheap. We rented from Lila Bike in Prenzlauer Berg and they charge 8 Euros for the first 24 hours and 5 Euros for every day after. We picked the bikes up on a Sunday and it was completely crazy with people flocking in by the second to rent or return their bikes. In addition to specialized bike rental places one could also rent from bike shops and even convenience stores. The bikes usually are heavy step-through city bikes with internal gear hubs, big, cushy saddles, dynamo-powered lighting (a legal requirement in Germany), fenders, a rack, and wide, puncture-resistant tires. North American cyclist might scoff at these bikes and they are certainly not meant for riding a century, but for riding around Berlin with its many cobblestone streets they work very well.
On one day we used our rental bikes to ride out to Pedalpower in Lichtenberg to rent a tandem. Pedalkraft makes their own tandems and cargo bikes, and for 25 Euros per 24 hours we got a step-through tandem with S&S couplers. Rental opportunities for other kinds of more specialized kinds of bikes exist, too.

Finally, Deutsche Bahn offers Call-A-Bike, a system similar to Bixi or Velib.

The sidewalk cycling and salmoning

Bike traffic can be heavy and unfortunately there is a large amount of sidewalk cycling. It is illegal and there is some enforcement (we saw someone being pulled over while we were on [or in this case: off] the tandem) but a lot of people don't care at all and ride on the sidewalk pretty aggressively. We stayed near Schönhauser Allee and this is both a sidewalk cycling and salmoning hotspot -- partly probably due to the fact that it is a big uncrossable street with the elevated subway in the middle.
Fahrradweg auf der Schönhauser Allee
Salmoning on the Schönhauser in action (Photo: GBiB; license CC-BY-NC-SA)
In 2008 the modal share for bikes was 13% for the whole of Berlin and I'm sure it has grown since then. As in most cities, the numbers change the farther away from the city center you go, but even the outer borough have a significant amount of cyclists. A high mode share combined with bad behavior and bad infrastructure creates a lot of tension but cycling is still a very safe activity in Berlin.

The bike shops

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a huge number of bike shops around town. I was looking for a couple of more or less exotic parts and for that reason visited a number of them. One really nice thing about them is that they can usually order every part that Hartje, the major German wholesaler, has in stock within 24 hours! And you don't even have to pay upfront.
Another great discovery was Cicli Berlinetta. They specialize in vintage Italian racing bikes and their shop is just a-m-azing! In addition to gorgeous frames they also have vintage components and apparel, and they also build their own custom frames and bikes. Even though I'm not the biggest retro-fan I can highly recommend a visit there!
Retro heaven at Cicli Berlinetta

Steel bike pr0n

The bikes

Pretty much any kind of bike imaginable can be found in Berlin. In comparison to North American cities, the proportion of upright city bikes is much higher and what is known as "hybrids" doesn't really exist as a category. The proportion of bikes equipped with dynohubs has increased significantly compared to when I lived in Berlin; sidewall generators, however, are still a common sight, as are ninja riders with no or broken lights.

The infrastructure

turning right truck brakes because of bicyclist
Situations like this are common in Berlin and kill several cyclists every year (Photo: quapan; license: CC-BY)
The types of bike infrastructure has a similar variety to the types of bikes ridden. In terms of quality it is a mixed bag, too. There are horrible cycletracks, probably dating back to the 1980s, which are narrow, have potholes and bumps galore, and put riders at a high risk of right-hooks (the major cause of cyclist deaths in Berlin). In general, the infrastructure built in recent years is not as bad -- mostly on-road cycletracks with somewhat decent solutions for the intersections. When riding by myself I would usually ignore the bad kinds of infrastructure but my significant other did not feel comfortable enough to ride on major roads. What has improved in the past years is signage: several bike routes, either leading to and from the center or on tangents, have been developed and they're well marked.
The legal situation in Germany is somewhat complicated: most basically, cyclists are obliged to use bike infrastructure -- but only if it is marked with certain signs, such as "Z 237". In principle these signs should only be put up in situations where there is an "objective danger" for cyclists but in the past local administrations haven't taken that requirement too seriously. Bike advocates have used the courts to get rid of a lot of the signs and in Berlin I have gotten the impression but the administration has gotten much better about giving cyclists a choice to use bike infrastructure or not.
Z 237: If you see this one you have to use the bike lane/cycle track

The helmets

My significant other had been told by someone at a conference that helmet use had increased significantly in Berlin. I was somewhat skeptical of that, as the statistics for Germany indicate that helmet use after a couple of years of growth is now stagnating or even declining. And that indeed seems to be the case. It's hard to guess accurately but I'd say that only 10 to 20 per cent of cyclists wear helmets.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A crowd-sourced chain testing procedure: Campa C9 vs. SRAM PC-971

Measuring arrangement: Chain is hung up on nail, pulled down by a 1000g weight. Measuring 6 full links on the inside with calipers
Changing a worn chain is a task you regularly encounter if you ride a decent amount of miles. How often you have to exchange them depends on a whole number of factors--gear ratio and cross-chaining, weather conditions, lubrication and cleaning, riding style and--the make and model of your chain. For the past couple of years I have been riding mostly SRAM's PC-971 chain. It was the one recommended and sold cheaply by my LBS and its price to value ratio seemed to be in a good zone. Its more expensive brother, the PC-991 appeared to offer mainly weight savings; and the cheaper model PC-951, which I tried once, lacked the nickel-plating that prevents the chain from getting permanently rusty in the salty winters of Upstate New York and Quebec.
My previous go-to chain: SRAM PC-971

I never kept exact records of chain life but after some years I got the impression that other people's chains lasted longer. As I've said above, this can be due to all kinds of factors but in the German a consensus developed that the Campagnolo Record C9 in general seems to last longer than other chains.

The reference chain: Campa Record C9
Some evidence for this was produced in a chain test by forum member JensD, and I was excited when another member announced that he would start a crowd-sourced follow up test. Because of the number of factors affecting chain wear you have to keep as many of them as constant as possible. One way of doing this is to test the chain in a controlled environment. Tests of this kind are regularly done by various bike magazines but the problem is that the performance in a test stand doesn't necessarily translate into real-world performance. In order to address this, BaB suggested the following procedure: Take two half-chains, join them together with master links, and then ride them on the same bike until one of them has passed the wear limit. At the beginning and at the end of the test the chains should be accurately measured while off the bike by hanging them on a nail, weighing them down with a 1 kg weight and then taking multiple measurement of 6 full links with calipers.

Reference weight: a water-fille SIGG bottle
There are a few potential problems with this procedure: some have pointed out that the differences in wear in the two parts of the chain will also lead to a specific wear in the cassette cogs which in turn will affect chain wear. And similarly, some believe that master links tend to wear faster than regular chain links. No matter if this is the case or not, it should not be a problem for the test results: the different amount of wear between the two chain parts will still be indicative of one chain's relative superiority over the other.

My current chain was already stretched beyond the recommended point for replacement and therefore I kept riding it until the bitter end before switching out the complete drivetrain. This delayed my testing for a bit but as of yesterday I'm in, comparing a Sram PC-971 with the Campa C9! Others on have already started the test and I am very curious about the forthcoming results. I will post here regularly about on-going developments. If anyone else is interested in participating, please let me know.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

QC-MTL Day 4: Lanoraie to Montreal

< Back to day 3
With a view like that, breakfast tastes twice as good
The long riding on the previous had taken its toll and we felt pretty stiff after rolling out of our sleeping bags. However, we woke up to a picture-perfect sunrise over the still river. We figured that the distance back home would about 75 km, including a long stretch which I had ridden before and knew wasn't as pleasant as the route we had been on for the past couple days. The first 15 kilometers, however, were still very nice, with a quiet Route 138 meandering alongside the river.
Beautiful sunrise over the St. Lawrence
Right before we turned off of 138 towards L'Assomption we were passed by what was the largest group of cyclists we had encountered on our tour. It looked like they were some youth group with a few adult ride leaders and--their own follow vehicle. The follow vehicle passed me in a somewhat unsafe manner, but I'm always happy to see young people riding, especially in a touring context. It is a rare enough thing around here.

Whereas on my previous ride I had continued on Route 138 all the way to Montreal, this time we followed the Route Verte which turns north from the St. Lawrence and then follows the Assomption River to the island of Montreal. The stretch between the river and L'Assomption was very unpleasant to ride on: fast traffic headed towards and from the A40, including a bunch of trucks, and a narrow shoulder. Worse yet, around the A40 exit there was a lot of construction which rendered the shoulder unusable. I hope once the construction is done they will have improved the cycling infrastructure.

Dedicated bike ways and lanes did exist in L'Assomption but they mostly were of the horrible kind: zig-zagging through the town, bad pavement, pointless stop signs, frequent changes of the side of the road. In addition, the weather had gotten incrementally worse. What had started as a sunny day with no wind whatsoever had now turned into a gray day with a stiff headwind. At a gas station between L'Assomption and Le Gardeur we took shelter from the drizzling rain and nourished our tired selves with a coke and ice cream. The drizzle neither got better nor worse and after a while we continued on our way.

In Le Gardeur the Route Verte first leads through a suburban residential area and then runs on a bike path between a highway on the one side and what looks like an ammunitions factory on the other. Near the A40 interchange there was a big construction zone but they had done a good job of putting up signs for the bike detour. Once we had crossed the Assomption River into the southwest end of Repentigny it was high time for lunch. The biketopus had hoped for a nice restaurant somewhere on the river but based on my prior experience I was rather skeptical about the prospects of finding such a place. And indeed, the best we could find was a Harvey's.

By the time we got going again the rain was merely a drizzle; but only minutes later (that's how long it took to cross a ridiculously badly designed intersection) we found ourselves in a formidable downpour. We took shelter in a strip mall just opposite the Harvey's and fortunately the weather slightly improved again after a few minutes. Crossing the bridge onto the Ile-de-Montréal was unpleasant nonetheless, as the gusty wind regularly carried the passing cars' and trucks' road spray over the cycle path barrier.

East Montreal: a mix of parks, residential and industrial areas
For the rest of the day we struggled with increasingly strong headwinds, a route that ranged from crappy to not-that-bad, and our exhaustion. Had there been a convenient option to take a train or bus for the rest of the way we would've gladly accepted it -- but there wasn't, and so we just struggled on. For the last few kilometers we at least were back in familiar territory, and having the sense that you're almost home certainly helped. Exhausted but happy about the whole tour we finally arrived back home.

With the headwind, we certainly felt as if we were dragging along an anchor
Getting into the city from the east definitely sucks and it was the worst part of the whole tour (Trois-Riviéres was bad, too, but at least it wasn't as long). Unfortunately, there aren't really good alternatives. For the stretch on the Ile-de-Montréal  one could follow the North Shore on Boulevard Gouin which has sucky parts too, but overall is a little nicer. Another alternative would be to cross the St. Lawrence in Sorel-Tracy and approach Montreal on the south shore. The problem with this is that for long stretches this requires riding on a shoulderless 90km/h highway for long stretches. If that could be fixed -- and it probably will be at some point, as it is part of the Route Verte 3 -- I would definitely recommend this option.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

QC-MTL, Day 3: Trois-Riviéres to Lanoraie

< back to day 2 > forward to day 4
After a good night's sleep in our our executive suite, we made good use of the included breakfast. I had a bunch of bagels with jam and the biketopus had a big serving of fresh waffles. We probably overdid it a bit and thus started our ride pretty slowly. Fortunately, getting out of Trois-Riviéres was much more pleasant than getting in. The weather was pleasant and for the first 10 km we were on fairly quiet road before meeting up with Route 138 once more. In contrast to other days, 138 did not run near the Saint Lawrence but further north; the road closest to the river was Autoroute 40.

Second breakfast in Yamachiche

We made a second breakfast stop after 20 km at a playground in Yamachiche. Once we got out of town, the Route Verte would depart from Route 138 and for the most of the day we'd ride away from highway shoulders. Instead we'd be on gorgeous country roads: barely any car traffic and a picturesque, pastoral scenery. The downside of these quiet roads was that there wasn't much in terms of eating or drinking. We should have stopped in Louiseville, one of the few real towns in the area, but by the time we rode through it was still a bit early for lunch. We were counting on a lunch stop in the next town, Maskinongé, another 10 km down the road, but this turned out to be not such a good idea. Maskinongé was a small village with a big church but not much else. The only lunch option was a depanneur which fortunately had a little pizza counter in the back. Watched by Our-Lady-of-Something we a poutine lunch and a Pepsi.
Our-Lady-of-??? watching over our lunch

The stretch from Maskinongé to Berthierville was the highlight of the day: once again we were on lovely country roads, but this time the roads were literally covered with thousands and thousands of butterflies. We're no butterfly experts, but I think they were Atlantis Fritillary. And yes, they just hung out on and next to the road, flying up and around you once you got near. We had never experienced anything like that and it felt almost surreal. Near Berthierville we got back to the 138 which was being repaved. A nice flagger told us that we should just ride through on the side while the cars still had to wait.
You can't see them, but the butterflies were everywhere

Once we got into Berthierville we took a long break at the Metro supermarket and considered the options for the day. After our bad experience with the hotel on the previous day, we had already booked a campground in Lanoraie in the morning. According to Google Maps the campground would be only about 10 more kilometers and it was only 3 pm. As a nice addition to an already nice day I therefore suggested taking a little detour Sorel-Tracy. Sorel-Tracy is a fairly unattractive industrial town on the south shore of the Saint-Lawrence, but going there involves a nice ferry ride.
The ferry is the only crossing of the St. Lawrence between Trois-Riviére and Montreal

We decided to go for it, and the ferry ride was indeed nice. Three big ships were anchored in the river, waiting to dock at one of the factories, and a fourth one was tugged back out from there. Sorel-Tracy was as boring as I remembered it from an earlier ride and after a short break in a park on the river we took the ferry back. In Berthierville we stopped again at the Metro and stocked up on grillables for dinner. My GPS had run out of battery and I didn't want to bother with exchanging for what I thought would be only 10 kilometers on Route 138.

Wolfgang parked on the ferry
Well, 10 kilometers we rode, and the house numbers were in the right range. We knew that the campground's address was 600-something Grande Côte, but nothing resembling a campground appeared. Since we weren't 100% certain about the house number we just kept going a little further but once we got into the 800s we realized that something was wrong. We checked again on the Iphone, and yes, we had already gone past the red dot that supposedly was the campground. Looking at the address, though, it dawned on me what had gone wrong: we and the red dot were on Grande-Côte Est whereas I was fairly sure that I had entered Grande-Côte Ouest on Google Maps. And indeed, looking at the camping guide confirmed that Camping Chez Denise was at 568 Grande-Côte Ouest, i.e. another 10 km down the road. It appears that the Iphone map app doesn't know how to deal with spelled-out French street names and interprets Ouest as (maybe a typo of) Est. Sigh. We were both pretty tired at this point, having already had our longest day with almost 90 km. Well, there wasn't much we could do other than ride on. And eventually we arrived at Chez Denise.

Our awesome camp site at Chez Denise
Our problems weren't quite over yet, as, contrary to what we thought they had told us on the phone, they didn't accept debit or credit cards and we had run out of cash. Oh well, the next ATM was only 5 km away and so I quickly went back there while the biketopus set up our tent. And what a camp site we had! While the rest of the campground wasn't anything out of the ordinarzy and all occupied by RVs and trailers, Chez Denise had one tent-only site. You walked down a flight of stairs and then were pretty much on the shore of the Saint-Lawrence! No neighbors and a beautiful view of the river which was quietly flowing in the warm light of the setting sun. And a nice porch swing for our tired selves. A good end to our longest day of the ride.

> forward to day 4

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Cyclists of the Lachine Canal

The Lachine Canal path is a busy bike route in Montreal, used both by commuters and recreational cyclists. It extends for about 13 km from the Old Port to the upper end on the Saint Lawrence in Lachine. Our apartment is just one block off the path and I really enjoy watching the variety of cyclists riding by. Recently I hung out near the Saint Gabriel locks and took some snapshots. Enjoy!

I never feel too comfortable taking pictures of random people without their permission, but I hope none of those depicted here will be offended. Please let me know if you want to have your picture removed.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

QC-MTL, Day 2: Saint-Alban to Trois-Riviéres

> forward to day 3
Still sunny after crawling out of the tent. It wouldn't last for long.
During the night the rain had been coming and going but by the time we got up it wasn't raining. We had our usual campground breakfast, oatmeal and Starbucks Via coffee, and then started packing up. While putting away the tent a slow drizzle started again and by the time we rode over to the campground office the drizzle had turned into a veritable downpour. It looked grey and rainy all around but we decided to see if we could wait it out in a pavilion next to the office. Well, the downpour changed in intensity but never really stopped and after 40 minutes we decided that we had to get going anyway. We donned our shoe covers, the biketopus put on her rain jacket (I didn't bother with the jacket because it was pretty warm), and off we went.

Packed up and ready to go.

Waiting for the rain to end--unsuccessfully.

We followed the Sainte-Anne river downstream on one of the nicest roads of the trip. As it often seems to be the case in Quebec, there is one road on each side of the river, one being a busy highway, the other one being a rarely used country road. We could ride side-by-side for pretty much all the way back to the Saint-Lawrence, rarely encountered cars, and enjoyed the slight downhill. After a while even the rain stopped.
Mural depicting the ice fishing town.

Tommy cod info center in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade
By the time we reached Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade, we had already done 30 km and it was high time for a second breakfast. We stopped at the Centre Thématique sur le Poulasson. Poulasson, or tommy cod in English, is a small fish found in the Saint Lawrence and some coastal waters in the north east of America, and Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade is known to be the "tommy cod capital of the world." In winter the Sainte-Anne river freezes over and a whole little ice fishing town is created on the ice, complete with play grounds, shops, restaurants, and heated cabins for fishing.
I wonder if they were able to set up the village in the last, very mild winter...

Sainte-Anne river near its mouth
Horrible one-lane metal grate bridge
From Sainte-Anne to Trois-Riviéres our route would stay close to the shores of the Saint Lawrence, following Route 138. A few kilometers down the road we encountered a long and narrow steel grate deck bridge. Riding on steel grate sucks, and having to do it on a long and narrow bridge sucks even more. Fortunately, traffic was light and we both made it across safely but pleasant it was not.
Break in Le Bas-de-Champlain

Wolfgang on the Saint Lawrence
Our tentative plan was to stop somewhere near Trois-Riviéres, either in a motel in town or on a campground a little further upriver. The decision between campground or hotel was greatly facilitated by another big downpour we encountered while entering Trois-Riviéres: Camping in the rain didn't seem like all that much fun, and we were also starting to get tired. Our first impression of Trois-Riviéres wasn't all that great. After riding through endless suburbs, we crossed two of the trois riviéres on a crappy sidewalk and then continued through what seemed to be a big brownfield redevelopment. Once it's finished it will probably be nice but for now we weren't impressed. The rest of the way through town didn't get any better: outdated bike infrastructure on busy roads all the way.

Finally we reached the outskirts of town near the approach to the Laviolette Bridge, the only bridge crossing the Saint-Lawrence between Quebec and Montreal (you can't ride across by bike but there is a shuttle service for cyclists). All of the cheap hotels were located in a typical highway-strip-mall environment. We had checked room availability via the internet earlier the day and thus we very surprised when the first hotels we checked were both fully booked. There was only one other hotel out there, a Super 8 that was listed as a bike-friendly hotel in our Route Verte guide, and there we were told that there was some big Catholic event was currently going on and they had only one vacant room left. Unfortunately, that room was the "executive suite" for 200 dollars per night. Riding through the rain and city had used up a lot of our physical and mental resources and we decided to just suck it up and pay. 80 km was enough for the day.

Our oversized executive suite...
The room was gigantic -- big enough to spread out our tent for drying -- and had its own hot tub. We picked up dinner at a nearby supermarket, did some laundry, and after a hot tub session quickly fell asleep.
...which, despite its size, we quickly were able to mess up entirely.

> forward to day 3