Monday, 25 May 2009

that was long

Today was the first bike commuting day! Round trip was just under 40 miles. I would have given Dick Cheney a backrub for a snickers bar at about mile 34. It's a good thing the route is extremely pleasant and almost totally off-road, since I spin out at about 14 mph with my current gearing and this took a while. Probably just do this once a week.

The route went by WWII fortifications, a fishing town, a forest path system, a 12th century church, and RAF base, and the teebox of the 18th hole at St Andrews' Old Course. Some of the trails I rode:
I mean, by any measure this is a really nice commute. Only a mile or two were on roads with any level of traffic. I think a cyclocross bike would be the most efficient- it's about 2/3 pavement and the rest is dirt paths of various smoothness levels. I certainly wouldn't want road tires. Commuting this route by bike isn't about efficiency though- the traffic is minimal so a car is clearly the way to go if you need to get there fast (public transport is adequate but really expensive). I think Sheldon Brown said something like 'if you're in a hurry, why are you on a bike?'- that sums this commute up. It's healthy and it's fun, and it makes the day a bit better.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

tayside singletrack

I headed off on Sunday for a ride across the Tay through the town of Wormit, which lies at the other end of the rail bridge. Interesting to see Dundee and the bridges from a different angle, and the weather was fantastic. I had headed off in that direction after being told about a foot path along the Tay. To get there I ended up riding my bike through a farmer's field, which was fine since it is a designated Right of Way in Scotland. Essentially any path that joins two places and was used at any time for 20 years is legal to continue using to this day, regardless of the ownership.

As Nice as this situation is, it is superceded by the Land Reform (Scotland) Act. From
The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 (which came into force in 2005) gives everyone rights of access over land and inland water throughout Scotland, subject to specific exclusions set out in the Act and as long as they behave responsibly. These rights are sometimes referred to as freedom to roam'.

You can exercise access rights for crossing land and water, for recreational purposes, for educational purposes, and for some commercial purposes. There is no definition of recreational purposes', but the Access Code suggests a range of countryside activities that would be appropriate, including cycling, horse riding and wild camping.

What this translates to is incredible access for cycling- like an unheard of in the US level- as long as you behave responsibly. Amazing. When I found the path I was looking for I was instinctively nervous that I'd be yelled at for riding on it, but the few people I saw just smiled and stepped aside. Amazing. The path crossed through farmer's fields, in with their sheep and horses, over their fences (some of them had signs saying how welcome you are to walk there). I only explored about half of the path before needing to turn back (I calculated that I'd used up the goodwill I'd banked by keeping the baby busy while my wife slept), but I'll certainly head back there. The best part: sections of it were beautiful singletrack, ridable-to from my house.
The bike continues to impress and make me happy, as well.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

different attitudes

Today I headed North to try and find some off-road action. I posted on the Mountain Bike Scotland forum asking for rides from Dundee that I could do from my door. I think I'm about a forty minute drive from a hotbed of Scottish cycling, but I like non-driving rides. I got a response telling me about some thigh-burning singletrack around the hills that surround Dundee to the North. Perfect. Only 8 km outside of town.

Heading out I was feeling alright, barely noticing the tailwind, cruising along the bike path that rings the city. When I turned uphill and into the wind, I had a reality check. It was one of those climbs where you stop at the top to make sure your brakes weren't rubbing. In my mind I'm still my fairly-fit self of last Summer, when in reality I'm a pasty shadow (if that's even possible) of that self, emerging from a British winter with a new bike and not much fitness to offer.

So, I set a new target, some woods/parkland at the edge of town. It was actually really nice- while there's not a lot of trail, there are some surprisingly stiff uphills to tackle and some pretty nice views. I got a taste of what single speeding is all about, which is very different from my previous riding style (here's different attitude number 1). My strength was long uphills spinning at high cadence, where I felt like I could go on forever. Not really an option with one gear- when that hill comes up, you just need to blast up it. At times when I had the energy this was fun, and it felt great to fly up a hill when my legs felt good. When I slipped behind though, it was rough going- I think this style rewards fitness, and I need to get that back. I'll either destroy what's left of my knees or be a lot stronger when I get there.
The other Totally Different Attitude is the Scottish theory of cycling management, which is extremely lax. There must not be much user conflict here. For all Boulder's attractions as a cycling city, there were far too few trails close to town that allowed bikes and were worth the time to get there. It was abundantly clear, with lots of signage, where bikes were allowed. The default position here seems to be 'Yes, bike here!', with the few exceptions signed at the trail head. Beautifully, dramatically different. I gather that in some places there are starting to be management concerns, but it feels very free at the moment. The website of the woods I was in says "there are lots of side trails that you could come back and explore on foot or by mountain bike", which is a mind blowing level of access to me. A few times I would follow what I was sure would turn out to be an unofficial side trail, only to find a small bridge over a stream. If the trail system were five times the size it would be a destination, but as a nearby spot to hit after work it will do very nicely.

Another difference over here is that you're far more likely to come across neglected 5000 year old stone circles. Somewhat sketchy neighborhoods right on the Dundee ring road aren't exactly on the tourist top 10 for the area. The Scottish flag sticker someone added to the sign says 'Scottish not British', so you know where the neighborhood stands on that.

Monday, 11 May 2009

the new ride

The bike I got over here is a Haro Mary SS. A single-speed, rigid, steel mountain bike. This is probably not what you think of when you think 'ideal moderate-distance commuter', but there are reasons for this choice.

Economics: with a new baby, living in a foreign country, etc. etc. a cheaper ride was in order. After being talked down by my wife from my initial 1000 pound idea, I started looking for the best sub-500 pound bike I could come up with. A fun challenge.

Terrain: we'll be moving to Cambridge in the fall, which is flat. One speed should be ok for the flats.

Versatility: if I want to, I can throw a derailleur hanger on and run this as a 1x9. I can commute on it (at lowish speed), mountain bike while we're in Scotland, and handle muddy paths in England.

Frame quality: this is actually a pretty nice frame, and if I love it I can ditch the wheels, ship it back to the US and keep it for years and years.

Curiosity: I've been intrigued by the single speed mountain bike idea, as well as 29ers, and this seems like a good time to try out both.

Aesthetics: it looks clean and put-together, and I'm not above that sort of thing.

I've ridden it about 10 miles so far, two trips through Magdaline Green and along the Tay. Today I went across the Tay Road Bridge. They have a lift to take bikes up to the road level, and then it's 1.4 miles of dead straight, slightly uphill riding to the Fife side. Gorgeous views of Dundee and the Rail Bridge. First impressions of the bike are great- the handle bars (the On-One Mary) threw me for a minute, and it looks a little funky, but it feels pretty great. I'm looking forward to trying the bike out on some singletrack to see how it rides there. The gearing (32-20) is great for the mild uphill of the Tay Bridge, and at my current edge for the steep hill from the Tay up to our place- but it's too low for a flat with a tailwind or slight downhills. When I get my legs under me I may swap down to 32-18 or 16, but for now it's fine. Anyway, so far I'm happy.

Saturday, 9 May 2009


In August of 2008, my wife and I packed up our life in Boulder, Colorado and put most of it in the basement of my Grandfather's house in Minnesota. Then we hopped on a plane and landed in Scotland, where I work at a University. Our home for now is Dundee, which I like to describe as my ancestral homeland (my great grandparents emigrated from here around 1920) and the Scottish riviera (it's supposedly the sunniest place in Scotland. And it's on the water!)

Over the years that we lived in Boulder, I came to really enjoy bicycling. The town is a hotbed of cyclists, with lots of amazing trails, road rides, and bike shops. (Also lots of amazingly fit riders.) I moved out there in 2002 with my 1994 Bianchi Ocelot. I had two bikes before this, the BMX-style bike I learned to ride on, and a Diamondback mountain bike-style that got stolen after something like two years. This was the first bike I had a part in buying, I think I went halves on it with my parents. Through high school and college this bike got a bit a bit abused due to lack of any sort of knowledge about keeping bikes running cleanly. I think I used WD40 on the chain more than once.

The first week I was in Boulder, I bought a 2003 Gary Fisher Hoo Koo E Koo. This was the first time I'd ridden with suspension, and I loved it. I spent a couple years exploring the trails around Boulder, then had a few scary over-the-bars incidents that put me off mountain biking for a while. So I got a 2003 Giant OCR2 road bike, and the Hoo Koo sat unused for a while. I commuted almost daily on this, and started getting more and more into road riding. The canyons and roads around Boulder make for some fantastic rides. The highlight-ride I'll always remember is a long climb up a canyon through the strange town of Ward, rollers along the scenic peak-to-peak highway, and then a screaming 20 mile descent down another canyon back to the flats and another 20 miles of cool-down with beautiful views of the mountains.

In the last year or two in Boulder, after I'd forgotten the scary crashes, I got back into mountain biking with a vengeance. I started hitting Hall ranch semi-weekly with a guy from work, and the new trails at Heil ranch made that place a lot more fun to ride. My increased fitness from the road biking certainly helped too, letting me focus more on the technical bits rather than worry about the hills so much. I had a couple more over-the-bars moments, but nothing to make me want to give up mountain biking again. One ride I'll always remember clearly is an after-work loop around Heil Ranch- I was moving faster than usual, since I was fighting darkness, and it started lightly misting as I climbed up the Wild Turkey trail. Climbing up through the trees with just enough mist to keep you cool, all alone, and then coming to an overlook of Longs peak as sunset began- that was an amazing moment.

Anyway- when we packed up our life into a basement, that included our bicycles. We thought that when we got here, we'd pick up some bikes and use them for transport. Then we got a taste of the narrow roads and the driving habits of the Scottish driver. Peering down the front of a double decker bus at a cyclist mere feet ahead as the driver waited to pass was enough to put me off the idea of commuting the ~15 miles through Fife to get to work.

When spring sprang up, though, and the days started getting longer, the itch took hold and I really started wanting to get back on a bike. Additionally, we found out we'd be on this island for three more years, and that's way too long to go cycle-less. I'll write about what I ended up with shortly, but I now hope to commute once or twice a week by bike and hopefully ride some local trails when I get the chance. I have no hopes for any readership of this blog- I mostly want a place to collect my biking links, muse about riding, post some pictures, and have a place to look back in a few years and find some memories recorded.