Sunday, November 17, 2013

Overnight ride - trying out a lot of gear for the first time

Friday past I finally got around to trying out almost all the new kit I'd acquired over the summer on a rather easy overnight bikepacking trip with a couple of guys from the local club. For those not really interested in bikes, I didn't even take any photos as it was pretty much all in the dark - so sorry about that.  I'll cover the ride first & then give some initial impressions of the new gear.

All week I'd kept an eye on the forecast for Friday night - as the weekend approached, the expected temperature kept dropping.  So my bike was a bit more loaded than I initially thought it would be as I met Mike & James at Chilworth Arms for a quick pint before heading out into the winter's night.  It's been about a year since I've been on a night ride, my single handlebar light set-up is adequate but nothing fancy.  I'd forgotten how much fun night-riding is when it's not raining or ridiculously muddy.  We mostly rode bridleways & farm tracks due north - connected by the odd country road.  Being Hampshire, there weren't really any climbs of note, although the Beacon Hill downhill was enjoyable & comparatively long.  The pace was nothing too strenuous, which I was happy to go along with as I got used to riding a much heavier bike than usual.

With an almost-full moon out I was loving riding through the countryside that could have only been English - reminded by the silhouettes of very cute villages; in the daylight it all looked very expensive, but in the dark the detail was lost & it just looked nice.  By nine o'clock it was time to stop at our northern-most point, Crawley, and head for dinner at the lovely Fox & Hounds.  For some reason the other two weren't content with a few pints and dinner - I wasn't prepared to try & keep up as the Jack Daniels & Coke and brandies flowed.  It was all very enjoyable and I haven't been quizzed on so many details of New Zealand for a long time.  Those drunker than me were quite surprised by the size of the bill, but that was eventually settled and as the bar staff declared we were quite mad, we rolled away at one o'clock - some in straighter lines than others.

The chosen camp area was about an hour back south (on a more easterly route - closer to Winchester) and somehow I (the only one who wasn't familiar with the area) ended up navigating.  I'm not sure what the villagers of Sparsholt must have thought about much laughter when Mike managed to ride into quite a large & obvious hedge & then fall on the ground.  We made camp at two o'clock and settled in for the night - I was declared soft for having a tent, the other two happy to sleep with no cover on a fine frosty night.  Not surprisingly, we didn't stir until nine-thirty on a cracking Saturday morning.  After a light breakfast & decamping we were riding shortly after the hour back to my car.

So a very manageable introduction to bikepacking that I thoroughly enjoyed - helped by some superb weather & good company.

Now for some quick thoughts on those items I was using for the first time on a bikepacking trip. Below is a photo of the set-up that is almost as I used on the weekend - the main difference being the dry bags were fully loaded due to the clear, cold night.

The thirteen litre dry-bag on the handlebars is secured to a Wildcat Mountain Lion harness. The dry-bag was packed to the gunwales with my tent & poles and winter sleeping bag. The harness held it securely, although on the return trip I had to tighten the straps as I must've repacked it differently. I did find that with the dry-bag so full, I had to lock the front fork out as the bag would rub on the front tyre if the fork compressed too far - I don't expect this to be a problem for most of my bikepacking in summer as the bag won't be so heavily loaded.

On the back of the saddle, the eight litre dry-bag is held in a Wildcat Tiger. In the picture, it isn't loaded very much - but it definitely was for this trip. At first I thought that I wouldn't be able to fit the full bag in, & even if I could it would rub on the rear tyre. But some careful adjustment of the straps had the bag in the harness & securely held. I was very impressed by how stable the bag was - it didn't swing around at all; in fact, I occasionally had to turn around to check the dry-bag was still in the harness - so oblivious was I to its presence.

In the middle of frame is the custom-made (you trace your frame on to a piece of cardboard & send it to them) Alpkit Stingray frame bag.  I've had this for a few months, so know that it performs just as it should - for this ride I'd stuffed it full of all sorts of little things, I'll have to get a bit more organised for longer tours.

My water carrying for this little trip was courtesy of two bottles attached to each leg of my front fork - not shown in the picture (the bottles, that is).  For this I've got two monkii cages mounted on monkii clips - as I've swapped out the rigid fork for a suspension fork there are no longer any cage mounts.  The clips are secure and I don't have a problem carrying a full 750 mL bottle.  However, while it is possible to carry a one litre Nalgene bottle on the cage, if it does get bumpy the bottle can escape - so it's worth securing it to the fork.  I need to rethink this a bit.  Also, while having bottles mounted on the forks is good for carrying water - it's no good for hydration while riding as it's a faff to have to stop to drink.  So I need to get a bottle holder on the handlebars somewhere.  I found on this trip I didn't drink at all while riding - that was OK as it was pretty cool, so dehydration wasn't a problem (the pub stops helped too). But in warmer conditions, this would be a problem.

I've also got a tiny meths stove - it's only good for heating up enough water to make a cup of porridge or a hot drink.  It's suitable for such a small trip, but I'll have to get around to making some sort of penny stove out of a beer can for larger cooking requirements.

I'd been eyeing up various lightweight single-person tents that I could easily carry on my handlebars for some time when Megan mentioned that she was keen on the Six Moon Designs - Skyscape Trekker.  It ticked all the boxes I needed it too, so I rather hurriedly bought it (much to Megan's chagrin) and arranged to have it shipped to Boston during my recent visit - craftily avoiding high shipping costs & twenty percent VAT. It definitely is lightweight & the material is subsequently very thin - but I haven't torn it yet; most importantly, it's very easy to carry on the bike.  I had one practice run a couple of weeks ago pitching it in a gale out in the New Forest - I managed that OK, so five pegs & two poles at two o'clock in the morning was a cinch.  I did notice that my thermarest Neoair does tend to slide around a fair bit on the floor of the tent when I moved in my sleeping bag - possibly not helped by the slight incline I was on.  It seems good so far, more nights sleeping in it will show if that's correct.

That's probably enough initial gear reviews for one post.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Through New York to Niagara

Time constraints dictated that I get back to Toronto in only two days, so the Friday was very boring driving much too far on I-90 (which I hadn't been on since Montana, Wyoming & South Dakota two years ago).  The west of Massachusetts was much more heavily wooded & hilly than I was expecting.  Still, state highways would have been preferred.

I stayed with a very lovely almost-retired airbnb couple in northern Rochester for the night.  Just to stretch the legs I took the short walk down to Lake Ontario.  I wasn't expecting to see deer roaming the suburbs.
 There were still plenty of red trees around in the fading daylight.
I got down to the lake & this storm rolled in, so I retreated back to the house & had a big Skype chat with Mum - which after a week of meeting strangers was nice.

Once again, I managed to get fed not just breakfast (a delicious [goes without saying] bacon & egg roll from a food-van decades in business at the local Farmers Market), but dinner too from my hosts.  But hoping to get to Toronto mid-afternoon via the Falls, I left pretty early & took the gentle drive around the lake to Niagara on a miserable-weather morning.

I managed to view the Falls pretty well from both the American & Canadian side - you definitely get the best wide-angle view from Ontario.  On this particular day, the American side was good for feeling the Falls blowing in your face.  Not much to say really as they're so well know - there's a lot of water falling a fair way & it's all very spectacular.  I opted out of the Maid of the Mist boat trip for time reasons, plus I was getting plenty wet standing above plummeting water.

Looking down at all those that are about to get soaked through their matching ponchos.

The sideshow American & Bridal Veil Falls.

I swapped photos with a couple of other tourists - it's a rubbish one of the falls & only slightly better of me. But oh well, I was there.

The Horseshoe Falls

Watching a fair current of water plummet into much peril.

There I am again - perhaps I'm trying to smile, it's a little hard to tell.

The drive to Toronto started out in dire conditions & was much shorter than I thought.  By the time I arrived the sun was out & I was back where I had been nine days before picking up Jane.  What a completely enjoyable trip, I do so enjoy travelling in North America; although after the last two big trips (Moab & Kenya) had been MTBing focused, it was a little odd to have a less strenuous trip.  At least I managed a fair bit of city-biking & walking - that helped to counter all the fantastic food, I suppose.

One last dinner out, this time in the old Distillery district - which Cat was keen to visit for the first time & with the largest collection of Victorian industrial buildings in North America, I was hardly about to say no.  There was too much choice as far as cafes & restaurants went; we briefly contemplating skipping dinner altogether and just camping in the divinely-smelling chocolate shop.  But we did find a very good brew-pub & an even-better-than-the-last pumpkin ale. I dropped Cat off at work and packed before spending a sleepless night lying on the lounge floor (I was determined to not have carried my sleeping bag & thermarest all the way for no reason) listening to the traffic outside.

I snuck out at awful-o'clock, returned the car & started the trip home - crossing pretty much the last thing off my food-to-eat-once-for-old-times'-sake list by grabbing some timbits for the flight home.  They proved invaluable when I discovered them in my hand-luggage before setting off on the nasty storm strewn drive home from Heathrow.


Boston also, like Montreal, is a city of charming neighbourhoods - so I made sure I found one on airbnb to stay in.  As usual, my plan to see the city was to get downtown & walk a lot.  The four kilometre Freedom Trail is very well marked (follow the red line on the ground) & starts at the large Boston Common & the Massachusetts State House. 

I got a little distracted & wandered around the Beacon Hill neighbourhood for a while first.  Even out in the suburbs in the dark of the previous night I'd noticed these odd fire call points dotted around - I suppose they're a bit like the police call boxes that were once more common in London.  At over a hundred & sixty years old, it was the first system of the kind in the world - originally linking the various call points to the central Fire Alarm Office by telegraph signals.  Quite ingenious, but I'm surprised it's still going as the call points were far enough apart to not really give any advantage over a phone.

I zigged and zagged a bit at the start of the Freedom Trail (which links sites that are connected to Boston's large role in American independence) as I stumbled across the shorter Walk to the Sea - which provided interesting titbits of Boston maritime history & also took me down to the water's edge. I wandered, soaked in the history & found a jalepeno & cheddar bagel - which I was most pleased with as that was my favourite when I made bagels, although I think I put more peppers in.

Old State House
Old Customs Building
Paul Revere's House
No building in particular
There seemed to be this small baseball event called the World Series in town & Boston was pretty excited about it - with Paul Revere below getting the Red Sox treatment.

The trail ends at the Bunker Hill monument, which was the site of an early battle in the War of Independence. From what I could work out, it's a big monument to what was supposed to a strategically useful, but still big, defeat - the colonials held off the British a lot longer than they were expected to & therefore delayed them reaching some other objective.

Anyway, there are two hundred & ninety-four steps to the top, so I charged up them too quickly & then admired the cloudy view while I caught my breath - there are a lot of roof-top patios in the surrounding area that look fantastic for summer.

It looked like there were sufficient parks & paths to walk most of the way along the north bank of the Charles River to MIT - it also looked a lot shorter distance than it really was. 

I then ended up on the other side of the river in amongst the crowds heading to Fenway Park for the first match of the series against the St Louis Cardinals.  Having the city's Trip Advisor app loaded on your phone is always helpful for finding excellent places to eat - in this case a cafe in a large independent bookshop, the momos (dumplings) were superb.  Dark & a little chilly by now I continued the walking alongside the fens (a type of wetland & that for which Fenway Park is named).  I was rather tired when I got home after walking well over twenty kilometres in all sorts of different parts of Boston.

At breakfast that morning, my host told me that the Samuel Adams brewery tour was not that far away.  Jamaica Plain (where I was staying) used have twenty-odd breweries - few remain.  For some reason, I'd always thought Samuel Adams was brewed by a huge company - but the Boston Brewing Company had quite humble beginnings in the 1980s & might still claim to be a craft brewer, although when you're the (joint) largest American owned brewery it's a little hard to believe.  The Boston site is now mostly R&D, but they do good little free tours.  As far as manufacturing equipment goes, there isn't much to see - but the tasting of barley & hops was interesting to see how different flavours get into beer.  And the last twenty minutes or so is tasting pitcher after pitcher of beer.  Possibly, I should have gone on the tour after lunch - needless to say the rest of the day was quite enjoyable.

More walking that afternoon - more local this time as close by is the Arnold Arboretum (managed by Harvard).  There were lots of trees to see & many nice streets to stroll down to get there.  Although I did cheat a bit & get a Hubway bike (the Boston version of Bixi).  There were a few streets near where I was staying that are still gravelled - very odd in the middle of a big city to find gravel streets.

Lunch was spent in Doyle's Cafe, which has a close association with Samuel Adams (being the first to sell the company's lager).  It's all very old & a favourite haunt of Boston politicians apparently, the Kennedy family used to frequent the place. The kale soup was very good indeed, with a nice kick to it.  So far I haven't mentioned all the Halloween decorations that I'd been seeing almost everywhere, as well the huge stalls selling pumpkins - mostly because I'm not really interested.  But in what may be the best thing as far as I can see about the holiday, craft brewers like to put out a seasonal drink - & pumpkin ale is ridiculously good.

I rode down to the river, crossed it & was wandering through Harvard in the twilight.  Lots of people around & plenty of impressive buildings, but not much to keep me from finding another bike & heading back towards Fenway. 

I wasn't really intending going to see what all the fuss was about at Fenway, rather hoping to spend whatever excess USD funds I had on outdoor gear at REI.  But they were so close to each other, it was worth a look.  Plus there was a Chipotle - always useful.

That was about my time in Boston - I'm glad I finally made it to what is a great city to walk & eat your way around.

A province & five states

I could have easily driven from Montreal to Boston in a day, but where's the fun in sitting on the freeway all day when there hills & different New England states to explore?

I watched the sun rise across fields of wheat as I left Quebec & then wished I'd cleaned the lens.
Getting off the Interstate to cross the border makes it all very easy & quick - in no time & six dollars later I was in New York.  My stay was short lived as I quickly moved into the north-west of Vermont driving down a series of islands that sit in Lake Champlain.  Vermont has the second smallest population of any of the states (only Wyoming has less than its 625000 people) and I was fast approaching the largest city in the state - Burlington, booming with just over forty thousand people.  So there wasn't a lot of traffic around and the morning drive continued in its pleasantness.

There was, an odd round church:

A capitol building in Montpelier, a town not really much bigger than the one I grew up in in New Zealand.  At less than eight thousand people its claim to fame is being the smallest state capital & the only one without a McDonald's.

Big old houses:

Covered bridges galore:

Whitewashed churches

A little covered bridge:

I was at my airbnb stay before lunch - my hosts were lovely & had a big old house & an almost-bigger attached barn.  Even though I was only paying for the bed & possibly breakfast, somehow I ended up being fed lunch, dinner & breakfast.  Jim was quite the chef, so the food & local amber ale was excellent for sharing many travel stories over.  Generally I find that those that host airbnb have travelled quite a bit themselves and always enjoy talking about far off places - this trip in the north-east USA consolidated that thought.

After a bit of a nap to sleep off the early start & large lunch, it was time to wander around the village.  In the next village I found the oldest military college, Norwich, in the country - which seemed a little out of the way.  But as they have a lot of winter training, it made sense as one could tell as fall progressed the whole area was preparing for another huge winter of snowfall.  I walked up a big hill on walking & biking trails that the college had built - the whole time views were promised by sneaking glances of an extraordinary vista; but as the light faded, they never really eventuated.  Apparently I had a few more miles to go back into the hills before reaching the fire tower.

All rather serene looking to be a military college.

Within an hour of driving the next morning I was in New Hampshire.  A state whose motto is Live Free or Die they are all for minimal interference from government.  As such there is no state sales or income tax & incredibly, if you are over eighteen years old, there is no legal requirement to wear a seatbelt.  That just seems a bit nuts, but I suppose it helps natural selection.
I continued to take poor photos while driving slowly through villages
My rather loose route of day was to avoid major highways again & aim towards an interesting-looking group of lakes in central New Hampshire.  The largest of which is Lake Winnipesaukee - I got out to stretch my legs & walked up & back down a hill for the best part of an hour.  I'm getting a tired of saying everything was pretty, even in the gloom, but it was and a good break from the rather easy driving.

Maine wasn't far away - so why not? Although I definitely got the feeling pretty much everything on the south coast had closed for the season. Shock, horror I stopped & bought some new clothes because I had the spare time & they were much needed - after a summer of riding, having to remove my belt for security screening now brings with it a much increased risk of finding jeans at my ankles. Soon I was following plenty of Massachusetts number plates & the spelling of the state was ingrained in my head.


Montreal had never really been much of a blip on my radar of places to visit one day.  But the little I read about the city after deciding to include it on this little drive led me to believe that I would quite enjoy it - at the least, there would be good poutine (which was on my quite long list of "things I must eat while in Canada & the States").  A city of neighbourhoods, with excellent food it sounded good fun to explore for a couple of days.

We easily found our way on to the island (curiously, Montreal is an island in the St Lawrence River - I did not know that beforehand) and then to the apartment.  Apparently, our neighbourhood was good for food so we just wandered out the door to the end of the block to peruse the local haunts - Jane spied a good looking cupcake shop that was noted for a later date.  What followed at a rather too-hip-for-me cafe was the best meal I've had in ages - scallops on a barley risotto with vegetables done to perfection.

It turned out that one of the biggest & best markets in the city was only a few blocks away, so we headed down there after breakfast Saturday.  That probably wasn't the best idea as I was immediately hungry again - I shouldn't go into detail of the huge range of produce & meat that was on display.  I managed to cross a bagel off the list; Montreal bagels are supposed to be a little sweeter than most - either way, it was better than I used to bake.  I think we managed to sample half as many plums as we ended up buying - delicious & many varieties.

Jane was aware of the Bixi public bicycle sharing scheme in Montreal from a previous visit.  I was familiar with the concept from London & other European cities - a bit of research shows that the London system is a Bixi system (the largest, with Montreal second) - Bixi being a company set up by the city of Montreal.  Basically, there are over five thousand bicycles at four-hundred docking stations all around the city - for the measly sum of seven dollars for twenty-four hours, one can have have as many half-hour rides as desired (if you take a bike for more than thirty minutes, you get charged extra).  As it turns out, it's an absolutely fantastic way to see the city.  The bikes are very solid (tough, but pretty heavy), easy to ride, comfortable, internally geared (the range of three is plenty) & with a handy basket on the front.  That is pretty much how we saw a lot of Montreal on the Saturday - interspersed by a fair bit of walking & eating too.

The local church.
Not the kind of picture I usually snap while riding a bike, c.f. this.
We ditched the bikes for a stroll, rather - a brisk steep walk, to the top of Parc du Mont-Royal - through plenty of leaves to kick around and brilliant colours.

It got a little cloudier.
Looking over McGill University to downtown.

We spent a fair bit of time riding near water - either along canals or over the river.  Montreal was the biggest industrial centre in the country until surpassed by Toronto in the second half of the twenty-century - strangely, I always find old silos & other industrial relics fascinating. As I write that, I realise that is a little weird - but think of the hundreds of people that used to work there making all sorts of things.

We went downtown for a little while, but I wasn't overly impressed as it was sort of European, but not properly so.  The neighbourhoods were much more fun - so we walked back to where Jane stayed last time & found a great hot chocolate & more cakes.  We returned to the same cafe for dinner - I got to have my poutine & it lived up to all expectations; I eat more meals without meat that I ever used to.  I'm not sure this one really counted as it was probably so full of fat & such artery-clogging ingredients.

We worked out we'd biked & walked over forty kilometres the day before (just as well with all the food), so it was a little slower start on Sunday.  With still some of our twenty-hours left on the Bixi bikes, we headed off to the botanical gardens in the autumn crispness.  There were some cool lanterns in the Chinese Garden - although I suspect they are better at night.  I narrowly avoided being eaten by a tiger.

There were a few bugs too.

I'm trying to remember what else we did on Sunday - but all I can remember doing is walking a bit & eating a lot: patisserie for lunch, we visited the cupcake store & then hit the market to find plenty of tasty fish, asparagus, broccoli, cherry tomatoes & bread for dinner.  I'm not one to take photos of food, but I managed to nab these off Jane.


Up much too early, the Montreal stay was over as I dropped Jane off at the airport for her to depart to her new life as an optometrist (that bit's not new) in small town Nova Scotia. It's not really far to the border & I was gone from Canada again by eight o'clock.

I had no idea that I'd enjoy Montreal so much - but I fear if stayed longer I'd eat well too much and put back on all the weight I lost over summer, plus some more. The whole time I was in Montreal however I did find something very disconcerting about it. It's so obviously North American with American cars, big wide streets laid out on a grid, Canadian brands and so on - but all the signs & speech is in French, everyone's better dressed & the food so good, it feels continental. It's very difficult trying to reconcile all this - will people get upset if I just assume they speak English (most seem to be bilingual)? Annoyingly, the rest of Canada seems to make an effort at being bilingual with their signs, but you get to Quebec & there is next to English on the major signs - that seems a little rude, so I suppose that fits in well.

Anyway, Montreal - well worth a visit for a few days at least, if not more.