Bicycle navigation – reinvented…

It was wild, wet and windy (again) today, so I surfed a little instead of riding – don’t be too hard on me, I did get out for a jog. One link after another led me to GizMag and their top ten cycling innovations of 2013. Top of the list is the intriguing Hammerhead for Bike Navigation.  I think it is well worth a look.

Hammerhead - navigation re-invented
Hammerhead – navigation re-invented

The new startup team behind Hammerhead say they are inspired by simplicity – get the essential right then junk the rest is their philosophy: in this they (and their advertising video) reminded my strongly of Apple and that cannot be bad.  Their breakthrough to simplicity ideas include:

  • team the Hammerhead to a smart phone, using all its complicated and expensive electronics;
  • replace spoken or turn instructions with peripheral vision colours as direction indicators
  • a really smart, minimal design and look
  • incorporate a built-in headlight.

I like this idea a lot for several reasons:

  • it’s great to see someone other than Garmin looking at navigation
  • I want to make better use of my iPhone
  • it keeps the iPhone safe and dry without needing a new case
  • it’s refreshing to see a new take on an old problem
  • conventional satnav screens are a nightmare for those of up who need reading glasses
  • it looks like great value for money.

I see Schwinn have an alternative out (see below), so I will wait until some user reviews appear, but I hope I won’t have to wait too long.  This looks like a great device full of promise.

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Cycling between Ayamonte (Spain) and Vila Real de Santo António (Portugal)

Or vice versa if you like!

This is a trip he have done a number of times now and we have settled on the ferry as our preferred border crossing. Brilliant for bikes, convenient, cheap and even just a touch romantic.  What’s not to like? (We are not sure whether or not it’s possible to use the bridge that carries the motorway, but in any case it looks very daunting.)

Tip: choose a better day!
Tip: choose a better day!

The ferry runs every day of the week, takes about 20 minutes for the crossing and leaves on the hour from Vila Real de Santo António and on the half hour from Spain. It costs about 8 euro for two passengers and two bikes.  You can ride your bike on and while there is no obvious way to secure bikes on board, the boat is very stable and we have never had a problem with the bikes falling over or sliding about.

Bikes on board
Bikes on board

There is a terminal building on the Portuguese side, but not in Spain. Both sides have ticket offices. Both terminals are a literal stone throw from pretty squares with lots of cafes and restaurants.

When in Vila Real we stayed in the Arenilha Guest House. This was very modern and comfortable and they kindly allowed us to store the bikes in their secure inner patio.  The hotel is 5 minutes from the ferry and surrounded by hundreds of places to eat and drink. In Ayamonte we stayed a the Hotel Riavela. This was a nice, family run hotel and they were very bike-friendly with good safe indoor storage. The hotel is 10-15 minutes from the ferry by bike, but a long walk from places to eat.

The ferry terminals are very easy to find, tiny and so very relaxed affairs.

Crossing the Gaudiana
Crossing the Guadiana



Two on Four Wheels die in Thailand

There are some days that just start off sad.  Too sad really. Unfairly sad. Unreasonably sad. Today was one such beginning with the news that Peter Root and Mary Thompson (Two on Four Wheels) have been killed while cycling in Thailand.

Peter and Mary R.I.P.
Peter and Mary R.I.P.

The news came to me via a touching tribute video posted on Vimeo by Tom Waugh.  It catches their warmth and matter of fact bravery so well.

I spent sometime today replaying some of their videos on Vimeo.  I have decided this one of their trip  through Turkey into Iran is my favourite.  It has all of their humour and love of life and shows them typically comfortable around and loved by all of the people they met on their trip.

They were clearly a very special couple and have been taken from us way too soon.  It should not have ended this way. Their videos showed them so full of life and so talented in so many ways. My thoughts go out to their families and friends and to them both. Rest in peace and know that you touched many, many lives as you passed by.

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Bikes on Eurostar? Yes or no?

Thinking of taking your bicycle on Eurostar London to Paris? We found we had to when our ferry crossing was cancelled on strike action. It was a last minute thing and we had no time to plan it, but it worked well for us.

We bought our train tickets online, but did not see a way to book the bikes on online. So we pitched up at St Pancras and picked up our tickets and advice on what to do with the bikes. We were sent off to the Euro Dispatch office and told to go ASAP as we had no reservations. On arrival they sucked through their teeth at the news we had not booked, but set about the paperwork immediately. We had to remove all accessories from the bikes, including lights and bells. But with a minimum of fuss the bikes were whisked away. Crucially, we were given a map of how to locate the Geo Parts depot in Garde du Nord. Without it we would have been well lost.

Ok at £50 it was far from cheap, but the convenience counted for a lot and the friendly and helpful service at both ends was very welcome. We’d recommend Eurostar to cyclists – with deep pockets if you have not booked early enough to get decent fare levels.

Finding Compassion in China: a bicycle journey into the countryside by Cindie Cohagan

If you are planning a cycle trip to China and you want a sense of just how demanding it might be, this might be the perfect primer.  Or, it just might put you off going!

China seen from behind Stars and Stripes

Cindie Cohagan and her husband Tim had been cycling around the world for some years before they arrived in China.  They were hardly novices therefore, but by this account the author found China a great challenge.

Most of the content deals with the nitty gritty of the daily grinds of their cycling. As the author has a clear and very accessible writing style, she gives a vivid account of the people they meet, the food they eat, the places they stay and their continuing struggles with petty regulations and the officials charged with ensuring compliance with them.  As a source of first impressions of China the book makes for a lively read therefore.

Other faces of modern china

Woven through the content are three main themes.  The first and second are counterpoints: the warmth and friendliness of the poor of the rural areas they find on the one hand and the petty, but threatening presence of the police and communist party officials on the other.  The third theme is the slow, but steady disintegration of the author’s relationship with her husband.  This last theme casts a shadow over the book, although their final separation is apparently achieved reasonably amicably.

The author’s sympathy for the ordinary Chinese she meets is clearly heartfelt and genuine.  She struggles hard with the language in her determination to connect with the people she meets. Notable too, is her gratitude for the kindnesses they show to her and Tim.  From these beginnings spring an interest in Buddhism that grows and becomes a sustaining passion – hence, perhaps the title of the book.

Future uncertain but full of hope

The wider perceptions of China reflected in the book rang less than true with me. Within days, for example, they find themselves in trouble with the police for photographing a military complex and a squad of prisoners on a working detail.  This they see as entirely unreasonable, but I could not but compare their quite reasonable treatment by the officials with what they might have expected if they had taken such photos in say, Greece.

Similar over-reactions arrived when they tried to order chicken without its head or feet in a restaurant. Or, in what for me was a pivotal incident, when presented with the gift of two apples by a farmer, her insistence in cleaning them by soaking in iodine before eating them.  Other examples include outrage when forms are not filled in in hotels or party officials monitor their comings and goings in small towns.

All of these build a picture of some level of paranoia. Then the penny drops for the reader.  The author appears to have no wider appreciation of the nature of the Communist regime or of Chinese history and culture.  People eat every bit of everything because they know what starvation means.  Government struggles with the delivery of services on a scale we can hardly imagine.  And, yes, it’s true, it is a totalitarian regime and a police state.  Why did the author expect to find something else on her travels?  Perhaps the most amazing and hopeful thing is that they were allowed to make the trips they did and that rules and regulations were waived as often as they were.

Finally therefore, this is a book that promises rather more than it delivers.  It is a good light read and will certainly help the would-be China cyclist prepare for a trip.  However, deeper insights into  Chinese society, culture and history are sparse and to my eye, unreliable.

In the epilogue to her book, the author suggests she has found a new community and purpose for her life after leaving Tim and her travels.  I am sure all readers of her book will wish her well on this new stage on her journey towards enlightenment.

Cycling in Portugal: dealing with the dogs

Portugal is a cycling paradise – amazingly good roads, empty for miles at a time; cheap living and  wonderfully kind people.  However, it does have one big drawback – everyone and his uncle seems to keep a dog specially positioned to scare the living daylights out of passing cyclists.

Time for a change of cycle shorts again!

Photo by Smerikal on Flickr

The least worrying are the posh property protectors.  In the grounds of villas these generally come in pairs, one huge, one small and are less of a worry as they are almost always penned behind impressively strong railings.  I imagine the railings are to protect the villas rather than the dogs, but they serve nicely to protect the passing cyclist.  Most often in fact you can prepare yourself for the encounter and sneer at fido as he rushes along the inside of the railings barking and snarling until you leave him behind at the end of his patch.  Only occasionally will they have the wit to hide in greenery and threaten to spill you from your bike with a terrifying and unexpected howl as you come alongside.

More worrying are the guard dogs of rural farms and homesteads.  These are rarely behind fences and it’s difficult for the approaching cyclist to tell if they are tethered or not.  You will see them take off, gathering speed and heading for a point where they can intercept you and you just have to hope that (i) they are indeed tethered; (ii) they will run out of rope or chain before they can reach you and (iii) the rope or chain will hold.  It’s quite terrifying when you see a dog yanked off the ground and sent spinning backwards by the fury of its attack when its chain bites and the momentum of its attack turns in on it.  Luckily, the great majority of homeland hounds are on lengths of chain or rope.

What to do with those who are not and give chase?  Remember that most are guard dogs and will give up the chase as you pass their properties.  We try to tell ourselves to stay calm and carry on!  Easier said than done sometimes, but always a good indication of what sort of form we are in one any one day.  Jacqui can pretty well turn into Mark Cavendish over 100 metres when faced with the right dog heading for her.  The only other advice is to get off on the side away from the dog if you have to get off.

In some senses the least worrying dogs are the wild strays you find in remote rural areas.  They come as singles or small packs, but for some reason they always slope off well before you approach on a bike.  On the occasions when they have stood their ground, we have been pleased to see they keep their distance and treat us with a complete lack of interest.

So, while we have considered buying a commercial dog deafener or pepper spray  we have not bothered.  I have a feeling that slowing down to fumble for such on the move would merely leave us more vulnerable to attack.

Luckily too, there are as many strays that seem to concerned only with getting a decent stroke or a pet!

Fully harmless!

Are Cycle Tracks Safe?

Are cycle tracks safe?

The question arises from a painful accident on our recent trip to Portugal (March 2012). We were staying in Monte Gordo and travelled to Vila Real to take the ferry boat to Ayemonte in Spain.  We had a wonderful day, arriving back in Vila Real in time for a late lunch.  Then we set off for the 3-4 kilometre trip back to Monte Gordo.

Vila Real and Monte Gordo are connected by a dead straight and nearly level road, bordered on either side by a purpose built cycle track, clearly marked for cycles and painted pink. Beyond the cycle path is a gravel footpath. The footpath is separated form the cycle track by a 45-100 mm kerb. The cycle track is separated from the road by a mini-kerbstone about 25 mm high and cut at 45 degrees. This implies to me that it is designed to allow bikes to skip on and off the cycle path as necessary.  Why should this be necessary?  Well, because Monte Gordo is a base for lots of runners in training and they seem to use the cycle track in preference to the footpath as their preferred running surface.

On Mothering Sunday last, my wife and I found to our cost just how dangerous a mix runners and cyclists can be.  Travelling towards Monte Gordo we met a powerful runner running up the centre of the cycle track.  We (I really as I was in front) took the decision to skip off the cycle track to leave him free to run.  My wife followed my example.  I slipped back on to the cycle way without difficulty: my wife tried and caught her wheel on a slightly raised section of the lowered kerb and fell from her bike.  Worse still she fell directly on to the raised kerb on the footpath with her shoulder and badly broke the ball joint at the top of her arm.

Jacqui and the Three Bombeiros

Was this an avoidable accident?  Yes.  Did we contribute to our own accident. Yes.  Did the design of the track contribute? I think so.  The junction of road and cycle track encourages you to take on a dangerous manoeuvre. The high kerb between cycle track and footpath will make any fall more serious.

We always ride defensively on roads.  This accident brought home to me the need to do so even on cycle tracks.  Especially where cyclists and pedestrians or runners are expected to mix in one space.  Talk about a lesson learned the hard way.

Quotes: Benefits of Biking to Work

“I have also discovered that biking is suitable for my line of work, teaching and writing philosophy. Riding the bike in the morning often helps me to clarify and simplify my thoughts; the small stuff and petty worries drop out somewhere along the way. I have come to appreciate Nietzsche’s advice: “give no credence to any thought that was not born outdoors while one moved about freely–in which the muscles are not celebrating a feast to”. I almost always arrive at work a more clear-headed, not to see a braver-minded man after riding my bike in the morning. On the way home I’m able to relax and unwind if my day has been a stressful one. But what I have come to like most about commuting by bike, along with the resourcefulness it brings, is simply the time that gives you to spend outdoors,  facing the elements. I had all but forgotten how much time I spent outdoors as a boy and how slowly and almost imperceptibly I was changing into an indoor creature, a sedentary man, furniture of a sort. I have at long last restarted my one-sided conversation with the stars and the ocean, and I have come to recognise again that I share this earth, or my little stretch of it, with other living creatures, especially insects but also birds and an occasional seal that looks at me from a safe distance. It is silly to forget such things but one does; just as one forgets how changeable and multifarious the weather is. If the sedentary life makes you an absolutist or a dogmatist, biking turns you into a pragmatist, that at any rate has been my experience.”

Quoted from Robert H Haraldsson, ‘Philosophical Lessons from Cycling in Town and Country’.  Chapter 11 in Cycling: Philosophy for everyone (2010) edited by Jesus Ilundain-Agurruza and Michael Austin, Chichester Wiley-Blackwell.

Quotes: The Peerless Efficiency of the Bicycle

“The energy required to pedal a bike isn’t much more than the energy required to keep your body warm while watching television…. If we compared the energy that is used by a car and the energy used by a cyclist, we find that the cyclist’s use of energy is vastly more efficient.  The Toyota Prius…. gets roughly 49 miles to the gallon….. Converting the energy expended by an average cyclist traveling at 12 miles per hour we find that the cyclist gets the equivalent of 1,000 miles per gallon.  Interesting enough, cycling is even more energy efficient than walking.  The bike’s extraordinarily effective use of energy makes it an ideal mode of transportation.”

Quoted from John Richard Harris, ‘The Communist Manifesto’.  Chapter 12 in Cycling: Philosophy for everyone (2010) edited by Jesus Ilundain-Agurruza and Michael Austin, Chichester Wiley-Blackwell.