After the drought

We have had virtually no rain for weeks, even months now, and all the tracks in the forest have gradually turned to dust.  There is a lot of sandy forest around here and especially in the more open areas with little organic matter in the soil, it has been like trying to cycle through a sand pit at times. Large sections of the official routes on the Heuvelrug to the west of Wageningen have been closed and on the sections still open it was often a case of either walking or having to be quite cautious going downhill. The trees and shrubs were looking quite sad with wilting leaves and quite a few large branches just falling off.

But this week it all changed. We had some thunderstorms with significant amounts of rain, and they went on for long enough that it soaked into the ground rather than just running off. The dusty sand turned back into a surface with a decent grip and the temperatures are pleasantly warm rather than enervatingly hot. Most amazing of all, the dead plants have largely sprung back to life. I had expected that of the grasses, after all they are well-known for that, but the bracken fern went from being brown and lifeless to green and verdant within a day.

Not everything has bounced back though. The heathers and bilberries (below) are still looking very poorly. Hopefully they will have enough energy in their roots to spring back next year. But I remember that after the Great Drought year of 1976 a lot of trees looked like they were going to survive and they just didn't come back the next spring, so I hope that's not going to happen this year. On the other hand, these big events are necessary for rejuvenation of the heathland and woodland and if we get more summers like this one then we will see a gradual shift in species to more heat-tolerant, Mediterranean types and those new species will need some open patches to germinate in. That's all very well for the heathland, but all that dry loose sand certainly doesn't make for good mountain biking. 


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Frame Breaker

Two adjacent districts in the North Eifel have pooled their resources to make 20 new mountain bike routes complete with signposting, leaflets and a website with downloadable tracks. The routes are in two groups, one for each district ('kreis' Düren and Euskirchen), and all the routes in each group are next to each other so that it is easy to combine them. There are a couple of 'difficult' black routes, a handful of 'easy' blue routes and the rest are moderately difficult red routes.

Freifahrt Eifel

Yesterday, I explored one of the black ones, route L, with the interesting name of 'rahmenbrecher' or frame-breaker. It is quite short, 28 km with 700 height-meters, but as I cycled to the start from Heimbach (and back) that added up to 66 km and over 1300 height meters.  This is a great route, highly recommended. Narrow singletracks perched along the edges of steep hillsides (encouraging accurate steering), grinding steep uphill toils which go on forever, and some wonderful flowing downhill singletrack through wildflower meadows and beautiful forest which you just did not want to stop. The landscape is also wonderful, with numerous great far-flung views.

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steep uphill

Wildflower meadow singletrack

The track was clearly signposted, not with the small signs near the ground that we are used to as mountain bikers, but with great big signs on metal posts that will be there for ever. Nevertheless, it is still a good idea to take the GPS track with you because there are a couple of places where the signs are missing (or perhaps overgrown) and otherwise it is not immediately obvious which way to go.

You can get the GPS tracks from the website, which unfortunately is not up to the standard of the trails. It does not load properly on a phone, the text misses some information (how much of the trail is on roads?) and the photographs do not do the trails justice. Some functionality is a little hidden; to see the gradients along the trail you have to first click the 'elevation profile' button, then point your cursor to the line of the profile, and then a box pops up on the map (not the profile) showing the gradient. It is nice that they offer translations in Dutch and English, but very unfortunate that the translations read like something done in an old verson of Google Translate, although given the number of typing mistakes it is clear that this is a human translation. Let's hope that this first version will be improved on.

Nevertheless, if the rest of the trails are anything like as good as 'Rhamenbrecher' then I am happy to put up with a few shortcomings in the online information.


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Dropper post

If you look very closely at the above photo, you can see a cable sticking out of the bottom of my saddle. A few months ago, I hired a bike with a dropper post and although the snow meant that the only trails I could go on didn't really benefit from a post and although I kept dropping the seat post instead of changing gear, I got an idea of how useful it could be. And then, a couple of weeks ago, I went cycling in the Eifel. There were enormous storms, with some of the paths turning into small rivers with much erosion, so that I spent a lot of time going slowly and carefully down the steeper hills. Neither hanging over the back of the saddle nor stopping to put it down and then up again every few minutes are ideal solutions for that situation. However, when I got back and started searching for possibilities, it was clear that there was a bit of a problem. The bike industry is rubbish when it comes to defining standards and sticking to them and one of the things that varies unnecessarily between manufacturers is the diameter of the saddle post.  Apparently, my three-year-old bike has an 'old fashioned' diameter and it turns out that most dropper post manufacturers don't make posts in its size.  My LBC also tried really hard to find something for me but without success, unless I was willing to pay a ridiculous price for the most expensive ones in existance. However, just when I was about to give up, I found an English shop that did have one that fitted, with good reviews and the right price. And what is more, I did not even have to indulge in dubious import practices with the help of English relatives, but they shipped to the Netherlands for me.

And so it was that yesterday I headed for the Posbank, a trail with some reasonable hills (but nothing really dramatic) and my new dropper post attached. Would it really be useful round here, or only with the 20-30% slopes of the Eifel? Indeed it was! On slopes of 10-15% with slippery loose sand, I could definitely go faster, more confidently and quite likely even safer down them, with my centre of gravity moved downwards, and I could hang just above the saddle without being so far up in the air that I felt like I was hovering over the handlebars. On the way back I also found an unexpected benefit.  There is a tunnel under the railway line, I think originally built for animals to get through, but now also in use by mountain bikers. I am always a little nervous of it as it is just a little lower than my head height, but if I bend my head down then my helmet obstructs my vision. Lowering the saddle a few centimetres turn out to be very handy in that situation too. 




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Polar V650 Review

Polar GPS cycling computers are not so well known as Garmin or other makes like Mio or Wahoo. Polar is best known for its heart rate monitors and indeed that is how I came across the V650.  My 10-year-old Garmin 60C was still working fine and is indestructibly built, but I had two problems with it.  One is that its old screen technology means that it is harder to see for those of us needing reading glasses than a modern one. The second is that I wanted to measure heart rate, and it could not. A top-model Garmin with heart rate monitor costs in excess of €550 so I started to look around to see what else was available. There are various options, but one that caught my eye was a V650 from Polar, which is a little over €200 including the heart rate monitor and in the end I went for that.  That was about a half year ago, so I've had some time to find out its good and bad points. 


Excellent value for money, but sometimes a bit inconvenient to use.V650

Heart rate monitoring

In the past few years, many smartwatches have come onto the market which measures heart rate using an optical sensor at the wrist. Last year I was part of a project with the University of Twente in which we validated those and in short, their data is not good. The wrist is an inherently poor place to put such a sensor and although on a road bike this might not be a big problem as the wrist stays quite still, bouncing around off road is going to give rubbish data. I don't know how good the optical sensors are which attach to the upper arm (I imagine they are not comfortable, though that is a guess), but when it comes to it, short of attaching ECG electrodes to yourself, the only option is to use a chest-strap. The one from Polar works perfectly; you can read the data from the V650 or a smartphone and with the latter, it is accurate enough to calculate heart rate variability, should you be interested in that (e.g. with Elite HRV). The battery level of the chest strap can be read in the Polar app, though oddly neither the V650 nor the app warns you when it gets low. It took about 5 months for me.

Polar flow

The heart rate data has various uses, but one very nice aspect of Polar's implementation is its calculation of your recovery status. Sof if you look at the graph below, you see that on Thursday 10th, I still had a considerable load from my trip the previous Sunday (the top two dotted lines are for ('strained' and 'very strained') and that it was not sensible to attempt an even longer ride. But it was Ascension Day (a holiday), so I went anyway and indeed was struggling by the end.  You see that clearly in the Polar Flow website (strangely, not in the Polar Flow app), where you can also see various other collected data about your cycling.  One thing that is a little frustrating is that there is a menu item on the Polar FLow site 'Programs' where you can make a training program, but that is entirely aimed at runners, not cyclists. You can connect your account to Strava, so that the data is automatically linked and also upload Strave Live segments (but that doesn't interest me).

Polar flow

GPS mapping

Another somewhat bizarre design decision from Polar is that when you want to follow a route on the map, you can only upload the tracks to your V650 by using the website.  To select the map area, you have to drag a square over a map of Europe on the V650. Then to upload a GPX file to your V650 you have to go to Polar Flow website, find the little star which means favourites, then upload the GPX (multiple times if the GPX contains multiple tracks, stupidly) and finally sync your V650 to get the maps and tracks.  I don't mind the maps so much, but I am waiting for the moment when I want to go mountain biking and don't have an internet connection to upload the tracks before I set off.

The maps are from Open Street Map and are excellent. The only concern I have is that sooner or later Polar will stop supporting this device and then I cannot update my maps any more.  On the other hand, they are still providing both maps and software updates years after the release, so that is good. An excellent feature of my old Garmin was that you could easily download maps yourself (see my Links page). Your current location is shown as a red circle, the route you have been as a blue line and the downloaded route as a red line. Several times the red blob has disappeared on my device, and I have had to restart it. Not what you want in the middle of a ride. A much bigger problem is that you cannot change the colour (or width) of the red line. Like 8% of men, I'm red-green colour blind and although most of the time it is not a problem, sometimes I really cannot see the difference between red lines on the map and other lines (paths and so on). If I had one tip for the next software upgrade, it would be to let me do this. The other serious omission is that you cannot show waypoints (points of interest, POI). Last week I was following the official routes on the Heuvelrug, and there is one point where I wanted to cut over from the Leersum track to the Amerongen track. Unfortunately, Polar make marking points like that impossible. Bizarre seeing that is such a standard function in every GPS device.

There is also a mode where you can follow tracks with turn-by-turn instructions, rather than just the line.  I am told that works well on the road. However, I've stopped using it off-road, as it is a bit hopeless. Often the starting point of the track is not where you start your ride. This seems to confuse it and I did not find any function to take me to the start. Then, if the GPS signal is not brilliant, it often thinks you are not on the track, so loses the routes. And very irritatingly, if your track is composed of several segments, each is a separate track, so you have to record separate tracks, which messes up your stats.  It is a shame it doesn't work better, because when it does know that it is on the track, there is a nice wide line, which does look different from other lines on the map.


Hardware and software

The V650 is well-built and seems to be very waterproof. A very nice feature is that it has an emergency white LED light built into the front, which you can set to go on automatically when it gets dark.  The screen is very clear in all lighting conditions. The only time I've had a problem was in the snow when the bring light from the snow darkened my glasses but the backlight did not turn on and it was cloudy so the direct light from above didn't illuminate the screen. I suspect that I could have fixed that by fiddling with the settings. The Bluetooth connects easily with the heart rate monitor, but I didn't succede in getting it to connect to my phone. In fact, I tried three different makes and with all three the pairing failed. On Polar's website, it says they only support a very limited range of phone makes.  Many modern GPS bike computers show phone notifications, which strikes me as useful, to save stopping and getting your phone out of your rucksack to see if it was anything important, but should Polar ever introduce that feature it will be useless for me seeing the Bluetooth connection doesn't work. Another feature that Garmin has and Polar doesn't is to use the GPS of the device to send your location to someone at home via your phone. However, apps like ViewRanger can also do this (not google's location sharing, that is often inaccurate) and I don't know how much the saving in phone battery from not using its GPS is counteracted by the drain on the battery from the Bluetooth.

The battery life is excellent, easily lasting all day.  The only time the battery has run out is in the shed. That is because of a bit a stupid design fault; the on/off button is precisely where you put your thumb when inserting the device into its holder on the handlebar.  So it is easy to accidentally turn it on, and if you don't notice for a couple of days, then it will be empty. That has happened twice to me now. Fortunately, it charges quickly. 

A nice feature is that the interface is very customizable; there is a very wide variety of data fields to choose from and lots of ways to display them. A recent software upgrade added a new one; incline. That used to be only available with a speed sensor on the bike as GPS is not accurate enough, but someone at Polar had the bright idea that using a running average of 100 samples or so (or at least that's what it looks like - this is an undocumented feature), means that the inaccuracies will be averaged out. That does mean that it only makes sense on a long hill with a fairly constant gradient, but that's still nice to have. It is nice that you can customize it to show two map pages, one for the whole route, the other zoomed in. Just a pity that it doesn't remember the zoom factor, so you have to do that every time.


On the whole this is a super device, with lots of plus points and a very good price, but it is a shame that it is let down by a few poor design points and bugs.





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Ten differences that two weeks make

Apparently, Face-Twits are more likely to click on a blog with  numbered lists for some unknown reason, so in honour of them, here is a list of differences between when I cycled the Montferland route (twice) two weeks and one day ago, and today.

1. Temperature
A couple of weeks ago, I made a mistake.  Because it had been quite nice the day before, I foolishly put on summer gloves. It was so cold! Not just the actual temperature, but the wind and rain meant that my hands were so cold that towards the end, I actually had difficulty changing gear as my thumbs wouldn't respond. In contrast, today it was 30 degrees, according to the thermometer in the car, which even if it was exaggerating, means that it was ridiculously hot for April.

2. Wind
There had been a storm the night before, even bringing down a large tree that some foresters were busy clearing as I went past. That also meant that there was quite a lot of wind whilst I cycled. According to the interesting website, all that wind was equivalent to 9 km extra cycling.  I doubt if that website knows how much of the route was sheltered inside the woods, but nevertheless, it was quite a fight at times.  By contrast, today the air was hardly moving.

3. Water
Not content with bringing the wrong gloves, I also made a much more serious mistake two weeks ago.  I did not take enough water.  That meant that it ran out about 3/4 the way along, and in turn that meant that shortly after that the hills all felt twice as steep and I was unbelievably exhausted at the end.  Today I made sure my rucksack's bladder was full to the brim and that I had an extra bottle as well. That made a huge difference, not only did I finish half an hour earlier (though the lack of wind may have helped there), but I still had some energy over at the end.

4. Spring.

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It is amazing what a difference just two weeks can make at this time of the year. Leaves everywhere. Birds in full song everywhere (and either lots of Green Woodpeckers or one that curiously followed me along the whole way). Butterflies everwhere (lots of Clouded Yellow).

5. Dust
It is amazing what a difference just two weeks can make. All the muddy goo has magically turned into dust. Some parts have had gravel added (apparently they not only remove fallen trees for the annual fee for using the trails). The dust does make it quite tricky in parts though, seeing how as dust is not the least slippery substance around. There are also several downhill stretches which have deep ruts running across them, meaning that the bike bounces up and down quite alarmingly, even to the extent of shaking my GPS loose at one stage, and then at the bottom of the downhill stretch, a big pile of dust.

6. Tyres
One other factor in addition to everything above which might help explain why I did it in half an hour faster this time was that I had changed my back tyre from a winter Nobby Nick to a summer Racing Ralph. It really does seem to make a difference.

7 - 10. Still thinking of those points. Here is a pretty photo instead (Stitchwort).


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The Peak District

This was a trip I had been looking forward to for a long time. I had to go over to Manchester for a meeting and the next day could just as easily fly back in the evening as the morning, giving me a bit over a half a day to go mountain biking in the Peak District. I had last been cycling there when I was a student in nearby Sheffield, way before mountain bikes were ever heard of, so had only been off-road there on foot. At the beginning of March it would not be so warm, but at least spring should be on the way.

My plans were almost scuppered when I discovered that my day there coincided with the day-off for the local bike hire shop. But fortunately James, of Bike Garage in Bamford was incredibly helpful and arranged for a bike to be delivered to my B&B even though he was closed. And indeed when I arrived on Wednesday evening my landlady (of Thornhill View B&B ; definitely recommended), told me that the bike was there, safely locked up in the garage. The next day I opened the blinds to discover that I could not see though the window. I stuck my head out of the door to discover that everything was white and that it was still snowing.

Thornhill view cottage

What to do?  Plan A was to cycle Kinder Scout via Jacob's Ladder and Plan B was to do a loop to the West of Ladybower. On the basis that Kinder Scout is popular, so there would be people around if anything went wrong, I headed off in that direction. The snow on the road was damp but not slippery and the main hindrance was that as passing vehicles moved around me, they splatted the damp snow and salt mix from the middle of the road into my face, which was not so pleasant. But as I made my way further uphill, along the side of Mam Tor there were soon more hikers and dog walkers than cars and in between the snow showers there were quite spectacular views.

Hope Valley

At the end of the road I turned off onto the track leading West towards Rushup Edge. The snow was deeper there, and there were no more footprints or paw prints to indicate the way. It was also getting more exposed with the wind gusting to speeds in which it was difficult to stand up in and then the cloud came down reducing visibility as well. It was clear that Kinder Scout would have to wait for another day. What now? Plan B was just as exposed, so that was no good. I remembered from my student days that there was an easy track around Ladybower Reservoir, so decided to head that way. Shooting down the road in that direction I realised that the bike I'd hired was not as slow as I thought, but in fact it had been quite a steady climb up to Mam Tor, and so going the other way I was back to my starting point and on towards the reservoir in no time. Fortunately the valley was sheltered from the strong winds (although apparently also from a mobile phone connection, which was less convenient) and there had also been enough snow on the road to make that track a little bit of a challenge in places. And the monochrome views were spectacular.


Bike Garage had rented me a great Trek Remedy full-suspension mountain bike, which certainly helped with the snow, although I was a bit disappointed not to get to try it out on the rougher ground it was designed for. My own bike is only a couple of years old, but this one had some features that have become common since then, showing the technology is still developing quite fast, despite the advanced state of mountain bikes these days. Firstly, it had a dropper post.  Of course, that is completely unnecessary in the relative flat countryside round Wageningen, but after even a couple of hours I could see just how useful it was in the hills. The only thing was that the lever to control it was exactly where one of the gear shifters is on my own bike, so I repeatedly 'changed gear' only to find the saddle sinking down instead. There was also a bit of rotational play in the seat post, which I read is normal, but nevertheless not really what you want. The lever for the dropper post could be where my gear lever is because the bike had the modern configuration of just one cog at the front and a large range at the back.  I can see that it is convenient not to have to shift on the front cogs because indeed there is always the chance of it jamming under load, i.e. just when you need it most when going up a steep hill.  But would the limited range be enough? As I sped down the road between Mam Tor and Ladybower I noticed that the top range indeed seemed a bit limited. However, that was just how it felt and when I got home and saw the gps data, I saw that in fact I was going faster than I can normally pedal, so in fact that reflected the speed of the bike more than a problem with the range. I was less convinced at the lower range, however. The slopes were not that steep, although the snow required a lower gear than normal, but even so I was surprised that occasionally I found myself in the lowest gear. I would need to try it out in more normal conditions, but I must confess I was a bit sceptical.

Trek Remedy

Despite resorting to Plan C, I got back to the B&B at more or less the time planned.  Time enough to get a shower, cup of tea and get to the station. Unfortunately having got there, it became apparent after a bit that Northern railways had cancelled the train (although there was no announcement). The station was unstaffed, but there was a button to press for help and they promised to send a taxi instead. That would have been great service, but unfortunately they sent the taxi to Stockport, 50 km away. By the time that was sorted and I finally got to the airport many hours later, it was ten minutes after the gate closed, so there was no option to stay another night nearby. Plan D.

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