Sciences of travel

Adventure travel blog


Purgatory and Greenline Velo: the Path to Illumination

Purgatory is not so much a place as a process. Purgatory’s texture was sculpted by one of the most famous Italian poets, Dante, working off the ideology of the founders of the early Christian church. It is the second kingdom where the pilgrim wonders and the first where the human spirit has “hope” in reaching heavenly enlightenment: quel secondo regno/dove l’umano spirito si purga/e di salire al ciel diventa regno (Chiavacci Leonardi, 10). This literary ladder between heaven and hell is a mirror-image of the latter: where hell is a pit (easily “falling into sin”), purgatory is a mountain, where the sweat and physical efforts of the penitent pay off in attaining an entrance to paradise. Yet, the pilgrim’s journey through Purgatory is not solitaire: Beatrice assumes the role of guide, leading the pilgrim along the rough and burdensome cliff faces to the heavenly kingdom.

Similarly, the cyclists from Greenline Velo are on their way to redemption. A young bike team from Boston, they are facing a great challenge: organizing a new, NEBRA ranking bicycle race. They are slowly learning the necessary steps in organizing such a large event: paying the police, having the proper emergency services in place, keeping the areas clean, finding sponsoring, and more. But like our pilgrim, the going will get easier the further they climb up the mountain. The more they make their plight known, the more prayers will help them and the easier their climb will be. Of course – like our voyageur in the Italian classic – they need a helping hand, or they won’t make it up the mountain. They are missing funding to get them closer to a heavenly illumination.

Honestly. This is not literary invention.

It is no coincidence that the cyclists from Greenline Velo are organizing a bicycle race whose proceeds support an environmental cause. The National Grid finances the installation of solar panels on the Sutton Public Schools and an awareness of energy consumption with its students. Thus, any assistance they receive goes directly to finance the switch from conventional to alternative energy. Plus, it helps the riders from the club establish themselves as a viable team, and places the race on the map as one of Massachusetts’ qualifying circuit races. Anyone interested in information or donating to the project should email Kyle Butler at connection.

What’s the name of the race? The Purgatory Road Race, of course.

Purgatory Chasm in Sutton is thought to have been formed from a sudden glacial water break. The race is in part criterium, yet anyone who lives in the area and has ridden in bike races before should test their skills on the circuit. The race is June 19th, 2010, and even if you don’t bike, I suggest you take the time to watch the racers (some international) make Massachusetts cycling history. Hopefully it will find it’s place in Massachuetts’ cycling along with the Lonjo Classic and the George Street Bike Challenge for Major Taylor as one of the state’s legendary races (and if you haven’t heard about Major Taylor, I suggest you read up on him here). As we watch the pilgrim make his way up the mountain to heavenly enlightenment, we have the opportunity to witness the young riders at Greenline Velo make their way through the chasm, brightening the Sutton Schools with solar panels. So give them a hand, and help them along the road to alternative illumination.

Andiamo in Kuota: A new discovery in the Dolomites

Cycling in the Dolomites is an experience comparable to beholding the handiwork of the divine. Harsh rock and cliff faces in this part of northeastern Italy are harmoniously married to lush emerald fields and evergreen forests. Anyone who has participated in the Maratona dles Dolomites (The Dolomite Marathon) knows how stunning the panorama can be, especially when biking through these glorious passes, roads closed, with other cyclists. Nine thousand other cyclists, according to the statistics from the official Maratona dles Dolomites website In 2008, there was again the same number. Needless to say, this is one of the most popular of the great Italian Granfondo (an “endurance” or “long distance” cycling event, loosely translated). In fact, the organizers of the Maratona dles Dolomites need to cap the number of participants every year. The more people who sign up, the more difficult it is to organize, and the more dangerous the event becomes. If they were to get 10,000 or more on these narrow roads, the start would be more than chaos: it would be hell.

Setting the opening scene, many of the participants have never competed in a “race” of this caliber (90% of cyclists are there to safely finish the course), and the starting line is the most daunting part. Beginning at La Villa in Alta Badia, there are three general routes one can ride: the short 55 km, the medium 106 km and the long 138 km options. Some look at the 138km and think it’s easy, yet forget to consider the elevation gain is around 4190 m (yes, meters – for feet, multiply by three). In addition, the three courses are all interlinked in some way – especially the short, a loop all cyclists must do no matter what option they choose. Around 7:00 am, everyone starts. Everyone. The elbow-to-elbow riding from La Villa (flat) is invigorating, but when ascending Campolungo, that’s where technique comes into play. Speed is dictated by the allure of the surrounding cyclists, pinched between the Sunday stroller ahead and the weekend whizzer behind – while climbing uphill. It’s a rather precarious situation and every year I have participated, there has been an accident coming down from Passo Sella, in the exact same spot. No misunderstanding, it’s a great race and one I’ve done four times. Unfortunately it’s the number of people that make – and break – all the fun.

Enter Kuota. I have already written a blog post on Kuota’s commitment to cycling in their local community through the Granfondo Fabio Casartelli here. Kuota saw what was happening at the Maratona dles Dolomites and decided to join with others to do something about it. They are, in part, sponsoring another race in the Dolomites. The Gröden Bike Marathon takes place in the Val Gardena, crossing other famous peaks such as Fedaia and Pordoi. Their event has a two-fold advantage: one, the racers get to see a completely different side of these majestic mountains, and two, since this is the race’s first year, not many cyclists know about it, thus numbers will be low. Of course, like all Granfondo, there is an entry fee. However, if you show up with your Kuota bicycle, you don’t pay anything – the registration is free. It is a UDACE certified, pro/amateur race, complete with all the other extras expected at these memorable events: gifts and awards, pasta lunches and good people who are there just to have a fun time. If you’re interested in the event itself go to the Gröden Marathon site (you may need Google Translate since the site is in Italian and German). If you’re interested in the Kuota bike line check out their website here. Again, Kuota sees cycling – and the mountains – in a different light, from a different valley. Consequently, thanks to the Gröden Bike Marathon, cyclists can now appreciate this divine art from more than just one perspective.

Flemish Fun

Few people have heard of the Tour of Flanders. Certainly, the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia are older and more popular than this spin through Belgium. Yet there is something about these “minor” bike races (and by minor I mean less popular, not less important) that, in my opinion, makes them as exciting to watch as the others. Maybe even more so.

I have had the privilege of witnessing first-hand a number of the great races. But once, I had the honor of competing in the amateur circuit through the Flemish Ardennes. It was an experience of a lifetime. The countryside is some of the most picturesque in Belgium, riding along the silky-soft asphalted roads on the flattest ground imaginable. Until you’re faced with Molenburg – the second of many uphill, cobblestone stretches – lasting about a half kilometer at an average 5% grade. Then it’s Paterburg: a 300m cobbled climb at an average 12.9%. Then the infamous Koppenburg: 600m of cobbled slope at an average of 11.6%. The entire course itself covers approximately 250km with 17 of climbs like these – some cobbled, some not – at various intervals. But the trick isn’t so much knowing when to anticipate the hill, as it is a game of avoiding the ruts. Certainly these cobblestone streets have “grown apart” over the years and it’s easy to let the wheels steer you into catastrophe. Derailleurs, chains, pedals and all kinds of debris are literally ripped off the bicycles by the mere strength of the climbing cyclist, and scattered along the base of every hill. These climbs eat bicycles. Thus the only solution through the pounding and vibrations is to keep hands firm, feet churning, and asses down. Missing any of these means walking along the side of the hill. Which calls into mind the next element of this adventure: space.

Not only are riding the fat cobblestones a challenge uphill, but there’s also the challenge of jockeying for position. On the asphalted flat bits the road is smooth, wide and speeds increase. Mere meters before the beginning of Kapelmur, for example, the road narrows considerably. As it should: all of these cobbled sections echo a time when horse drawn carriages ruled the roadways. There was no need to make the avenue any wider than needed. So when approaching the base, there is a mad scramble to stay on the bike as a group of cyclists, possibly ten or twelve wide, narrows to three. Speeds slow down instantly to a standstill, and most riders dismount since the grade is too difficult to attack from a stopped position. And it is here rivers of cyclists on foot flow uphill, walking their bikes along both sides of the cobblestone road – making the going even more narrow for those able to stay in the saddle.

Add to this mix the freezing cold, pouring rain, harsh winds and globs of mud and sand that pool at the base of each steep climb, and the adventure only turns more epic. Legendary, actually. The event is usually the 14th Sunday in the year –  around the beginning of April – and the weather patterns in northern Europe are anything but trustworthy. Even the adverse weather adds to the uniqueness of the event: a one-day race that lasts a lifetime.

Good Winter Riding

Just a year ago I was living my adolescent dream of playing in a British punk band. I met Leather Zoo while managing a Snowsport Team in Livigno, Italy. We were trapped in a three-bedroom apartment located above a stall housing about 300 cows. The smell was very natural and organic, but after four months, a little fresh air was needed. So the Zoo (the band not the cows) invited me to Sheffield, England where I filled in for their drummer who was unable to make some of their UK venues. For two weeks I lived a dream. One of the venues – The Packhorse in Leeds – was a major venue for little-known up-and-coming bands of the ’60s and ’70s such as The Who and Led Zeppelin. After flying into Midlands Airport, I had five hours of rehearsal before our first gig that evening. Fleur de Lys was the first song we played that night and it has stuck with me ever since. Leather Zoo often tours around Europe every summer and fall so try to catch them when they come by. Their sound is organic and raw, drawing on a number of personal experiences and talents that the band possesses – especially the allusive “Mr. Woddy.” They are excellent people, awesome musicians and amazing athletes. Mel and Biff have quite a history of cycling behind them – but both are too modest to talk about it.

Thus, when I was out the other day on my classic ride, this song came to mind. It reminds me of spring and the sudden liberty felt after a long, smelly winter. This route is simply a spin around the Lac du Bourget just outside of Chambéry, France. The climbs aren’t too severe (not like the Col de Colombière or Col de Galibier for example), yet the Col du Chat and the Col de la Chambotte are challenging enough after a winter of downhill skiing. Little known is the fact that the Lac du Bourget is the largest and deepest natural lake located entirely within France. The poet Alphonse de Lamartine was inspired the lake’s magnificence in 1820 and wrote “Le Lac, addressing questions such as the futility of the past, human memory and love; only the beauty of the countryside can conserve these “souvenirs” better than any poet. I couldn’t agree more. This bike ride around the lake retains some of the greatest memories of my life. Often I’d bike it with a friend who has since moved back to Massachusetts, but the ride itself is always a trip down memory lane – I’m never riding it alone even when I’m by myself. And so I hope you enjoy this film of the ride and my Leather Zoo soundtrack.

New “Kuotes” from Kuota

For some of you, bicycles may be no more than a child’s pastime. Others may find them annoying velocipedes hogging the side of the road (which was made for cars, right?). Most cities in North America have been developed around the automobile: the long highways, the absence of bike paths in most urban centers and the animosity towards cyclists in general, are just a few clues. In Europe, however, the bicycle has been a means of transportation for some commoners well before the horse and carriage. It has played a significant role in both World Wars, in unifying countries, and in expanding economies. It is still used today by European postal workers, bakers, carpenters, priests, fisherman and thousands of adolescents. A bicycle’s attributes are endless.

The fellows at Kuota also have endless attributes. They are bicycle manufactures, pioneers in Italian design, and supporters of local charities all at the same time.

Kuota has humble beginnings as a bicycle fork company, specializing in steel and aluminum forks. They equipped most bicycle frames in the ’80s and ’90s with high-quality metal forks. As carbon fiber became a more popular material, they were the first company to specialize in carbon bicycle forks and again supplied them to all of the major bicycle brands. As Kuota began to watch bicycle frames switch from metal to carbon fiber in the ’90s, they began producing full carbon fiber frames. In 2001, Kuota bicycles (from the Italian “quota” – meaning “attaining new heights”) was born. Today, they supply the bikes for the professional racing team AG2R and in 2008 and 2009 they sponsored Agritubel. They’ve raced under Christophe Moreau and Cyril Dessel in the great bicycle races, rolled to victory with Norman Stadler’s Ironman conquests, and they are getting increased recognition and praise from the biking community in a number of product reviews such as this one from Bike Radar. It is for Kuota’s excellent craftsmanship, design and accomplishments that Pomegranate Journeys has decided to equip each of its European departures with Kuota’s Carbon-framed bicycles.

Much of Kuota’s recognition comes from the innovative design of these bicycles. They were the first to design the aerodynamic oversized carbon fiber tubing. As a result, most vibrations and wobbling is eliminated at high speeds. As Bike Radar points out in the above review of the KOM, the fork is constructed out of oversized tubes, and thus the front is exceptionally sturdy and solid in the turns. The boys in the Kuota engineering studio create each year’s model with an Italian designer’s eye. Rather than read the geometry sketches, they prefer to have the first prototype on hand to “see” what the final product looks like. Although they are interested in functionality, it is the beauty of the final product that they are most focused on. If they are not pleased with the final design, they start all over. Needless to say, Kuota bikes are chic, Italian design married to stylish efficiency.

But Kuota doesn’t stop at simply making a better bike, they also aim to make a better cyclist. They sponsor the Fabio Casartelli Medio Fondo (an amateur bike race) in honor of the late cyclist (and Lance’s domestique under Motorolla). Casartelli crashed in the 1995 Tour de France on the descent from the Col d’Aspet. It was because of that accident that the UCI began to make helmets obligatory in the pro races. All proceeds from this Medio Fondo go to fund bicycle safety programs in local schools through the Fabio Casartelli Foundation: how to ride in a line, how to keep to the side of the road, and especially how to properly wear a helmet. Kuota makes an impressive product, but they are also actively involved in bettering cycling for their local communities. By teaching the young proper cycling techniques, these young riders will have more concern for other vehicles on the road and incorporate safety into every ride. Then these kids will eventually grow into adults. Adults who will eventually get behind the wheel of a car and have a lot more respect for the kids – or anyone – cycling along the side of the road.

An Alpine Guide for Your Pocket: Cycling in the French Alps

Its nice to have friends that do cool things. But its also nice to have cool friends. Paul Henderson is one of those and his book, Cycling in the French Alps (Cicerone), is as much a testament to his extraordinary life style as it is an incredible compilation of magnificent biking routes. The routes are as varied as the roads themselves, taking you through the Savoie, Haute-Savoie, Drôme and Ventoux regions of France. Just reading the itineraries makes me breathe hard. Paul is from Durham, England (so its [pawl] not [pol]) yet has been living in Savoie, France for a long time. Over this period Paul has skied, climbed and biked just about every nook and cranny in Southeast France, most of Provence, and a good part of Italy, Corsica, Australia and other continents. His personal list of accomplishments is endless but thankfully just the French Alpine cycling routes are compiled in one book: a must for anyone who is looking to spend a week, a month or a summer biking in the Alps.

I appreciate how Paul is able to touch upon the “dreams” as well as “misconceptions” of cycling in the Alps. These are important factors that most of my guests seem to forget at times:

For most cyclists the French Alps conjure up images of the great champions of the Tour de France…Of course, mountains do not have to be snow-capped giants to provide worthwhile cycling. Many lower-areas are criss-crossed by quiet roads that meander through varied landscapes of open pastures, dark forests, deep gorges and unspoilt villages. The scenery is just as beautiful as in the high mountains…When cycling in the mountains, the amount of vertical height gain is a much better indication of the difficulty of a route than the distance covered. The circuits were planned with this in mind…

Personally having ridden most of Paul’s routes, I can attest that the views from these “minor” mountains are just as beautiful as the better-known giants. What’s even better is you’ll never find the crowds around the Col de Granier that you would find around Galibier, which makes the riding even sweeter. The book is brimming with all kinds of useful information I’d only expect from Paul Henderson: from hints on taking bikes on the trains to lodging suggestions to useful websites and spectacular photography to help you visualize the itinerary (which could sometimes bring you to some rather remote locations). The itineraries themselves are highly detailed with route directions, elevation maps, hints on getting to/coming from, when to go and climate stats, paper map suggestions, as well as where to find water, campsites, hotels, banks, bikeshops, and cafés. He’s even included useful French phrases (since the author is also a full-time translator I wouldn’t expect anything less). Having done a number of Randonnée Ski Tours with Paul, I can attest to his level of detail and dedication in the mountains. The same applies to this guide: a fundamental tool for biking legendary circuits in the French Alps.

A Tale of Two Tires

Hmm, where to begin. Well, let’s begin with Napoleon III who launched a campaign to Vietnam for Imperialistic means. Since the North was a stronghold, the ships attacked the Southern weaker states and eventually gained ground around what is present day Saigon. From there, between 1859 to 1867 the French expanded their domain in Vietnam, just at the same time they needed more rubber trees for developments back in the mainland. To read more about French Indochina, Wikipedia has a pretty nice wrap up of events here

P1010993-225x300Almost a hundred years prior, back in France, Charles Marie de La Condamine presented a research paper to the Académie Royale des Sciences introducing rubber in 1736. By 1829 rubber in manufacturing is begun by Edouard Daubree and by way of various ins and outs of the development of the company, in 1889 Edouard and Andre Michelin take control, creating what we know today as the fine tire company that has been in business for over 120 years. For more on the development of the tire company read this excellent article by Liz Smith

It’s a fascinating part of history and one that plays a huge role in our daily lives – especially if you like to bike. I’m not here to talk about the history of rubber in France (although, it is pretty interesting for those who didn’t know); I’m here to talk about tires. Two tires. Two French tire companies and why one is better than the other. I average about 7,ooo kms on my bicycle per year (I work outside) and my tools are steel and rubber. Last year Hutchinson created a “Tour de France” edition of their Fusion road tire (which they do every year for marketing purposes?). It lasted a very short while before getting a tear in it. In fact, it wasn’t just a little tear but down to the threads just two weeks after I had put the tire on the wheel (approximately 1500 kms). I’d have a hard time believing a Tour de France finisher – riding approximately 3,500kms over 21 days – would put so much faith into this rubber on the road (unless they have a different type of tire).

However, the Michelin Pro Race have an extraordinary lifespan. I’ve been able to go through a season with replacing the rear tire just once mid-season. The front tire will last well into the end of the season. I have hit rocks and have come screaming down high altitudes without a problem. I don’t really understand the chemistry behind these intense polymers, but I’d believe that 120 years of experience speaks through their product. They’re usually a bit more expensive than regular tires but I think the price is worth it since your life depends on them. So which tire did I put on my bike? The Hutchinson of course: I don’t want to get the Michelin Pro Race dirty just yet. Thanks Chuck.

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