Photo by Jason DeVarennes



Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Pay It Forward

Last week I was having a chat with a friend about different styles of bike trips. John and I have done all types of bike tours, including structured group tours, partially pre-planned tours with a few friends, and trips on our own or with a few friends, where only the start/finish point is pre-planned, and the rest is done on the fly. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages.

On an organized trip with a large group, you may meet and ride with lots of new people as well as some old friends. You might also have the bad luck to find a PITA (pain in the a$$) among the group! Many organized trips include vehicle support to carry gear, as well as providing snacks and support throughout the day, allowing one to fly up mountain passes without carrying a lot of stuff on the bike. Organized trips also come with assurances that you will have a place to eat and sleep, at a known distance. They also typically include a well-scouted route and a good set of directions. Occasionally, though, the directions can leave you desiring more while the actual distance can leave you wishing for less! Disadvantages with a pre-planned route are that one can't really make big changes based on weather, or the discovery of an interesting road or a cool looking place to stay.

While we've certainly enjoyed having someone else carry our gear over the high mountain passes, we usually find ourselves doing more of the roll-your-own type trips. A big advantage is cost and flexibility. Eliminating a support van and staff clearly saves a bit of money. But we also find that we can pick and chose when to stay in the more expensive accommodation and when to go very basic. Sometimes circumstance and availability limit choices, but we've found we can do a self-supported tour with good food and drink and sleep for a fraction of the cost of a supported tour.

Of course sometimes this means riding a few extra miles because every room in town is booked, or staying in an expensive 4 star hotel because nothing else is available, or finding a gem of a cheap 1 star room!

I told my friend about one memorable night on our trip to France last fall. We stayed with friends for the start and end of the trip, and did a tour where we made loose plans one or two days at a time. Since we had no commitments to be at a set place each night, we were able to make adjustments based on weather and interesting looking roads.

But we made a slight miscalculation one day that resulted in one of our best memories of the trip. John had noticed a nice looking B&B in a tiny village the week prior. As we were exploring every mountain pass in a small area, we planned to ride back through this village (on a different road) and aim for this B&B. The forecast in the morning was a bit dodgy, so we had given ourselves the option of not going over a big pass to get to this village, and instead aiming for a larger town. As such we had not called ahead (foreshadowing). When we got to the decision point, the morning drizzle had dried up and it was looking like a lovely afternoon, so we threw caution to the wind and headed up another big climb.

John was thoroughly enjoying being on a single bike with his good camera and took full advantage. I was feeling my oats and sped to the top. I wandered around the hiking trail at the top, taking a few photos of my own while waiting for John. Then John arrived and took a few photos of his own. We probably wasted about 45 minutes of clear skies in the process. You know where this is going, right?

It started to sprinkle and we hopped on our bikes for a long, cold and wet descent. We arrived in our tiny village destination to find the B&B was closed for the night! A quick look at the map suggested we'd have a long, cold and wet ride to find a large town with accommodation. But luck was with us, and we encountered a very generous boulanger who offered to let us stay at his home in the next town.

Our Samaritan and his wife treated us to a fabulous meal, wine and conversation, that really turned into the highlight of our trip. We later realized that they had likely brought out things they normally saved for special occasions like Christmas dinner.

As I was telling of this adventure my friend asked how you repay that generosity. And I believe the answer is to "Pay it Forward".

By this I mean, doing something similar for someone else. A few years ago, when we were living in New Zealand, we got this opportunity a few times. Lots of touring cyclists rode through our town. John accused me of hanging out by the tourist office looking for folks to bring home. I wasn't that bad (or good), but we did host quite a few touring cyclists along the way.

It's not always about offering a meal and a bed. It can be help with a repair or a spare tire, or directions to a quiet road. It can be dropping off the group to help a struggling rider, or volunteering at a water stop on a club event. Pay it Forward can be repayment for another's previous generosity or karma in the bank.

One of the cool things about the cycling community is that you really don't have to tell people to do it!

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Elusive Howlin' Grits

History repeats itself...

A few years ago I bought an inexpensive fixie to use on the local Saturday morning fitness ride. Part of the appeal of riding fixed is that it is lightweight and simple. But prior to this acquisition, I'd often use my commuter fixie, with its lights and racks and fenders and studded tires. That bike is definitely not lightweight, and those studded tires can be a real drag.  But it is such a joy to ride a stripped down lightweight fixie, so I got the new bike purely for fun spirited group rides, like the Saturday ride.

Of course, next thing I knew I was using it on brevets, and soon I added race-blade fenders and a bar bag, and eventually, lights. Voila I had a fixie-brevet bike! Not so lightweight and stripped down, although easy enough to rectify that! But it's still lighter and more spritely than my commuter, and it's still good for those short spirited group rides, but it's also great for brevet-type distances.

Folks may tell you that you need a special bike for brevets, with mounts for bags and fenders, or even gears. Or that you need to spend a lot of money for a brevet bike...

Yeh, Whatever!

Anyway, a couple of years ago, when I started making frequent trips to visit my dad in North Carolina, I bought another inexpensive fixie to leave at his place, so I could occasionally get out for short rides when I was there. Well, next thing I knew, I was doing longer rides on it and then a few weeks ago, I met up with a group from NC Randonneurs to do a 100km permanent. I realized during that ride that I really missed my handlebar bag where I normally keep my wallet, camera, and route card. My pockets were jammed, and at some point, I managed to loose something important.  Since I have a few extra bar bags at home, I decided to pack a one for my next visit. Then after looking at the forecast, I also packed some race-blades. And just like that that... I had yet another fixie-brevet bike!

Efland - land of the fixies?
When I was planning this most recent trip, I sent off email to the NC Randonneurs list, again looking for fixie company. My dad had an appointment on a Monday morning, so I thought with my track record of seemingly causing flight delays merely by having a plane ticket, that I should fly down several days early and maybe get in some riding in milder weather than we've had in Boston recently. I received a couple of responses from fellow fixie riders and lined up rides for both Saturday and Sunday.

Sadly, Saturday started with cold steady rain, but after carefully studying multiple forecasts, Cyndy and I determined that heading out in the afternoon might not be awful, since the rain was actually due to stop around then. The still wet roads made fenders appealing, so I threw on the race blades. While they aren't as good as proper fenders, they are a lot better than nothing, and they will work on bikes with tight clearances!

When we headed out, in addition to being damp, it was a bit chilly, so I  wore a fair amount of warm clothing. Cyndy and I had a wonderful afternoon ride.  But the thermometer never budged, so we passed on an ice-cream stop - a real rarity for me, and I didn't need any storage space for discarded clothing.

Sunday, however, was a very different story. The day started clear and crisp at 40F. But the high for the day was predicted to be 60F. I was joining Jerry and a few others that he had recruited for his Howlin' Grits 100km permanent.

The start was about 15km from my dad's apartment. Given the prediction of a fine day, I decided add a few miles and to ride over to the start. Since it was still rather chilly at 8AM,  I started out with a jacket and medium gloves and overshoes. Yes, after my feet nearly froze on my previous visit, I wasn't about to go out again without overshoes in February! In addition to the chilly temperature, the roads were still wet. The race-blades, while helpful keeping a muddy stripe off my back, don't actually do much to keep the spray off my feet.  So the overshoes would help keep my feet that bit drier. However, it didn't take long to realize that I was wearing too much clothing. I stopped and stuffed my jacket in my little seatbag and swapped to lighter gloves. I also tried to readjust the front fender so it didn't rub. With lots of care, one can get these faux-fenders to work, but this pair had previously been mounted on another bike, and it took me a while to get the front one set up just right for this fork.

Anyway back to the clothing and storage issue...

As I mentioned, it was very chilly for my first permanent here a few weeks ago and it never really warmed up on that day, so I didn't remove any clothing during that ride. Good thing, since I had nowhere to put anything. This time I at least had my little bar bag, but quickly realized that I had on way too much stuff and I really missed having my larger seatbag with extra storage capacity!

So today's challenge would not actually be about riding a 100km on a fixie. It would really be about how much clothing could I stuff into that little seatbag, the small bar bag and my two rear pockets.

To his credit, Jerry had planned a rather civilized start time of 10AM. This gave me plenty of time to ride over to the start while I worked out the various kinks with fenders and clothing. Shortly after I arrived, several cars pulled in and I saw that we would have quite a bit of company on this very fine February day.  Martin arrived with Jerry. John, Geoff, and Maria pulled in soon after.

The first and toughest hill on the route came immediately on Lystra Road. I had vague memories of this road from riding it many years ago, and folks talked about it in such reverent tones that I knew I should warm up before tackling it, part of my reason for riding to the start. It started innocently enough, but then kicked up quite noticeably. Our group split up phonetically, with Jerry, John and Geoff off the front and Martin and Maria taking it a bit easier. I tried to hang with Team "J".

My back gave me a bit of grief for doing so. I had taken a hard fall on some boiler-plate ice while skate-skiing in very mixed conditions on the previous Monday. I had done several long rides since the fall, so it can't be anything major, but my lower back has been complaining when I walk up stairs and when I do a steep climb on the bike. I dropped off pace a little on the top part of the climb as my back started to make noise. The lads waited on the far side, but the 4 of us decided to continue on a couple of miles and regroup with Team "M" at the Open Eye Cafe. Once there, we all enjoyed delicious coffee and pastries as we sat at a picnic table under the warm sun. Jerry knows how much I love my espresso, and seemingly selected this route specifically for the coffee! How thoughtful!

He also took into account my reputation as a cycling loiterer! The ride name was inspired by the designated lunch stop - yes lunch stop - again very civilized! Back when he first created the route, lunch was at a cafe in Pittsboro that served Howlin' Grits. I can't say I was too disappointed to learn than it would not be a requirement to actually eat Howlin' Grits, but I was sad to see the original cafe had closed. A new restaurant has taken its place, but it isn't open early or on Sundays. So we continued around the courthouse rotary and stopped for lunch at a nice pizza place.

The four of us lingered over 2 pizzas as we were in no rush and no one was worried about setting any speed records. This restaurant was a little off-route, so Jerry sent a text to Maria advising her of our location, but I don't think she saw the text until many hours later.

I thoroughly enjoyed checking out the lawn ornament shop next the the pizza place. I'll have to go back some time with more carry-capacity!

I removed a lot of clothing at lunch. I replaced legwarmers with knee-warmers, and pulled off my arm-warmers and overshoes. I was about to violate my own rule about the maximum weight of my bar bag, when John pointed out his completely empty bag. Given the design of his bike, it actually handles better with a load, so Jerry and I happily contributed some ballast - purely to help him out! Really, so self-sacrificing and considerate of us!

It's rare for me to expose my ears at this time of year!

Jerry was the only other rider on fixed this time. But amazingly his gold-bling bike was barely visible in the shadow of the pink machine Geoff was riding!

John had a brand new bike himself on its maiden voyage. He seemed quite happy with it, especially once his front bag was properly loaded.

All in all it was a glorious day for a ride. Not only did Jerry put together a great route. He ordered up spectacular weather.

Maria and I expressed our appreciation to Jerry for the fine day...

The weather was so spectacular that I decided to make it into a full 100 miles, as I took the long way back to my dad's. John had unloaded my excess clothing from his bag, so I now got to really test the carry capacity of my bags and pockets. Happy to report that I managed to get all my clothing home! My pockets are only a little stretched out!

And now I'm back in Boston and the cold dreary weather, so I won't have to worry about taking off and storing so much clothing for a while!