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Botanical Mountain Biking

Throughout the period of the lockdown, from the strict beginnings, to the more relaxed regimes now (early August), we have been fortunate here in the Netherlands, that we have been allowed out to exercise the whole time. After a day sitting at my desk in my home office I have certainly been ready to get out on my bike, so that means that most days I have been out appreciating the woods nearby. In order to add a bit of extra interest, I have tried to take a photo of a different plant in flower each evening. I have been at it several months and so far not running out of flowers. Here are a few examples.

Viola oderata is known in Dutch as March Violet and indeed this photo was taken back in March. That time of the year, one of the joys of being out on your bike is seeing all the fresh spring flowers coming out one after the other.

Viola oderata

On the dry sandy grounds around here, there are not a lot of rare plant species, but one which is quite special is Maianthemum bifolium. In the UK, where I grew up, it is incredibly rare, only being found in a very few places. I still remember the excitement of seeing it for the first time, growing on the Veluwe. In the Netherlands, it is on the edge of its distribution; further to the West it becomes more common.

Maianthemum bifolium

 Some wild flowers are as spectacular as the garden varieties. The native Iris, Iris pseudacorus, grows with its feet in water and it is every bit as beautiful and elegant as a tropical orchid. 

Iris pseudacorus

A lot of wild plants look quite unassuming until you take a close look. Not always so easy to do if you are whisking by at high speed on your mountain bike, or even if you trundle by at the speed I usually go at. That means that it is easy to think that there are not so many different species around, as they can look the same at first glance. These two Rumex species (sanguineum on the left and obtusifolius on the right) look much the same from a distance, but their fruits look entirely different in close-up. However, mountain bikers really need to know what Rumex obtusifolius looks like, because it is the one which you can rub on a nettle sting. When I was a student, my lecturer in organic chemistry told me that he had isolated a chemical which he called rumexin from their leaves, and discovered that it is in fact a mild local anaesthetic.

Rumex sanguinea & obtusifolius

Another group of plants which bears closer inspection is the mosses. After it has rained, which brings out their lovely fresh greens, they can look wonderful carpeting the forest floor, but if you look closer, then they can also be fascinating. The one below is called Rhitidiadelphus squarrosus, in Dutch hook moss ('haakmos') because of the form of its shoot tips.

Rhitidiadelphus squarrosus

Plants are a part of the landscape and help form that landscape. Which plants grow in any given place is determined by all sorts of factors, and that changes with time. The grass that you see dominating the landscape below, Molinia caerulea, has become much more abundant round here than in the past. The intensive agriculture and other sources of pollution has led to a lot of nitrogen pollution in the air and rain, and that acts as a fertilizer. Grasses respond to that by growing more vigorously and other plants like heather not only don't grow better, but also can be more susceptible to pests and diseases. Unfortunately, knowledge of those processes can spoil your appreciation of what would otherwise be just a beautiful wild landscape.

But that isn't always the case. Sometimes knowledge of the ecology helps appreciation of what you see. Melumpyrum pratense is flowering along the edges of the paths in the woods at the moment. It is a hemiparasite, which means that it depends on part on other plants for its sustenance. In the books it says that this can be a variety of different plants, but in practice, if you see it flowering, I guarantee that if you look up, you will see the canopy of an oak tree above it. The Melumpyrum depends on the oak and (I guess) it is small enough that it won't do the oak any harm. A nice example of the interdependence of all life.

Nijmegen Red Route Renewed

 

The red route by Nijmegen has been renewed over the winter, so last weekend I took myself off in that direction to see what it was like. The starting point in Berg en Dal is not so far from Wageningen, so I thought I would cycle from home and then just do the red route. That was all very well, but unfortunately when I asked the cycling route planner for the best way to go from my 'current location' to the start, my computer took it into its head that I was currently in Oosterbeek. Oosterbeek is about half an hour cycling from Wageningen, so that meant I ended up cycling an hour longer than planned. Fortunately it was beautiful weather so that wasn't such a problem.

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Anyway, it was definitely worth it. The old route was one that I always enjoyed cycling, but it had been much more improved. The beautiful woodland and spectacular views (above) are still there. It has more up and down (it certainly felt like more than the 350m registered) and much more twisty and fun. Definitely hard work. It was quite busy, with a lot of mountain bikers. I had read various horror stories about large numbers of people without proper cycling clothing (not such a problem) and without helmets (big problem) and with too little skills and experience for the track (also not so handy). Apparently the lockdown had prompted some people to try mountain biking for the first time, seeing alternative forms of recreation like shopping have been restricted. Something to be applauded of course, but not without helmets. Perhaps that was more of a problem a few weeks ago, because last weekend although there were definitely some beginners (which I was happy with, at least I wasn't the slowest person on the trail), they all had helmets and were taking things reasonably cautiously.
Bottom line, they've made a good route better and I definitely want to see what the Green (Groesbeek) Route looks like now.

Above: Personalized return route (see the street name)

Mountain biking in the time of Corona Part 2

Normally I cycle into work, but seeing we're all working from home, that's not happening any more. Fortunately we are still allowed out on our bikes here, so long as we keep 1.5 m from anyone else and only with your own household or alone. So every day I have been out on my bike a bit, but sticking to cycle paths, not off-road. The photos below are one from each day of last week.

This week we have had amazing weather, with blue skies and cold nights. Here you can see how the light brings out the shapes of this avenue of beech trees.

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Spring is definitely on the way. This Coltsfoot flower is always a sure sign that winter has come to and end and is a joy to see. It looks superficially like a dandelion but the scales running up its flower-stalk are quite distinctive.

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I have discovered that a good time to go out for my exercise is early evening, when many people are still eating or putting the children to bed. That has also meant seeing some spectacular sunsets in the last few days. Note the complete absence of aircraft vapour trails! Going at that time also has the advantage that it is deserted everywhere. Although everyone does their best to cycle at the opposite edge of the cycle path when you meet them, it is still easier if that isn't necessary.

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The Binnenveld is an area to the west of Wageningen which has recently had a large area converted from farmland to nature reserves. Last week the water levels were high and it was full of all sorts of wading birds, especially oystercatchers and lapwings (or peewits as we used to call them). However, after a week of no rain at all it is all drying out and the waders were mostly gone. This small lake (or large pond) still had plenty of birds though.

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The photo below was taken in the middle of the day on what is usually a reasonably busy road. Not a car or bike to be seen!

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Today it is Saturday and there was time to go mountain biking for a few hours rather than just a quick ride on the road as it got dark. Aside from not transmitting deadly diseases to your club-mates, mountain biking by yourself has a couple of other advantages. Firstly, you can take a flask of coffee to drink on the way. And secondly, you see a lot more wildlife. In addition to the cowslips below, this morning I saw a couple of storks (really close and not bothered by me), a hare and all sorts of other birds.

This evening the clocks go forward and it will be lighter in the evening. Unless there is a tightening of the regulations, cycling off-road in the evenings should then be possible!

Mountain biking in the time of Corona

Larix

My goodness, it was busy in the woods on the Utrechtse Heuvelrug yesterday. I thought I must be going (even) slower than usual by the number of people passing me, but then I stopped for a break and saw that there were just a lot more people mountain biking than usual. It was a bit like taking part in an organized tour.  I must say, everyone was doing their best to keep the required 1.5 meters distance from each other; no one tried to push their way past on narrow paths and when people stopped, they formed little groups away from each other. The only thing is that at the car park I did see various groups getting in and out of cars and I wondered if they were really all in the same household.

I was cycling alone because our club has cancelled all activities. I am happy that so far, here in the Netherlands we are not (or not yet) in total lockdown and still able to get out on our bikes so long as we keep 1.5m distance from each other. It makes you wonder how long that will continue though. In Spain, they said that one of the reasons that cycling is banned is that if cyclists have an accident then that is an extra strain on emergency and health services. That is certainly something to bear in mind, and perhaps a good idea of take a few less risks (resist trying to jump over that log which is maybe just too high) and not going too far from road (ambulance) access (the Veluwe being one of the few areas of the Netherlands where that is actually possible). If you do go cycling on your own, an app like Beacon is a good way for your family to see where you are. Google Maps location sharing is often inaccurate when you're not in a city. 

Cycling and mountain biking keeps you fit, boosts your immune system, helps you make vitamin D (critical for your immune system) and increases your lung capacity.

Flooding

Flooded heathland

This peaceful lake isn't a lake at all, but a patch of heathland and grassland which had flooded. We have had so much rain in the last week, indeed the whole month, that everything is incredibly sodden. Despite the sandy ground, the water just could not get away fast enough. We made a detour around the 'lake', following a thin animal track through the woods until we came back onto a normal track and skirted around the edge of the water. The normally dry path was crossed with small streams, which looked innocent enough until my companion crossed one and discovered that it was much deeper than it looked, and he got completely soaked up to his middle. Unfortunately for him, but conveniently for me, at that point we decided that the flooding made it impossible to go on, so he had no choice but to come back through the water for a second time. From that point on, we were much more wary, skirting around the outside of the scary looking puddles, but after a while we were off the sand and onto soils with much more clay and loam, and then it was just incredibly muddy. A couple of weeks ago my nice chunky winter back tyre had given up the ghost, and I had replaced it with one which was a bit faster but no match for these conditions, so from time to time my wheels literally just spun round and I had no option but to get off and walk a few metes until I was on something approaching dry land again. It was hard work and when we approached Wageningen with the option of an extra loop or not, my shoulders, aching from trying to steer though all that liquid mud, definitely prompted me to head for home. 

Muddy bike

 

Winter Trees

This photo was taken on the Amerongen section of the Heuvelrug trails. It was actually quite spring-like with blue skies and mild weather, but that's not anything that a bit of high contrast black and white couldn't fix