Last week I had to go to Lisbon for work, and luckily enough if I took a flight back in the evening, there was time to fit in a mountain bike ride before coming home. I searched on internet, first for the best places near to Lisbon (Sintra, 1/2 hour by train to the West came up) and then for bike hiring possibilities. I found, but apparently their rented bikes always come with a guide, which wasn't really what I was looking for. On the other hand, they also advertised a shuttle service to the airport, which from the experiences I've had of that going wrong (or almost so) after trying to fit in as much cycling as possible before getting a train to the airport, sounded like a Good Idea.

Near Malveira da Serra
(c) Luis Lopes

If you have ever visited Lisbon, you will know that large parts of it are ridiculously steep, with roads that are hard work walking up, let alone for cycling, so I was a little nervous of just how bad it was going to be in the nearby hills of Sintra. That is of course the real benefit of going with a local guide, they know all the best trails and can adjust the route to the skills and fitness of the riders. That was indeed the case, my guide Luis found me the most brilliant trails to cycle along. That is not to say that they were easy, there are no trails there without steep bits. We had some serious inclines (18-20% maximum) and even steeper downhill bits. However, that was not the challenging aspect of the ride. Especially in the first half of the ride, the sand was quite slippery, and oddly enough in a quite different way from the sandy forest here. That meant that I was really struggling in some parts and annoyingly frequently had to get off and walk short technical stretches. That was quite frustrating as I had the idea that if only I could ride those trails a few times (and perhaps with different tyres) then it would have been ok. There were other technical patches which I didn't feel so bad about stopping for, especially the bridges made out of damp slippery logs at an angle and with scary drops next to them. Needless to say, my guide Luis not only sailed up the hills without even getting slightly out of breath but bounded over all the technical bits like he went that way on a frequent basis. Maybe there was a reason for that. More to the point, he did a super job of warning me about difficult bits coming up and showed great patience with my slow and cautious style.


Although I wished I had some more skills when it came to the technical sections, when it came to the landscape, it could not have been better. Beautiful forests bathed in glorious sunlight, completely stuning views from the top and stupendous waves crashing against the cliffs by the sea. Even the areas which had been damaged by the fires earlier this year were interesting to see with Colchicum flowers (C. lusitanum, I suppose) and fresh bright green shoots of bracken fern poking up through the ash. The top of the hill had old chapel buildings, some parts of which went back to the 12th century. Another advantage of a having a guide, who can tell you about those things.


I would love to learn how to ride that landscape a bit better. A few days practicing round there would be nice. But for now I'm just hoping that another meeting will come up in Lisbon someday so that I can repeat the expereince again. That would be great.

For a few more photos, see my flikr album.




New Ede MTB route

MTB Zuid-Veluwe are busy making new mountain biking routes near us.  The routes close to Ede, Otterlo, Lunteren and Renkum are being upgraded and joined so that in the end there will be over 80 kms of track all in one route. Some of the track to the East of the Ginkelse Heide have been completed and are now open, with arrows showing the way and everything. Yesterday, we went and took a look at what it is like.


In short, it was great! The old rather straight and boring route (shown in yellow-green below) has been replaced by a sinuous path that has transformed a flat landscape into a continuous series of steep ups and downs, demanding quite some concentration to get the steering, gears and pedalling just right. 

MTB Ede route

If you don't recognise that bit of track, you can see where it is from the GPX file. Right-click to download, and then view with one of the programmes or websites on the Links page.

Apparently, the trail builders are stil looking for more volunteers. If you are interested, contact them on the MTB Zuid-Veluwe Facebook page. I hear that our club might help out one day as well, so I'm looking forward to that! 



What a brilliant tour! Only 45 km, but it felt like far more. To start with, the weather this year was incredible. We set off in the cold, only ten degrees, and that meant that there was a faint mist about. So with the sunbeams shining through the trees, there were incredibly beautiful 'special effects' and at times it was a job to keep my eyes on the trail and not gaze too much at the scenery. Then it warmed up and it was over 20 degrees by the time we had finished. But keeping our eyes on the trail was definitely necessary. The organisers had done an incredible job in setting the trail out, making the most of every possible twist and turn that could be made.  Especially in the first half, there was section after section where the steering was highly technical, 180 degree turns, narrow passages through a gap between two trees that required a bit of a wiggle of handlebars to get them through and slippery piles of loose sand on the corners to keep us on our toes. In the second half, we moved onto the Goudsberg ('golden mountain') itself. That features some very steep-sided cliffs, which although not very high are quite tricky because of the loose sand which means it is very difficult to get up them, Many people were walking the steepest bits, ourselves included. Finally, we found ourselves coming back to the start point, a last bit of twisty woodland, and then across the fields back to the village of Wekerom. Today's tour was really a showpiece for the Veluwe!




Six months ago it would have been impossible. But since then I've cycled a little further each week until the last few weeks I was regularly cycling over 100 km offroad and for 7 hours, hoping to kid my body that this was somehow normal.  But would it be enough?  No matter how much training I did, the 2000 height meters of the Vulkan Bike marathon was not something I could prepare for in the gentle slopes round here.

I had never cycled a marathon before (nor any other kind of cycle race, come to that), so wondered how different that would be. Would there be much jostling for position and competitiveness? Perhaps at the front, but not where I was. Everyone was a friendly and polite as usual, calling out to let you know which side they would pass you on and not trying to do that on narrow singletracks. What made a huge difference for me was the time limit. We had 6 and a half hours to cycle 85 km and 2000 height meters, which really meant that I had to cycle faster than I wanted to. Especially in the first two hours, my heart rate was close to maximum the entire time and barely dropped in the downhill stretches, because also there it was necessary to keep going as fast as possible. The landscape of the Volcanic Eifel was fantastic, so it was a shame that a lot of the time I was so busy focussing on my cycling that I couldn't appreciate it as much as normal.

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The event was fantastically organised. It was interesting to see how it was different from our own tours. The first thing was that instead of our system of plastic arrows, carefully removed after every event, they just painted big arrows and other markings on the road or grass. That worked well, was very clear and probably much less work. But I don't think leaving paint behind in the woods and public roads would be tolerated here. The public roads in the villages we went through were mostly closed to traffic, which was a nice luxury, and what was amazing was that every one to two kilometres there were some first-aiders, usually sitting next to the fire engine from their village, and in their volunteer firefighter uniforms. I did not see any accidents (though a large number of punctures), but given the rockiness of the paths and the speed with which we hurtled down then, it was good to know that help was near at hand if necessary. Quite a lot of the firefighters also were cheering us on, sometimes just with clapping, but also with football rattles, cowbells (!) and at a couple of places large sound systems playing loud rock music to keep us going.

The first half I managed to keep up a good pace and even began to dream that I might make it with a good margin. However, by the time we got to the last giant mountain, I was slowing right down and my average speed was gradually dropping. Nevertheless, I knew that the last stretch was a fast section along an old railway line and so even if my average was below what it needed to be, there was still a chance.  Indeed, I was able to speed along that bit, pushing myself to use the last drops of energy I had over and in the end I crawled over the finish with only 13 minutes to go before it closed. 

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 Although that meant that I was one of the last to finish, I later saw that 90% of the other participants were younger than me and 20% did not finish in time (though I'm not sure if that includes those who didn't start). One of my motivations for doing that this year was that I had the feeling that now was the time to do this. If I waited a couple of years then maybe it would be too late. It looks like that was a good judgement. And now everyone keeps asking me about next year.  I don't know. A few days ago the idea filled me with horror, but now that I'm recovering a bit...

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. 


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.