Sunday, December 25, 2022

2022 Ride Highlights

 It's Christmas and I just finished reading the latest issue of Bicycle Quarterly. It's the 20th anniversary issue and looks back at highlights from the past two decades. And two days ago I listened to the end-of-year episode of bike podcast Antritt, which also looked back at the year. So now it's time to look back at my bike year and review some highlights. 

The Swamp Tile

Where the road ends, you get out the snowshoes


A very early highlight of the year: Collecting the damn Swamp Tile. What is the swamp tile? It's a square of land in the Deansville Wildlife Area that's quite inaccessible. I needed to visit that square in an effort to expand my max square for VeloViewer Explorer, and I had failed to reach it twice before. So when the weather looked alright for January, I decided to make another attempt at the swamp tile in the Deansville State Wildlife Area. I loaded snowshoes on the back of my studded-tired fixie, brought a spare pair of socks in case it'd get my feet wet, biked out there, carried/pushed the bike through frozen swamp/grass and succeeded in reaching the tile!


Three Lakes X

Riding across the three main Madison Lakes -- Mendota, Monona, and Wingra -- in early February should've been a highlight. Unfortunately the experience was somewhat spoiled by an asshole truck driver at the very beginning of the ride. But still, riding across frozen lakes is still a special experience.

Lake number 2: Monona

Hugh Jass Fat Bike Race

In between a lot of basement Zwifting, I did a fat bike race in late February. Kevin and I made the dubious decision to bike to the start and we arrived barely in time to still register (I'm still embarrassed about dripping all over the sign up sign up sheet as my balaclava thawed... Unfortunately no pictures.


The high point, literally


My first time in Colorado was basically a week's worth of highlights. Every ride was amazing, especially the numerous sections of empty gravel roads. This trip also included a ride to the highest point I ever biked to: 3075 meters (10,088 ft). 

Gold Hill

To the top

A steep gravel road on the way to Gold Hill

200 km Permanent Recon

I like randonneuring. I don't like having to make the arrangements to get to the start of a brevet in Richland Center. So created a Permanent route (i.e. a randonneur ride that people can do at any time) out of Madison, dipping into the northernmost parts of Illinois. In June I test rode the route to make sure there weren't any issues with the route or cue sheet. More detailed post here.



Toward the Albula

Another first this year, another highlight: Vacation in the Swiss Alps. The bike highlight of the trip was my loop across two major passes: the Albula and Flüela.

Second place: Biking from Davos through 4 countries to catch the train back home in Lindau. This is my favorite type of ride: A recreational adventure that has some faint practical purpose to it. I could have just taken the train back from Davos, but riding 130 kilometers through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria and then just across the border into Germany, would save me some small amount money because I had a monthly rail pass. 

Following the Landquart River toward the Rhine

Liechtenstein Parliament: "The highest task of the state is to promote the whole welfare of the people."

The final border crossing of the ride, from Austria into Germany

 Swabian Jura Errandonée

Württembergische Metallwarenfabrik (Württembergian Metal Wares Factory)

Speaking of fun rides with a purported practical purpose: My parents had borrowed a set of dessert forks from a friend. Somehow a few of the forks disappeared. The obvious solution: A very hot and hilly 126 kilometer ride to the fork manufacturer's HQ and outlet store and back. 

Swabian Jura Errandonée

New bridge for the high speed rail connection between Stuttgart and Ulm

Historic center of Schwäbisch Hall

One of the many beautiful, apple-tree-lined roads in the Schwäbischer Wald

Sunset wine bar in the vineyards


There were a few other amazing rides in Germany: An after-work ride to a vine bar in the vineyards; a train-bike-train-bike adventure centered around the Stuttgart Critical Mass; and a ride to Schwäbisch Hall on the quiet, scenic (and never flat...) roads of the Swabian Forest.

Karlsruhe to Critical Mass

Schwäbisch Hall


Stuttgart Critical Mass

Fake records

Waiting out the rain in Dodgeville


Once back in the US, I had some repentance to do. Many months ago I had made up a story about a historical event: In the late 19th century, a man named John D. Cannonball wanted to demonstrate the superiority of the highwheeler over the safety bicycle by breaking the previous record for riding from Dodgeville to Madison. My fake was a little bit too convincing and a friend scheduled an event to commemorate the historic ride. We decided to keep the ride on the calendar and of course I felt compelled to participate. So Jacob and I biked to Dodgeville (and got soaked by a thunderstorm) and then rode back to Madison as fast as we could. I think this should become an annual event...

At the "finish line." We and our safety bicycles made good time

Wright Stuff Century

The Wright Stuff Century is an annual, pretty low-key event organized by Bombay Bicycle Club. It takes you through the Driftless area west of Madison and has a lot of climbing. This was the first time I did the long route and it was very enjoyable. I rode with my friend Andy Q, who was prepping for a 600k ride, and he's a great riding buddy. 
Riding the Driftless with Andy

Pick Me Up at the Border & Badger Challenge weekend

Two big rides, one weekend: On Friday night, I joined Bike Fitchburg's traditional Pick Me Up at the Border ride: Start in Fitchburg in the evening, ride south on the Badger State Trail toward the Illinois border. Because I had yet another big ride planned for Sunday (see below), riding all the way to the border was too much. Instead I rode with the fast kids in the front for as long as I could and then turned around. It was still over 100 kilometers and I got home just before midnight.

Then on Sunday it was time for the Badger Challenge, a charity ride for the local cancer center. I was signed up for the 100 mile ride, but with way to the start and back it ended up being my longest ride of the year, at 204 km. I overcooked it early on and had to battle a strong headwind on the way back. A challenge it was.

Tandem camping at the CX Cup

Despite several attempts earlier in the year, the SO and I never managed to go bike camping. The Trek CX World Cup seemed like the last opportunity. So we loaded up the BOB trailer and rode out there, with an amazing tailwind. And tons of fun at the World Cup. 

A little chilly for camping

Season Closer: To Rochelle and back

The last big ride of the season maybe also was the hardest ride of the year: An overnighter to Rochelle, IL. The first day was long, at almost 200 kilometers, there was a lot of headwind, and my eating and drinking were messed up. It was a very long and mentally hard day in the saddle before I rolled into Rochelle just around sunset. There's something about knowing what you and your body can do -- I know for sure that I can ride 200 kilometers in a day -- and the experience of actually doing it when the conditions are against you. Fortunately, the way back was shorter, more scenic, and had a wonderful tailwind. 
To Rochelle: and back
Nice Illinois gravel, with a side of tailwind

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