Alex Bikes

Ottawa bike politics.

Category Archives: Travel

Another French tour: Nice to Groningen

This is the luggage at the Ottawa airport. That's 30lbs I'll be hauling up the hills...

This is the luggage at the Ottawa airport. That’s 30lbs I’ll be hauling up the hills…

I’m going on another tour, and I was looking for something hillier than the last trips (Texas and Quebec). I have 14 bicycle days to get from Nice, France to Groningen, Netherlands. That distance is technically 1500km, but I’m unlikely to be able to keep up the 150km/day pace I had in Texas.

First I’m starting with an established route called Le Tour des Grandes Alpes. which runs from near Nice (Menton) to near Geneva (Thoulon). Normally it’s run southbound, but I’ll be doing it in reverse. It is 600km with a total climb of 20,000m. includes Bonette (2800m), D’Iseran and various others. These are higher than anything I’ve done before.

The second part is getting from Geneva to Eindhoven. I’m expecting I’ll have to take the train for parts of this. I have no real plans on how to do this. I’ll meet up with my parents there; they’re there to reminisce about where they grew up. After that, to Groningen in the north where my sister is celebrating her 50th birthday.

A lot of this is just easier to arrange now. I know what equipment to bring, what to expect, etc. I’m always worried my bike won’t make it or that I’ll suffer some horrible mechanical problem that can’t be fixed.

I’m really bad at blogging during trips. Maybe this time will be different.


So what happened in Texas?

The last time I wrote on this blog was back in February as I was planning my bike trip across Texas. Here’s a quick review.

The ‘why on earth would you bike in Texas?’ question continued well into the trip and after I got back. My values and political views don’t match a typical Texan’s, although typical is part of the problem.

Here’s something I learned: political views don’t really show through that much when you’re just visiting somewhere. Sure, there were a lot of pickup trucks with gun racks and wildly xenophobic views of Hispanics. If you can look past that (without forgiving it), you’ll find the people caring and genuine. And you’ll have quite an experience.

I learned a lot about nothingness and loneliness. Often there were no cars for an hour. There were no trees to ruin the views. I’ve never gone so long in my life without ever talking to someone. Emptiness. You should experience this, just not all the time.

Here’s a rundown. The average here is 150km / day, by far more than I’ve ever done.

Day 1 – El Paso to Ft. Hancock

IMG_2600.JPGI’d stayed the night before in El Paso with the president of Velo Paso and his wife. The cycling movement in El Paso is further behind Ottawa, shall we say.

I got up before my hosts. Most of the morning was spent exiting, among the avocado trees until we hit the highway. An 80mph road sounds terrible, but with an 8ft shoulder it can actually be okay. There were service roads which I used plenty of.

The population was thinning out, there were more abandoned buildings. The emptiness was starting to show.

I spent the night in a flea-bag motel. The owner warned me not to go to the other part of town as the police no longer had control over it. Fun!

Day 2 – Ft. Hancock to Marfa

This was magical. Suddenly I was on Highway 90 which has nothing on it. Chispa, Valentine and Quebec are abandoned.

I’d filled up on water (around 8 litres) in Van Horn but was completely empty by the time I hit the Marfa Prada, this art thing in the middle of the desert.

IMG_2656.JPGIMG_2662.JPGIn the parking lot, some tourists in a truck saw me and said ‘you don’t look so good, everything okay?’. They gave me a gallon of water which I drank right there. I have never been so thirsty ever.

I finished off the day in Marfa itself and camped in the desert. A fantastic and tiring day, around 170km.


The hostel in Marathon.

Day 3 – Marfa to Marathon

Just 90km this day, mostly windy. I was still tired and thirsty. I’d heard about this great hostel in town and hunted around for it. Marathon has few paved roads and I sense there’s a lot of unlocked doors. I found one guy on his front porch and I asked him if he could help me find the hostel. Guil invited me to drink bourbon while we talked about it. He owned the hostel, he said it was free for cyclists. I had the place to myself, so it was a great deal!

Day 4 – Marathon to Sanderson

Not much to report. Windy. Desolate. Road runners.

Day 5 – Marathon to Comstock

Here, I’d deviated from the Adventure Cycling Association’s prescribed Southern Tier route, which meant fewer bikes. I hadn’t actually seen anyone on a bike since El Paso.

I wandered into Comstock and partook of all their retail: gas station (junk food), hotel (room) and newly opened restaurant. This was an experience… the owner had never seen anyone on a bicycle before. Beer was $1.50 a pint. I had two main courses and still left with paying just $20. You can’t plan vacations like this.

Day 6 – Comstock to Eagle Pass

The desert was changing. Still, very few people. I could pump Van Halen on the headphones and nobody could hear or judge.

Eagle Pass is a gambling town. I found a fantastic taco stand and ordered several main dishes. It was a crappy hotel that night with mirrors over the beds.

Day 7 – Eagle Pass to Laredo

What a shitty day. All tours must have a day or two like this. It was so windy, I almost gave up before I started. Many years ago I’d met someone from Laredo and I’d envisioned it being this great place. I was looking forward to it. After a day of constant wind, it started getting dark. I’d done just 130km (after 13 hours). I got a flat tire (the first one in 5 years) so thought I’d camp out by the side of the road. But then I came across an RV park. They’d never had someone show up on a bike (and rarely without an RV), so I was a novelty. What a terrible place.

Wild dogs tried to run off with one of my bike shoes the next morning.

Day 8 – Laredo to McAllen

The last day of biking. McAllen’s a huge place compared to anywhere else I’d been. I stopped at this all-you-can-eat pizza place and ate until I could eat no more. Then met up with Anouk, a full day early.

The next day I slept to 9 and had two breakfasts and lunch. It was nice to be off the bike.

The astute will notice that I missed a day, I lost it in the emptiness of Texas.


“Biking in Texas? Why?”

The title of this post is the most common response when I tell people we’re taking a two-week vacation in Texas. Anouk and I struggle to find vacation destinations that feature both good birding and biking. Texas promises to be a new experience. I’m going to bike solo from the north west to the south east for ten days, then meet up with Anouk for a few days of birding, then fly back from Houston.

The route

This is the intended route. Reality will be quite different.

This is the intended route. Reality will be quite different.

It starts in El Paso. Sing it with me:

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl.
Night-time would find me in Rosa’s cantina;
Music would play and Felina would whirl. 

At the end, the protagonist turns into a murderer and is shot, dying in the arms of his love (an illegal immigrant). I’m married to a lovely Dutch woman, so this won’t happen to me. (The Pyrenean tour’s theme was Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé’s Barcelona, which is a bit more of an upper and frankly a better ear worm.)

From there it continues along the border with Mexico, following the Rio Grande.  I’m expecting huge empty stretches of ranches and deserts, with small towns in between. I’ll camp, but I’m not afraid to cheat and take a hotel here or there.

The equipment

Here’s what I’ve packed:

  • camping gear: tent, mat, sleeping bag. No stove or pots.
  • the Surly LHT. I like my bike, but I know it can be replaced. I made that clear to it when the index shifting failed near hilly Renfrew. In the Rockies I met Ryan, who has an image of his Raleigh Sojourn tattooed on his arm. That’s not me.
  • the iPhone: partly because of the shitty selection of paper maps, I’m going to use Galileo’s offline maps. We’ll see how this goes.
  • the usual stuff; clothes, tools etc.

I’ve packed way too much. This always happens…

I’m sure there’s a balance between too heavy and forgetting something crucial, but I have yet to find it.

The worries

All bike tours come with problems. In BC it was being distracted by stunning scenery. Jim and I struggled with forcing poutine and great beer down on La Tour de la Nouvelle France. And the Loire Valley? Hard to find fresh croissants on Monday mornings. Progress was slow in Holland because of the koffie en gebak. These things happen, but you get through.

My early concerns for this trip are:

  • huge stretches with no facilities,. In BC there were a couple of days of 80km, here much of it is 100km+ without water. There may be some wild camping, which is new to me.
  • I have just 10 days to cover 1300km if I’m to meet Anouk on time in McAllen. I’m incredibly out of shape, I’ve covered just 500km in 2014. I haven’t been on my touring bike for 4 months. I am physically not prepared.
  • I’ve flown with my bike maybe a dozen times. I always worry the bike won’t arrive or will be severely damaged. This time I’m testing United Airlines.

Things like fast highways (80mph!), getting lost or running out of food don’t worry me much. I can fix flats, true a wheel or fix a chain if I need to.

More to come?

Maybe I’ll blog more about this, I’m terrible at that. I leave tomorrow.

Biking in and around St. Petersburg, Florida

My wife and I went to St. Petersburg in Florida for a week in late February to get out of the snow, do some bird watching, and visit my parents who spend a month there every year. What’s unusual to others is that we camped. Most people think of Florida as condos, beaches, drunk parties and crappy beach stores. But the state parks’ motto is “The Real Florida” and it fits.

The cheapest bike rental place I could find was Trailsport Bikes; $85 for a road bike for me and $60 for my wife’s hybrid. It was a bit out of the way, but they were really nice. I broke a spoke on my way back to the store, and they were okay with that.  I know it makes me a snob, but I really dislike Sora shifters. They’re clicky and stick easily. Renting something better (with 105s) would have been twice the price.

We stayed at Fort De Soto, a county park 5 miles from St. Petersburg with quiet campgrounds and a few beaches. It feels close to nature and far away from the typical Florida junk. I’d say there was about one bike for every two people in the campground.  It has dozens of miles of fantastic bike trails; perfectly paved and separated from the road.

An example of a pleasant trail in Fort De Soto.

An example of a pleasant trail in Fort De Soto.

The road leading to the park has a route that changes between on-road and off-road surfaces. They’re all quite pleasant. Most novice cyclists would feel comfortable here.

Within the city, the highlight of the area is the Pinellas Trail, which runs some 60 miles from Old Tampa Bay to the Gulf. It is wide, smooth and quite empty. Most of it is 5m wide, so there’s enough room for everyone. It has mile markers, fountains and benches. Houses and stores are normally built so the back faces urban rail lines, so there’s nothing like a cafe or ice cream place facing the trail.


The Pinellas Trail.

The Pinellas Trail.

The trail starts in downtown St. Petersburg and they had to build the trail on a road that might look like a wider Queen St. They chose to build a bi-directional lane on the south side. It works, there’s lots of signs at intersections.

The Pinellas Trail where it starts in downtown St. Petersburg.

The Pinellas Trail where it starts in downtown St. Petersburg.

Intersections are done differently than in Ottawa and quite well. Wherever the Pinellas Trail crosses a road, there’s distinct crossings that are very well marked. One thing they do is put the signal on a post, so you can ride up and hit the button without having to dismount and reach over.  There are always clearly marked intersections, but in some cases there are lights with push-buttons.


A typical crossing of a minor road.

Thank the driver!

Thank the driver!

Florida law also allows cyclists to ride on the sidewalk provided they yield to pedestrians. This is incredibly useful as a cyclist, as you can legally get off the  road to pass on the right, or get off to make room when there’s busy traffic. I can count on one hand the number of people I know who think sidewalk biking should be allowed.

The people I saw biking were noticeably different than what I’ve seen in any other North American city. The types of people were:

  • retired couples going for a leisure ride on beach cruisers
  • students, with headphones and riding rusty bikes
  • spandex-clad racers with $5000 carbon frame bikes, most of whom were actually pretty slow

I didn’t see anyone who was commuting to work or out buying groceries. Women biking by themselves was rare. I didn’t notice any families out with their children.

It looks like St. Petersburg and the neighbouring cities are trying to change. There’s a lot more bike facilities coming in, and they are generally very well built. Most of the routes would be very attractive to novices, we should be envious of how they’re building things. But a lot of the connectors are missing, and it’s difficult to go on a really long ride without dealing with busy roads.

In the 300km I biked, not once did I have an irritated driver or someone who passed me unsafely. (This is quite different than Troy, NY, where I got sworn at four times in the first mile.) Even the drivers of jacked-up pickups with truck-nuts and NRA stickers gave me a tip of the baseball cap.

As an amateur urban planner, I feel compelled to point out the connection between food prices and bad urban planning. The city has incredible sprawl and food prices are very high; the cheapest loaf of bread is around $4. Fast food, however, is very cheap. There is a large divide between the rich and poor. To eat healthily, you need the following:

  • a car, or patience with a mediocre transit system
  • money to buy the food
  • the will to pay more for good food than less for easy food

So what happens? The poor continue to be unhealthy in a society with no public healthcare system.

But as a tourist it’s easy to ignore that kind of depressing truth.

Biking in Beijing: the freedom of lawlessness.

Beijing is different. Biking in a city with no rules is surprisingly liberating.

I was in Beijing last month for work and managed to squeeze in a couple of hours of actual biking in with a fellow Ottawa cyclist. We’d already been there for a week and were fascinated by the totally different approach to traffic than what I’m used to in North America and Europe.

I don’t know what the traffic rules are in Beijing, but practice matters more than the written laws. I saw pretty much every traffic rule and safety guideline I know of violated: running red lights, driving on the wrong side of the road, double parking on sidewalks, talking on the phone while driving on the shoulder, etc. The violations that make me cringe in Ottawa happen at ever intersection all the time. It’s really quite stressful when you predict certain death for an elderly woman about to get mowed down by an unsympathetic bus driver.

There, nobody expects any rules to be followed, so everyone is responsible for their own safety. Since there’s no rules, there’s quite a bit of freedom in using the roads. Being able to ride on sidewalks, pass traffic on the right, run lights or cut across stopped traffic is actually liberating and maybe even fun. But only if everyone agrees that there are no rules.

Notice how wide this intersection is. Notice how the pedestrians are already halfway through the intersection before their light turns green.

The main boulevards are wide. Most construction has two auxiliary roads (intended for biking and parking) and a two to four lane main road. So they have a lot of space to fill. My recollection from my first trip in 2005 is that the outside lanes used to only be used by bicycles, but they’re now used for parking and driving.

Turning has priority over straight through

The lawlessness has one noticeable effect on pedestrians: on a green, traffic turning right or left effectively has the right of way. This means that you can never cross at a crosswalk and expect you won’t be run over, because you will. There’s no eye contact or pause from the car and they’ll come centimetres away from running over your feet. Once you’re aware that you’re never actually safe, you time the crossing carefully. And you start early in the cycle to give yourself enough time to make it across.

Certain death in Beijing.

Air quality

The city lives up to its reputation of having terrible air quality. Rarely were there any actual sunny periods. Most of it was grey and hard to see through the fog. And the vehicles are mostly two-stroke engines and buses so riding in traffic is pretty gross.

Other forms of transportation

This doesn’t have anything to do with biking, but the taxi drivers are the worst I have ever seen. Remember the scenes in Amazing Race where a team gets thrown because a cab driver gets lost or doesn’t understand a location? That describes all drivers we had in Beijing. There wasn’t a single driver who knew our destination, could speak any English at all , could read or understand a destination written in Chinese or read a map. All the cabbies who passed the special training for the 2008 Olympics have graduated to driving in Ashgabat or Seattle. The ones who failed form the backbone of the Beijing cab industry. The minimum fare is ¥10 ($1.60), but that gets you about 4km.

The subway system’s expanded greatly over the last few years, and you can cross town for ¥2 ($0.28), so that makes it attractive for tourism given the incompetence of taxi drivers.

Requisite Forbidden City photo.

I only saw one accident, a fender bender on the highway back to the airport. Stats indicate that there’s quite a few more accidents in China as a whole (449.6 deaths per 100,000 vehicles compared to our 13). I don’t know what the numbers are for Beijing, but if I was willing to invest $100 I bet I could find out.

I don’t know if I’d describe the experience as really lovely. Next time I might rent a road bike and head out of town to escape the crowds and the smog. But for ¥50 ($7.50) it was an interesting experience.

There’s a certain freedom in biking in a place where nobody follows any rules. You become much more aware and it is liberating to not be constrained by rules.

My weekend of biking on the Oregon coast

When I travel for work, I try to do something apart from the usual pattern of sitting in meetings talking to people about work, going to dinner to talk about work, going back to the hotel to get done all the work I should have done. I often try to take an extra day to go biking, it is a great way to see the world. I’ve managed semi-work-sponsored bike trips up Alpe d’Huez, in Munich and in Tokyo (surprisingly bad). I’ve been around the San Francisco Bay area half a dozen times. Last year I managed Red Rock near Vegas and around Portland (OR).

A few weekends ago I squeezed in a weekend in Oregon. I had meetings in Portland on the Friday, then went off to Las Vegas on the Monday morning. So it was easier to stay on the west coast than go back to Ottawa. I’d been around Portland a few times; up to Boring, up to that place by Bridal Falls, and a memorable trip around Mt. Hood. But I’d never been to the Oregon coast.

My original plan was to pick up the rental bike on my way out of Portland at Veloce Bicycles, the cleanest little bike shop I’ve ever seen. But they’d changed their opening hours and were closed before I got there. But I had a hotel reservation in Cannon Beach, so I drove a couple of rainy hours out to the coast with no bike.

By chance, there was a place called Mike’s Bike Shop in town that had a rental that fit me just fine. Rental bikes can be pretty crappy; they’re usually spotless with too much emphasis on looking flashy and being light. Few of them are actually solid and comfortable. But the shop owner understood touring, and the aluminum Specialized had a rear pannier and a handlebar bag. This is my kind of bike, plus it was $30 less than in Portland.

Cannon Beach is a nice place and not just a junky tourist town. There’s bits of surfing around and beach walking, but it’s empty on a rainy January weekend. I stayed at the Inn at Cannon Beach, which was just fine by me until I noticed breakfast was served on plastic plates that’d be thrown out. I only see this in American hotels, it is disgusting.


My somewhat failed attempt to use scribblemaps.


On the Saturday, I biked south along the coast on Highway 101 to Nehalem, then inland on Highway 53, and back to Cannon Beach. The coast is a popular touring route, and Oregon recognizes this as a designated bike route. There isn’t always room on the road to have a bike lane on both sides, so they prioritize the southbound route which has the nicest views of the coast.

One problem they have is that there’s a few tunnels that were built narrow by today’s standards. An example is the Arch Cape Tunnel, which is 400m long and slightly uphill. It can be daunting to compete for space on the road with 55mph traffic, so here’s what they came up with. Over the entrances to the tunnel, there’s a big, lit sign that says “bicycles in tunnel” and warns of a 30mph speed limit. Cyclists approaching the tunnel press a button, then that starts the flashing lights over the sign on both sides. It is innovative and progressive, two things you see a lot of in Oregon.

Down in Nehalem, I stopped at this mom-and-pop diner for a late breakfast. The locals there were worried about the layoffs just announced at a cheese factory nearby. The union had gotten them some form of compensation, and they’d be paid comparatively all over the years. So it was a bit strange having a pro-union discussion in staunchly libertarian and republican rural Oregon.

After that, I turned inland on the very calm highway 53. The traffic was almost entirely pickup trucks, some with the hoofs of hunted deer sticking out the back. Most ditches had beer cans in them, and there’s the tell-tale sign of rednecks: the road sign with bullet holes.

I was after something a bit hillier on the Sunday, so went to Ecola State Park on a small road between huge trees. There’s some great lookouts over the ocean. I was trying to get up to Seaside, and was trying to avoid having to compete with traffic on 101. But I noticed on Google maps that there was a small trail that would let me do a cut through. The entrance to the trail was unsigned, and there were fresh footprints on the trail. I thought it’d be like this all the way through. At some point, the trail turns into a gravel path, some of it is too thick to ride on. So I walk; then the road turns to a road under construction, and I have to carry my bike up these hills. For a couple of hours, I cover maybe 3 miles like this and twist my ankle partway. I get close to the highway and figure I can just bushwhack the last 50m, but it is too thick and I end up going around. This was not the adventure I signed up for! And at the end of this? I notice the road’s actually the entrance to a quarry, and visitors are not allowed. Ah well.

On the Sunday evening when the tide was low, people walk out to the haystacks on the beach to see the tidal pools. My choices of footwear were my black leather shoes for work or my bike shoes. Sometimes in travel, biking’s got to take precedence over work.