Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Festive 500 Furlongs

Since completing our first Festive 500 in 2011, riding 500km (or more) between Christmas Eve and New Years has become a yearly tradition in our household. Unfortunately, it has also become a yearly tradition for my annual Festive 500 story to be one about overcoming injury or illness. Well, loyal readers, have no fear for this post is not more of the same. Because this year's story is quite different. This year, it is about my epic failure.

It had a promising prelude. See, back in the spring, my sister-in-law phoned and asked us to sit down before she shared her news.  After 12 years, she and the fiancé had finally set a wedding date.  She then asked John to walk her down the aisle on New Year's Eve. My initial reaction was disbelief!

After all, they had been engaged for as long as I can remember. I'd finally given up asking if there was ever to be an actual wedding. But New Years Eve! Really? Surely they wouldn't make us travel at that time of year. Flights are expensive, airports are crowded and weather delays are inevitable.  But, most importantly - it's Festive 500 week! I mean, really, did she not know how this would impact our Festive 500, the challenge that Rapha promotes precisely to create family disharmony at Christmastime. 

It's already hard enough on marriages when the big credit card bills show up shortly after the black parcels arrive. If you have joined the Rapha cult, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

But then the evil folks at Rapha came up with a plan to get MAMILS out of family gatherings over the holidays by offering a ... well ... a woven roundel - a truly remarkable reward for riding 500km in eight days, up and down mountains, through cold, snow, wind and rain. And if the roundel isn't enough incentive, there is also a badge on STRAVA! And for the lucky one in a million, there is a grand prize of something like a jersey. Now surely the bragging rights alone are worth abandoning children and grandparents while testing the limits of traction on icy roads, but the roundel - well it's all about the woven roundel, right?

Fortunately for our marriage, those black parcels always seem to contain items for both of us and we both look forward to the annual challenge, often logging many kilometers together. We're also quite happy to have something motivational to do over the holiday week. While others obsess about roasting turkeys or the best recipe for stuffing or shopping or gift wrapping or getting a new big screen TV, we are poring over maps, deciding which route to ride each day, and then doing laundry each evening while sorting through photos.

Living so far away from family, we've never been faced with the risk of alienating any of them by spending the week riding bikes. But now - a family wedding intruded on our unconventional holiday tradition. John quickly came up with the peace-keeping idea of heading to southern Spain for 10 days before the big event. We could actually complete our Festive 500 kilometers in mild sunny conditions. No studded tires! No need for fat bikes or moon boots or down jackets! And no risk of frostbite while taking photos! After a nice holiday in Spain, we could just stop in Ireland on our way home and attend the wedding on NYE. 

This sounded heavenly to me. I went online and ordered a case of sunscreen.

Alas, fate intervened. 

Rewind a bit. 

Last December, just before the start of the annual challenge, we bought fat bikes to help us stay sane with all the snow. We even logged some of our Festive 500 kilometers on the new fatties. 

Then in early January, while out riding in less than ideal conditions, I went flying over the bars on a icy rutted descent and landed face first on a very thin layer of snow hiding a rock that took precise aim at the middle of my collarbone. 

It wasn't a bad break, but it would be enough to keep me off a bike (and skis) for the winter.

Luckily I got a plate put in and was actually back to riding after a couple of weeks. I even managed a few days  on x-c skis near the end of the season.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Officially a Coffeeneur

The Coffeeneuring challenge turned seven this year!

Coffeeneuring is a take-off on randonneuring, with a whole host of arcane rules, but it is fundamentally about riding bikes and drinking coffee and taking photos. This is precisely what we do. All the time. NeverNotCoffeeneuring! Yet somehow, despite the fact that we #alwaysbecoffeeneuring, we have never officially taken part in the challenge.

But then last spring, after John and I both found ourselves convalescing from busted collarbones, Mary, aka @coffeeneur, sent us a couple of AlwaysBeCoffeeneuring patches. While we were injured, we were not to be deterred from our constant quest for coffee, photos and activity. So we simply walked to coffee shops, because ya know, #alwaysBeCoffeeneuring.

So this year, when the challenge rolled around, we decided we really should make an effort to do it officially and properly earn those patches.

For those of you out of the loop in the coffeenuering world, the challenge is to ride to seven different coffee shops - No problem.
The rides must be at least 2 miles - No problem.
Only one coffee shop per day counts - Bummer, we can't complete the challenge in a day.
Maximum 2 per week - Bummer, we can't complete the challenge in a week.
The challenge ran for approximately 6 weeks from October 13 to November 19.

The tricky part for us was to pick just two rides from each week to be official, and to keep track of which coffee shops we counted as official, so as not to repeat. We pride ourselves on not doing the same rides over and over day after day - we explore a lot and cover a lot of ground. And we go to a lot of different coffee shops. But in a 6 week period of time, we may visit the same place more than once.

So now I have to pick 7 from fifty!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Vermonster 2017 - Day 4

The final day was the downhill day. Look at the route profile at the bottom of the page and you'll see what I mean. Sadly after surviving all the climbing on day 3, Kait's stomach rebelled overnight and she felt too sick to ride and called for rescue.

So we were down to four.

Unusual for us, we did have a brief climb at the start, but this helped warm us up as it had gone quite chilly overnight.

But then we got to coast along for hours... Well not really, the guys hammered downhill!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Vermonster 2017 - Day 3

Day 3 started with a chilly descent, because we always end the day with a big climb.  And what goes up must come down.  No fear though, we warmed up quickly on a long steep climb, because what goes down...

And this pattern would repeat over and over throughout the day.

When SadiB, my alter-ego on ridewithgps mapped out the day, it was clear that it would be a tough one. I had wanted to take a more westerly route than last year, but the trick was to find a place to stay within a reasonable distance from Woodstock. A friend has a place near Prospect Mountain, but every route I came up with to go there was too long and also involved more main roads than I'd like. At some point, while scanning the map, I realized Mount Snow was a reasonable distance. As a ski resort, we might have some hope of finding reasonably priced accommodations in October. Sure enough I found a B&B that had a large room that could take 5 people for not a lot of money. John and I had ridden all around the area before and had a few must-do roads both north and south of Mt. Snow, so I mapped out the final two days as one route, taking in roads we knew with just a few new-to-us sections. The climbing ratio was the typical 100 feet per mile. So it seemed a 75 mile day would be long, but doable.

However when Kait broke it up into the individual days, she pointed out that 75 mile day had well over 9000 feet of climbing.  It should have been obvious to me since ski resorts are on top of mountains.  At least the next day would have a lot of downhill! Since Kait expressed so much concern about this day, I jokingly subtitled the route - Kill Kait.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Vermonster 2017 - Day 2

Vermonster continues, now with 8 riders. Dave and Nancy planned to join us for one day. They had just returned from a tour in Japan, and had literally reassembled their bikes the night before. Injury had prevented Nancy from riding last year, but this year she planned to take advantage of her fitness from the recent tour.

Daniel joined Kait and Caleb on the train up Friday night. They had a mild evening to enjoy a short but hilly ride from Montpelier up to Waitsfield.

The route profile for the roads John, Jamie and I took from Burlington looked pretty benign, meaning we all had relatively fresh legs.

But now we would face some proper (SadiB) Vermonster terrain, rolling up and down along a ridge, before a climb to the highest elevation for the weekend, then a long fast descent followed by some choppy climbs to finish the day. Now I am allowed to say this, today, a month and a half after the trip. At least we had better weather than last year! So  folks could enjoy the magnificent views along the ridge, and have fun playing with cute farm animals.

This section of the route was suggested by Dave. It was a bit rougher than the pristine dirt roads SadiB had picked, but it served to properly break in Daniel's brand new bike. When you have a new bike, you need a good story for the first scratch.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Vermonster 2017 - Day 1

The memories of 2016 Vermonster remain seared in Kait's memory - in a PTSD sort of way. I'm sure she still wakes in a cold sweat reliving nightmares from that weekend.

Last year, we crested Rochester Gap in pouring rain with temperatures hovering around freezing. At the top we found 2 feet of snow lining the roadside.  We then had about 10 miles of descending in these conditions. When we arrived in Bethel, we were wet and 80% frozen and in serious need of some hot food and a chance to dry out. Luckily we stumbled into a café where we ordered anything and everything that was hot and attempted to dry our soaked gloves with a full  roll of paper towels. After an hour, we had filled the void in our bellies and thawed just enough to head back out to ride another 30 miles. This day will stay with all of us for a long, long time. It will be the standard by which we judge misery. It is also our badge of honor. After surviving that, we know we we can get through anything.

Despite that still-raw-memory, we were all quite eager to do Vermonster again this year, including PTSD sufferer, Kait. We had new folks who even after seeing the photos and hearing our horror stories, still wanted to join us.  We had hoped to pick a date earlier in October, but due to various scheduling issues, we selected the 3rd weekend of October.

It is amazing what a difference one week makes.

Where last year's photos showed us all wearing winter cycling boots with overshoes and woolies and rain gear and heavy gloves; this year's photos featured smiling cyclists in shorts and short sleeves. Last year's snow photos have been replaced by pictures of amazing foliage. Last year's memories of stalling inside heated cafés as long as possible were replaced outdoor coffee stops. We even got to experience peak autumn color!

The basic idea of Vermonster was the same as the first year. We'd take the Amtrak Vermonter train to the northern reaches of civilization, and then ride home, sticking to as many dirt roads as possible. Just like last year, we faced a limit of three bikes per train, so our group had to travel up on two separate days. Hopefully Vermont tourism can work with Amtrak to make bike travel a bit less hassle in the future.

It seems to vary according to the humor of the conductors whether bikes can be rolled on and parked as pictured above. The official policy is that one has to use a special bike compartment with just one of these per car. IMNSHO, these compartments are poorly designed, requiring the removal of the front wheel, potentially damaging a front fender, requiring one to lift the bike and taking much more time loading and unloading. It would be much better use of the space as pictured above, where 3 or 4 bikes take barely more space than one bike in the compartment. Since the wheels remain on, the bikes are quickly rolled on and then off, and gear can stay on the bike.  And with 4 bikes per car, we could have 12 cyclists travel on the same train, rather than 3 one day and 3 another. This is twice as many folks staying in local hotels or B&Bs, twice as many cyclists eating at cafés in small towns along the route and twice as many cyclists buying Vermont souvenirs. So, ahem, Vermont tourism and Amtrak, if you are reading this... please let's make this process better.

But enough complaining about Amtrak. On to our trip.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Cooleys with Declan

This trip to Ireland began in mid September 2017 - I'm slowly getting around to posting

Declan planned a route around the Cooleys for our last big ride of the trip. Dave drove up from Carlow and brought John and me up to Dundalk, where we would meet Declan.

The rides that John and I did (independently) with Declan in this area last year, were among the warmest and sunniest we did all summer. I joked that it is always sunny in Carlingford, so we must go back there.

Believe it or not, I culled some of the photos, but it was just such a spectacular day, that I had to include lots. 

Friday, September 29, 2017

Dingle: Castlemaine to Tralee

This trip to Ireland began in mid September 2017 - I'm slowly getting around to posting

Today was to be our last day of touring. Plans were to head back to Dublin to catch up with friends there before flying home in a couple of days. I checked the train schedule and determined we could  have a leisurely breakfast in Killarney and do some browsing in town before catching a mid day train back to Dublin, or we could have a quick breakfast and then climb over the big hill out of Castlemaine into Tralee and catch the train there (which would pass back through Killarney).

This is the very steep climb we did 24 years ago, after replacing our busted freewheel with a new one with giant cogs (i.e. much lower gears). It is a brute of a climb. I recall begging to stop and take a break on the tandem when we did it the first time. John had promised a great view, but it was so foggy and cloudy that I could barely make out the back of his head!

We went out of our way last year to take in this climb, leaving Camp, on the north side of the peninsula, climbing a horrendously steep road over the ridge to Castlemaine, then climbing back over the ridge towards Tralee on a similarly steep narrow road. Now rumor has it, there are much easier ways to get to Tralee, but despite having reasonably fresh in my memory how tough this climb is, I mapped out the route to take it in. This was to be our last day of touring with gear, so we might as well make it a good one.

Despite the orientation of this sign, we are going up that gradient!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Kerry: Gap of Dunloe and Molls Gap

This trip to Ireland began in mid September 2017 - I'm slowly getting around to posting

We woke to heavy rain. We are in Ireland after all, so it shouldn't be a surprise. After finding that the tiny lawnmower/bike shop in town didn't have any pulleys, I initially planned for us to head into Killarney and get some pulleys with the proper number of bearings before tackling the two big climbs. However, once on the road, I started to feel confident that our repair from the day before would survive the day. When we reached the decision point, a signpost indicated it was a bit farther into town than I'd thought, so we decided to take the risk and head straight up the Gap of Dunloe. I'm happy to report that we made it  up and over the two climbs and then into Killarney with no further problems. Once there we found a bike shop and acquired new pulleys and hopefully I am good for another 10,000 miles.

Last year we rode the Gap of Dunloe in the opposite direction, but on a similarly gloomy day. We didn't see a soul. On this day, we were surprised to encounter loads of horse and carriages. The area is famous for these tours, but it just seemed exceptionally busy. We also were surprised to continue seeing them on the other side of the gap. But I suppose if that's all the traffic we'd have, it would be fine. The rain also eased off as we climbed and soon I had removed all my rain gear and was down to shorts and jersey.

We had lunch in the gift shop at Moll's Gap and then bundled back up for the long descent down to Killarney. This was the only place we had traffic on our entire trip. At least it was all downhill, but it reminded me why we avoid the big roads.

We stopped for photos along the way, but soon arrived in Killarney, where first order of business was to find a bike shop. Once pulleys were acquired, we took the shop owner's recommendation for a nearby hostel, which turned out to be one of the nicest hostels we have found in Ireland.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Kerry: Ballaghbeama-Ballaghisheen

This trip to Ireland began in mid September 2017 - I'm slowly getting around to posting 

One of the things you may notice about our photos is lack of cars. Now this isn't from just not taking photos when there are cars around or selective editing. It is our careful choice of car-free roads. I say careful, but it's actually not hard to do - if you are in the know. As I've mentioned in previous posts, using OSMCycle maps on RideWithGPS, we simply select the white roads. Often after hearing that I've spent quite a bit of time cycling in Ireland, Americans, especially, express concern about fast cars on narrow roads. I always tell them if you get on narrow enough roads, you won't see cars. Just be sure to bring fat tires and fenders!

Traveling in September also helped a wee bit with traffic or lack thereof, especially in the more touristy areas. It was precisely because we were not in prime tourist season that we were willing to head out onto the Iveragh Peninsula - that and the fact that we planned to spend very little time riding on the busy Ring of Kerry - unlike the 10,000 cyclists who take part in the annual Ring of Kerry Sportive. That is the only time many people will even consider cycling the Ring, because most of the roads are free of motor vehicle traffic on the day of the event. The Ring of Kerry route is one of the most popular routes for big tour buses thanks to wide main roads and beautiful scenery with mountains on one side and the ocean on the other - although from my experience, the best views of the Kerry mountains is from the peninsulas to the north and south.

Kerry is home to the highest mountains in Ireland. The interior is pretty rugged and there aren't a lot of thru-roads thanks to those big mountains. (There are loads of rugged hiking trails) The exception is the roads leading to and from Glencar over the Ballaghbeama Gap and Ballaghisheen Pass, both of which are really too narrow for those evil tour buses, making this option quite appealing to us.

On my first tour in Ireland, 24 years ago, we did actually ride some on the Ring road, but it was late November, and we essentially had it to ourselves. On that trip, we headed out on the southern side of the peninsula and stayed the night in Sneem. From there we rode to Waterville and on to Cahersiveen where we planned to cut back inland across the Ballaghisheen Pass, followed by Ballaghbeama Gap, then up and over the unpaved Gap of Dunloe to finish on Moll's Gap. Sadly we blew apart our freewheel a few meters shy of the top of the first climb. We walked the last bit and luckily were able to coast downhill to Killorglin, where we found a lawnmower/bike shop and replaced the busted freewheel. The primary goal for this day was to have our bikes survive the wrath of Ballaghisheen.

We planned a slightly different route this time. Starting from Kenmare, we would climb Ballaghbeama first, the Ballaghisheen and descend down Cahersiveen, where we would get on the Ring for a short while and pick up some smaller roads to Killorglin. We'd save Gap of Dunloe and Moll's Gap for the following day.

Oh good, we are going the right way

I mentioned lack of cars, but there is traffic, as shown above. We encountered a few sheep-jams on these small Kerry roads.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Beara: Coppermine Road

This trip to Ireland began in mid September 2017 - I'm slowly getting around to posting

The route that we took to Allihies the previous day circled around south of Knockoura Mountain. We spied the masts on top of Knockoura as we approached from the east and then noticed them again from the west side. John looked at the map to try to find a way up. I wasn't sold on the idea though and told him he could ride up before breakfast. I had mapped out a route over something called The Coppermine Road, that looked hard enough as is without doing a 1500 foot out and back beforehand. Looking through maps as I work on this post now, it appears we should be able to ride from Allihies all the way to Castletownbere via Knockoura on some future visit - when we will also plan to stay at the Buddhist Meditation Center.

Luckily for me, the climb up to The Mountain Mine Man Engine House and beyond was tough enough to get John's attention (and make him very happy). However, it nearly broke me! Just when I thought it couldn't get any harder, it turned to gravel AND got steeper. In the previous post, I talked about how gentle the Healy Pass was. Maybe that's because I was comparing it to this one. This was definitely the hardest climb I've done in Ireland.  John, of course, loved it.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Beara Peninsula: Healy Pass to Allihies

This trip to Ireland began in mid September 2017 - I'm slowly getting around to posting

People often asked me about favorite places to ride in Ireland. I struggle with an answer and have suggested this is like asking which is your favorite child. There are so many beautiful places, lovely quiet roads, rolling farmland, dramatic coastal views and breathtaking mountaintops. I can barely narrow the list down to 50 places that one simply must cycle through.

However, I will put a plug in for the Healy Pass on the Beara Peninsula as a worthwhile destination for a touring cyclist. The climb is gentle, but steady. It has loads of twists and turns, giving you multiple opportunities to see from whence you came and what lies ahead. The road is well maintained but narrow, and therefore quiet. And no matter what the weather, it is always beautiful.

Our route on the Beara Peninsula saw us head out and over the Healy from south to north, then back south across the spine to Castletownbere, then over another little ridge to reach the tip before staying the night in Allihies.

We had finally dried out from the previous day's deluge and the sunshine and mild winds were not unwelcome.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sheep's Head

This trip to Ireland began in mid September 2017 - I'm slowly getting around to posting 

You tend not to remember the sunny calm days when everything went smoothly. It's the days with a big mechanical or ferocious winds and cold torrential rain - those are the ones that stick with you. I'm happy to report that, at least we had no mechanical problems on our ride to Sheep's Head. However, we had some pretty serious wind and rain.

It is not uncommon to get high or gusty wind in Ireland. After all, it's the first land mass after 3000 miles of open water. Storms will pick up some steam as they come across the Atlantic. Wind is just to be expected. So I shouldn't even call what we experienced at Sheep's Head extreme, at least it wasn't extreme for Sheep's Head. But it was pretty extreme for me!

The final mile to and from the turn around point made for a serious challenge in staying upright and making forward progress. When we tried to get a photo in front of the sign, I struggled to hang on to the bike. What a contrast to the calm sunny day before at Mizen Head. Needless to say, we didn't take a hike out to the headlands and even stick around at the café.  We took our photos and quickly headed inland.

The wind swirled and gusts constantly threatened to toss us off the road. Then the road we had planned to take turned out to be a muddy track. So we had to backtrack a wee bit before finding the next road across the spine down the center of the peninsula. This one led us to an amazing little goat path of a road, that was somewhat sheltered from the worst of the wind. However, sheltered from the rain, it was not. Ah, finally a proper Irish-weather day. The rain came in sideways.

Still I wouldn't want it any other way. You have to have days like this!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Mizen Head

This trip to Ireland began in mid September 2017 - I'm slowly getting around to posting

Today's route would take us out to Mizen Head, the southernmost point in Ireland. Because of this geographic significance, Mizen Head and Malin Head, the northernmost point, serve as start and end points for many cycling adventures in Ireland. There is the occasional end to end record attempt, but lots of bike touring companies seem to have end to end rides as well. 

John and I came out to Mizen Head on our first tour together in 1993, a year before the interpretive center was built. I'm not even sure there was a sign indicating the significance of the place.  However, this time around we found a sprawling tourist info center and lots of visitors.

But I've leapt ahead. Before we got to Mizen Head, we deviated off our planned route when we spied the dead end road up Mount Gabriel, one of the nine radar sites operated by the Irish Aviation Authority, or the two giant golf balls, as the locals call it.

caught grammin'

Friday, September 22, 2017

To Skibbereen

This trip to Ireland began in mid September 2017 - I'm slowly getting around to posting 

Why, you may ask, do I go to the trouble of documenting our trips, including photos, maps and links.  Maybe one of my seven loyal readers will be inspired to follow our tracks or check out a few of the places we have visited. But to be honest,  it's really for my own use, when years later, I return to a place and want to see what we did before! My first trip to Ireland was in 1993 and I wrote an article that later got published in a now defunct Tandem Magazine. I subsequently put it up on our original website. Since we were planning to revisit some places from that trip, I pulled up the article to  see where we stayed and what we did.

While reading through it, I was actually surprised to discover that we had stayed in Skibbereen on that trip in 1993. I didn't have any distinct memories of the town from that visit. However, I had much fresher memories from last year, when we passed through at lunch time and had a fabulous meal at the Church Restaurant. I made note last year to come back for dinner, so I mapped out a route to Skibbereen.

Fortunately my stomach was feeling much better after a day off and some pills from the pharmacist. For Americans, who are used to going into a CVS or Walgreens, and perusing shelves upon shelves  of OTC drugs, going into a European pharmacy can be a little intimidating. Although, in fairness, a visit to a US pharmacy might be intimidating to Europeans. In most of Europe,  pharmacies are quite small, and they don't carry vacuum cleaners and holiday decorations! And the drugs aren't sitting out on a shelf. Even for non-prescription drugs, you tell the pharmacist what's wrong and they suggest one or two drugs that may help. "I think I have food poisoning and I need something to settle my stomach." "Ok, take 1 of these every 12 hours until the symptoms go away." Whatever it was, it did the trick.