Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Forests of the Tour de France

Even though the Tour de France has ended, images from the race are still strong in my mind. Here's an abstract watercolor I painted yesterday, of the yellow jersey-wearer speeding through those beautiful forests of France...

The Tour's mountain stages get the most attention, and deservedly so ... they're spectacular. But I love it when the peloton weaves its way through those shadowy pine forests. It's like shining a kaleidoscope of color on those dark, mysterious places...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Fantastic Tour de France

The Tour de France is over! And what a great Tour it was. As the riders fly home, I'm sure they're dreaming about the sights and sounds of the race ... the ghostly Mont Ventoux, the deep forests of the Vosges, the huge crowds cheering them on in Barcelona, and the rolling hills above Monaco. The peloton left a colorful tapestry of memories all across that incredible countryside.

As I look back, I enjoy thinking about the ways the Tour de France weaved its way in and out of my July.

On ideal days, I recorded the complete morning coverage on the Versus Channel and then watched it when I got home from work (staying away from news beforehand; my friends knew not to talk about the TdF!). As always, the legendary commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen were awesome, as were the evening shows hosted by Bob Roll and Chris Hummer. To the Versus Channel: thank you and great job!

But on some days, life got the better of all my efforts to watch Le Tour ... especially at the end when I was away from home on business, with no Versus at the hotel and a slow Internet connection. But this year, my mother began watching the Tour for the first time, and now she's hooked! So on the afternoon of the Mont Ventoux stage, after the racing had ended, Mom told me all about the race by phone ... the crowd, the rivalries, Phil and Paul's comments -- Mom captured it perfectly, and I truly felt I was there. While Mom described the details of the race, Dad was working hard transferring his recording of the stage to DVD, which is now in the mail to my home. Thank you so much Mom and Dad!

It reminded me that for so many years, this was the way most people experienced the tour ... talk at the dinner table, and chatting with friends in a local pub or on the street waiting for the autobus. And you know something? -- It was great.

But modern technology sure is wonderful too. Having the DVD to look forward to is like extending the magic of the race just a little farther. I can't wait. And of course, I'll write all about it here at Bike Ride Rambles, so stay tuned! The racing may have ended, but the stories of this fantastic Tour are still being written...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Morning on the Harbor

Yesterday at 6:45 a.m., I was riding my bike through the morning mist.

An hour later these same scenes would simply be filled with bright sunshine.

It doesn't take long for Boston Harbor to shake off its mysterious, pre-dawn fog. But if you can catch those transitional moments when night turns to day, it really is a thing of beauty.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dead Ends, New Discoveries

I usually avoid dead end streets when bike riding...

But on yesterday's ride, I discovered one particular dead end that wasn't dead at all...

It simply led to something new...

...a stunning view of Boston Harbor's islands and bays.

Overhead, a wide-body jet began its seven-hour trip to Europe...

And off in the distance --although difficult to see with my limited 3X zoom lens -- Boston Light shined over the water...

If I were on that departing jet, I'd be wishing the lighthouse a silent "goodbye for now". Flying in and out of Logan Airport, Boston's lighthouses are the last bits of home we see as we leave, and the first things to welcome us back on our return.

This particular dead end was at the bottom of an intensely steep hill -- one of the reasons I had avoided it in the past. But as I shifted my bike into its lowest gear and began pedalling my way back up to the main road...

... I decided I'd misjudged dead-ends. In fact, let's look again at that photo I put at the very top of this post. If you were to pull back a bit to get a wider perspective ...

... you would see that there's a good chance an extraordinary view lies at the conclusion of that dead end as well.

Something to look forward to ... another day, another ride.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Smooth Riding with Le Tour

First a photo from this morning's unseasonably chilly ride (49 degrees at 6:00 am)...

Since I've been watching the Tour de France every day on the Versus channel, you might think it's inspired me to take longer, more epic rides. But actually it's done the opposite. For the past week I've found myself enjoying short, fast, steady loops around familiar roads ... all while having those wonderful images from the TdF in my mind.

That's because the length of the Tour de France is only one aspect of the race. If you watch the TdF for any extended amount of time, you begin to realize just how relaxed those riders are. Sure, they'll turn on the power when they attack out of the peloton or sprint to the finish line. But for much of each day, TdF racers simply ride with a smooth cadence ... fast, but even-tempered.

Look at Lance Armstrong in the opening Time Trial in Monaco, for instance. There's so much power in his ride, but he looks almost serene on the bike. He's totally concentrated on the task at hand, his knees rising and falling over the pedals like little machines. It's a perfect picture of steadiness.

That course through Monaco reminds me of my own morning ride; steadily rising up to hills in the middle, then flat at the end, rising and falling away from the sea. Okay, I know ... Boston's South Shore isn't quite the same as Monaco's Mediterranean coast. But a road is a road, and a bike is a bike -- it's still a shared experience in my book! By taking shorter rides over roads I know well, I too can relax and simply enjoy the quick turn of my pedals, the wind in my ears, and the road speeding away beneath my tires.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Lighthouse by the Sea

When you live close to the sea, there are always places nearby that are simply out there. Harbor islands, lighthouses, rock ledges -- they all lie just beyond the ends of roads, mysterious and inaccessible...

The South Shore section of Boston Harbor has been my bike riding territory for years now. So I figured I'd found all the ocean views my little corner of the harbor had to offer.

But this past Sunday, I was proven wonderfully wrong.

The sun was shining brightly that afternoon. Beaches were packed with sunbathers and the harborside restaurants overflowed with diners. I rode my bike out beyond the beach onto a causeway that leads deep into Boston Harbor, past delightfully crooked power lines that light up the houses at the far end.

I never really noticed these lines before. But during a recent visit to my parent's house, I happened to show my father an earlier photo I took of this same scene, and the first thing he said was, "wow, I really like those crooked power lines!" Ever since, I've ridden past them with a newfound appreciation.

As I rode by the electrical lines, Boston's shimmering skyline came into view on my left, as well as the eerie-looking tower I describe in my June 16 post ...

In this photo from an earlier ride, you can also see an airliner making a final approach into Logan International Airport. As it descends, ILS and VOR radio signals create a path as solid as the road on which I bicycle. But the path itself is completely invisible, just like the buoy-guided navigational lines that allow ships to pass safely into the harbor. Non-captains among us can only look at it all in awe.

Near the end of this causeway is a big mound of glacial till called Squantum -- a very pleasant area of quiet homes and quaint gardens nearly surrounded by water. It extends off to the right side of the road, while straight ahead the causeway continues up a small hill...

It's quite a steep little incline actually, almost forcing me to shift my front derailleur into the small chainring. But fortunately I was riding with an awesome tailwind, and it propelled me up over the top.

The road continues on for another 500 feet or so, along a high plateau. Small houses line the right side, and on the left is a thick grove of trees, and then an American Legion lodge with a parking lot beside it. In the past, I simply used this lot to turn around ... because if you keep riding straight on the road, you run into a very solid, well-guarded gate.

Now if you're like me, there's only one way to react to a high-security gate barring an otherwise benign looking road -- figure out what's on the other side! In this case the answer lay no farther than a local Boston map and Wikipedia.

Through my reading, I learned that beyond the gate the causeway continues out to Moon Island and Long Island, which are connected to each other by a long, extremely rusty and rickety old bridge (I passed beneath it once on a ferry -- very creepy). Today these islands house a police firing range, firefighting training facility, a red-checkered water tower used as a FAA navigational tool, and a large homeless shelter with its own working organic farm. They all sit among ruins of an old NIKE missile facility, cemeteries, a fort with parade grounds, and countless ghosts from an incredibly long and diverse history.

But there's something else out there too.

On the very end of Long Island ... known to very few people on shore ... sits a quiet, little lighthouse.

No one talks about it much. It's officially called Long Island Head Light, and in photos it's small and unassuming. Compared to the regal Boston Light, the dark and always-frowning Graves Light, or the tough wave-battered Minot Ledge Light, it appears a bit naive and thoughtful, tucked away in its quiet little inner-harbor cove.

But for me, Long Island Head Light always had one very romantic distinction .... it's only visible from the water! The larger lighthouses may be powerful enough to shine their lights over both the mainland and the ocean, but tiny Long Island Head Light belongs exclusively to the sea.

Except -- as I was soon to discover -- in one very special place.

...because on this Sunday afternoon, I didn't just turn around in the parking lot by the gate. I rode to outer edge of the lot and onto a field that's easy to miss from the main road. I got off my bike and walked toward to the far end of the field .... and as I did, little-by-little, a new view of the harbor emerged....

There to my right was the place the causeway extended out beyond the gate, leading to Moon Island...

and then there was Moon Island itself...

The old bridge connecting Moon and Long Islands was completely blocked by the high hill of Moon Island. But Long Island was still clear in the distance, checkered water tower and all...

And then I saw it, there ... a little white speck at the far end of Long Island. My camera's 3X optical zoom barely captured it, so I switched into the grainier digital zoom mode, and slowly its shape began to emerge from the trees...

Long Island Head Light.

I stayed in the field taking photos for a number of minutes, and after a while I was joined by another bicyclist and some folks setting up a picnic. "What a beautiful day!" we all said to each other. It certainly was.

When I finally rode off, I knew I would be returning here many times this summer -- to once again look out there, across the water, at the little lighthouse by the sea.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Here Comes the Sun

What a difference a day makes...

The sun finally came back to Boston on this July 4th morning.

It shined brightly on the bay...

...and colored the seascape with vivid rays and cool shadows.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Short Ride on a Foggy Morning

I took a short bike ride this morning, having just returned to Boston after spending time with my parents and grandmother in North Carolina. Being away from cycling for about a week, I thought it best to ease my way back into it. Quite a foggy ride it was too, as you'll see from my photos below.

It was wonderful being with family back home in NC ... although this wasn't the easiest of visits. I was primarily there to help move my grandmother into a nursing home. She's a very strong person, even in her early 90's -- so I think she'll eventually carve out a place for herself there. But it will take some time.

Here are a few photos from my morning ride, out to the bay and back...

Beautiful ... the way the mist hangs over the boats. Depending on the weather, I'll probaly squeeze in an early morning ride tomorrow morning as well, then walk over to Dunkin Donuts for some coffee and prepare to watch the opening stage of the Tour de France!

Beginner's Guide to the Tour de France

Just one more day till the Tour de France! I can't wait!

The official Tour de France website is great this year. Be sure to click "show the video" under the route map, and then check out the stage-by-stage section. The "details" tab beside each stage gives you a route map, photos, and facts about the towns along the way. You can also pick up the official guide published by VeloNews at your local bookstore.

What an incredible route this year, beginning with a time trial in Monaco! I'm so looking forward to that tomorrow. And the Tour ends with a phenomenal penultimate stage ... a mountaintop finish on one of the most feared and legendary mountains of them all: the ghostly Mount Ventoux. In between, we get to watch the race weave its way to Barcelona, climb up and over the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees, and swing into Switzerland before tackling the Alps.

If you're new to the Tour, here's a little advice: you don't need to understand it all to enjoy it. Just dive right in, experience the wonderful scenery and colors of the Tour, and little by little the mechanics of the race will make sense. But in case it helps, here are some basics....

The Teams

Pro bicycling is a team sport. Each team is named after its principal sponsor, and one or two riders are generally chosen as the team leaders (although this can change during the course of the tour, leading to some interesting intra-team rivalries). The other team members assist the leaders through the physics of "drafting". Team leaders "draft" off their teammates by riding inches away from their back wheels. The wake of the rider in front forms a slight area of low pressure and wind that carries the rider behind along, enabling him or her to use up to about 30% less energy (check out the excellent Science of Cycling article). Team members also gather in front of their leader to form barriers against the wind, and they'll drop back to their team cars to grab bottles of water.

For much of the race, the majority of riders gather together in a huge group called the peloton. This is a place of relative safety where the riders draft off each other to help them get through each stage. Throughout the stage, riders will try breaking away from the peloton ... and if they can last to the finish line, great! That's a real achievement, because the peloton has a lot of power to swallow up intrepid riders. There's nothing more thrilling than a lone rider just a few kilometers from the finish, giving all he's got to fend off the ominous shadow of the peloton looming behind him.

The Stages

The tour is divided into 21 "stages". At the end of every day, the rider who comes in first is the "stage winner". Most riders have little hope of winning the entire tour, so winning a stage is one of the greatest moments in their careers. Stages can be flat -- favoring the sprinters, or mountainous -- favoring the climbers.

In most stages, the riders start off in a big bunch, and they ride bikes that look very much like those you can buy at your local bike shop (albeit a lot more expensive!). But each year, two or three stages are designated as "time trials". In these, the riders leave the starting gate one at a time and race against the clock. They are allowed to wear very wacky looking helmets and ride even wackier looking bikes ... all to increase their aerodynamics. For one day alone, there is a "team time trial" stage where entire teams leave the start line together. This is a thing of beauty! Through a carefully choreographed ballet of drafting, each team courses through the streets as one graceful, aerodynamic entity.

The Jerseys

Tour leaders are awarded different colored jerseys to wear during the race. The grandest jersey of them all is the Yellow Jersey, awarded to the rider with the best overall time so far (a.k.a. the General Classification time). If you're still wearing yellow by the end of Stage 21 in Paris ... congratulations! ... you've just won the Tour de France. Pretty simple, huh?

But there are other jerseys too. The Green Jersey is given to the best sprinter of the tour. "Sprints" are pre-designated sections of the flat stages. The rider with the best times during these sections wins the green jersey. Riders who are known as sprinters aren't out to win the entire tour. They specialize in short boosts of energy, and they'll very happily drop to the back of the pack during the mountain stages (where sprinters and worn-out riders group together in a mini-peloton of shared misery called Le Autobus). Similarly, riders looking to win the yellow jersey don't waste their energy on sprints. They'll gladly leave the green jersey for other riders to enjoy.

My favorite jersey is the Polka-Dot Jersey. This is awarded to the rider with the best time over the mountains. Each mountain is rated for difficulty from Category 1 to 4 (1 being the most difficult). But .... and this is so wonderfully French ... there are a few climbs that are so grueling, so positively horrible, that they are labeled Hors Catagorie, or "beyond classification". Mt. Ventoux is one such monstrosity.

And there you have it! All the rest I'll leave for you to discover. You can catch the Tour on the Versus Channel everyday. They have two of the best commentators in all of sports: Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen (see my April 11 post). "Phil and Paul" usually do the morning live coverage, and they're supplemented by other commentators during the evening's "Expanded Primetime Coverage" (like Bob Roll, also great). So we'll see what Versus plans for this year, but they usually do an excellent job. You can see the complete schedule here.

Enjoy Le Tour!