Saturday, March 30, 2013

Windy, chilly Amsterdam weekend

When I booked a weekend away at the end of March with cousin Trish, I was expecting winter may have been receding for a few weeks.  Alas, winter had not loosened its grip on the UK & western Europe last weekend.  But it was still a good weekend to be away, as however bitterly cold & windy it may have been in Amsterdam, it was dry and therefore better than being at home.

Flying in from Southampton, it turns out Schipol Airport is massive if you're in a little turboprop that takes an age to taxi to the terminal.  With only a vague idea of which trains to take to our airbnb accommodation (go to Central & get the metro), we fortuitously got off the train at the first stop (after overhearing advice given to other tourists) and eventually managed to get on the metro and cut quite  a bit of time off our journey.

The first thing noticed while walking in the dark was of course all the bicycles still out at that hour of the night.  We managed not to get knocked over by any and find the apartment OK.

After a good sleep, for me, and the start of mass-cheese-consumption-Saturday at breakfast (bread, ham & cheese) it was a short metro ride in to town, then a walk west admiring the old buildings and canal towards the Jordaan area and Anne Frank House.  It was well worth waiting for over an hour (we got up a bit too late) in the wind and occasional sun to get in to see such a reminder of those dark times in Europe's recent past.  The warehouse and offices do well to hide the small annex at the back in which eight people managed to hide for two years with the help of Otto Frank's office staff.

The rate (number over time, not price) of admission was such there was sufficient space to linger and contemplate without feeling rushed or that there were too many people around. 
Royal Palace from Dam Square in the centre of the city.

The front of the Anne Frank House complex
 We spent much of the afternoon wandering around the old suburb of Jordaan following a walking tour, popping into various little squares hidden in the centre of blocks of houses, looking at the rather higgledy-piggledy skinny houses. When the cold got a bit much - popping in to various cafes and bars for beer, lunch, hot chocolates and gargantuan pieces of apple pie.

Note the protruding beams at the top for lifting furniture up, to circumvent the narrow staircases.

A city with the wisdom not to rip up its tram tracks, there were still plenty of trams around.  As dusk started to draw in, we jumped on the first tram we saw as we walked out of Central Station to rest our legs and generally speed up the wandering.  I think we went all over looking at canals, bikes, and whatever street scenes happened to pass by.
The third, final and best cheese meal of the day was the three-cheese fondue served in yet another bar somewhere in town.  Walking back to the metro there was that often-present lingering smell of weed before we inadvertently wandered through the red-light district copping much too much of an eyeful.

Excitingly, there was even a bit more sun as we took the tram towards the National Museum.  The guide we were using told us that it was under renovation & only partially open.  After walking all the way around, we can confirm that it is completely closed.  At the least, I got a token photo of the sign below.  We followed the red rope up at streetlight level to the van Gogh exhibition at the Hermitage.

The small part of the van Gogh exhibition that is temporarily housed at the Hermitage was well worth seeing - even if I was a little underwhelmed by Sunflowers.  We crossed the Amstel a few times over the course of the afternoon before more food - I had delicious snert (pea soup). 

Trying to not look too cold above the Amstel.
A great weekend away from England, the first for quite sometime - since late January I think.  Unfortunately back to a four-day week in which I tried to cover three different roles at work and went in to Easter exhausted.  So my first weekend at home in five weeks is much needed - thankfully only one more week until a proper holiday.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Dartmoor Hail Ride

A long-since arranged weekend staying with family in Somerset happily coincided with a later-planned Combe Raiders ride on Dartmoor.  Still trying to build up a bit of bike fitness and always keen to explore new places (my only other visit to Dartmoor was on the way back from Cornwall and consisted mostly of Devonshire Cream Teas and a short stroll), I was looking forward to what promised to be a full day of riding.

When we turned up at the meeting point it transpired that the leader of the ride had some sort of horse-related emergency at home and wouldn't be making it along.  As I was the one that had found the gpx of the route described in a local guide book, Muggins Me ended up leading the ride.  It worked out reasonable well - with aonly three or four quickly corrected misdirections; no eight kilometre detour this time, as on the last CR ride.  It was a little difficult to set a good pace on the only singlespeed in the group - as there are really only two speeds with such a bike: walk & whatever-the-legs-are-capable-of-at-that-instant.  With a lot of decent climbs I think everyone walked more than they should have with gears as I was quick to get off & push when 32:16 just became a waste of energy with diminishing returns.

Enough of that, we had a thirty-two kilometre loop to look forward to as the sunshine & cloud quickly alternated on what was not too cold a morning.   We started off with a big gravel track descent before following a river upstream briefly and then being hit with a big climb out of the valley.  Things flattened out a bit as we had our longest stretch of country roads.  As the seal ended it was time for the first of many well-earned snack stops - most of which were taken hidden behind big stone walls.

Still smiling at the first stop in the relative dry.
Through a monster puddle, a brief coats on or coats off stop, through a farm yard and it was straight into the second proper big climb of the day.  This one was past some old open mine shafts - which I'm guessing were for tin way back when.  As we were starting to get towards moorland proper this climb was not on such a firm surface and strangely as we got near the top the grass got wetter and wetter - as did our feet.

There was another great big stone wall to hide from the wind behind as we ate again - this time almost mobbed by rather inquisitive sheep ("heard of chickens?" - sorry small NZ in-joke).
The view opened up a bit over to where we started from.
On to some more moor-like terrain.
The sun is sort of out - for now.
With a fun, but sodden downhill we were at our furtherest point and after I ummed & ahhed a bit of where the trail actually went and my rear wheel fell out of its stays (QR bent, I may have over tensioned my chain a bit) we found the sweetest bit of singletrack that we had encountered up to that point.  Which was just as well as that little bit (more than forty-five minutes) wasn't in the book - but was on the trail I had found online.

As we climbed up to Grimspound the clouds rolled in and then all of a sudden the temperature dropped and the hail slowly started.  Up on the ridge it really started pelting us and it was amusing (for me at least, as I was sufficiently protected) to hear yelps of pain as various riders' ears were struck with the little balls of ice.  Due to it not being too cold, it was quite good fun riding through a hail storm.

The ridge top was a lot longer than we were hoping.
With the hail returning we hid under some trees for more food - with no leaves on, the trees weren't all that much use for shelter.

Just before Hound Tor, we stopped in the relative calm at the Hound of the Basket Meals food van for welcome hot chocolates and tea.  The hail started again as we rode up to Hound Tor and most of us had at least one part of our extremities that were proper cold - for me it was my feet from all the walking across wet ground.  Dropping off the back there was a nice technical (considering the not-quite-peak-state-of-alertness most of us were in) descent before the climb back to a short section of road.

Half the group took a shortcut back to the cars as they were keen to get back for the rugby - I was quite happy that the other half had enough left for the last four kilometres of the route.  The first part of that was very singlespeed friendly terrain - somehow I was still at the front and I enjoyed using up some of the energy I'd held in reserve through a nice reasonably-flowing quick bit of trail before we plunged down to the river and then back up to the car.  By then I'd well warmed up again, but pleased of course to get the wet clothes off & put dry ones on.

That was a great introduction to the so-called wilds of Dartmoor and there wasn't a part of that wet, not too cold overall ride when I wasn't enjoying myself.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Exmoor ride - a three year late return

With February completely devoid of blog posts, it would easy to say that not much really happened.  No travelling & no mountain-biking due to the persistently wet weather & soaking trails in the Forest.  As it turned out, it was just as well I planned very little as all of a sudden I ended up moving house (other end of the village with more living space, bike storage in the garage, fewer flatmates and a lot more conducive to sleep - a slightly longer ride to work, but that's good) and then my car comprehensively failed its annual inspection and I had to find another in a hurry (unfortunately using money I was setting aside for a new bike & bikepacking gear).

So with March rolling around, I was all too pleased to get away to Somerset and a ride on Exmoor.  It having been much too long since my last visit on a memorably bleak, wet & freezing New Year rideI was pleased to be back in one of England's smallest national parks.  My first ride here was on vacation in 2008 when I left Mum at her cousin's & hightailed it down to Taunton for the first of many visits.

Apparently it was a warmer weekend back at home, but it definitely wasn't in Somerset - grey skies and the mercury just breaking freezing made for extra layers at the start of the ride, as it happens they stayed on the whole way around.  With the brakes still squealing like a stuck pig on my 1x9, I was single-speeding again - generally not so bad, but there were a few hills that I had to walk part of the way up.  The eight kilometre detour on the road after a missed turning didn't particularly help.  The ride proper was mostly bridleways, crossing fields and a little bit of singletrack and linking road - a good mix with ample variation.
The furtherest part of the 8 km detour.
Considering there were only four of us, we astonishingly managed to extend three hours of riding (37 km) in to a six and a half hour outing!  There were four punctures - I found mine just after Richard had finished fixing the first of his three, a coffee stop (sausage roll for me), and a delightful lunch at a guesthouse - the local corned beef, large slabs of delicious Exmoor blue cheese, ales and pickled shallots made for quite the ploughman's lunch.  Additionally, we had the dining room to ourselves so the banter and broad put-on West Country accents could keep flowing without disturbing those in the village there to look at the carpets of recently blooming snowdrops.
John heading off to take photos
Richard fixing his first flat under the watchful eye of a large & menacing flock - menacing if you've seen Black Sheep, that is.
D trying to make a poor choice of photo location more interesting than it was.
The only advantage of being out so long was that the day eventually cleared.
Not having been offroad for seven weeks I was pleased with how my legs stood up to the punishment that 32:16 hands out after a few hills and a long day in the saddle.  Strangely, up one particularly steep grunt of a climb my chain slipped off as I stood on the pedals (bashed my knee good & proper on the crown of my fork) - I shall have to shorten the chain by a couple of links and bring the eccentric bottom bracket back around a long way. I'm looking forward to Dartmoor with the same friends & a few others in a fortnight's time.

Back to John & Anna's for the night - entertaining the twins (three year old Esther & Lydia), a good film, an excuse to cook wonderfully unhealthy French toast & bacon for Sunday breakfast and best of all teaching the girls to ride a pedal bike. Such delight & excitement manifesting itself on faces - & that was just John & Anna! By the time we were all worn out, as well as riding unaided in lines of varying straightness - there was also proper steering and braking action going on. Much fun had by all - even me who was just running up & down the sidewalk/footpath entertaining the alternating bike-less child. A great return to weekends of going places & doing things - just as well, because that's the first of eleven (at least) in a row.