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.


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. 




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. [Note, this seems to be improved with the 2019 map update]. 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.