I’m not upset about anything this time ….

For the 4th time this year I’m heading overseas, this time for work and I’ll more than likely be back in Melbourne by the time that both of you who read my blog get around to this post.

I don’t have much to say that’s profound, earth shattering or informative today (do I ever?), I haven’t met anyone interesting in the lounge, and I’m hoping the seat next to me is empty. No, not for the extra space, but for the quiet. For me, an ideal flight is one where I sit down, nod hello to my seat-mate and don’t say another word to them until we’ve landed. Not a big fan of chatting with random strangers – unless I’ve got an escape route.

OK, the mystery & glamour that existed for the Jet Set might have vanished long before the arrival of low cost airlines and taking your shoes & belt off for the security screening, but there is something wonderful about air travel.

And the food is a lot better than it used to be.

Bon voyage!

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My $0.02 on that drug guy. And by the way, I’m conflicted.

Like lots of people, I’ve always been fairly sure he was doing something he shouldn’t, but certainly wasn’t the only one in that era (it’s a VERY long list). Regardless of who was on what, he was always exciting to watch, and to support.

I’ve worn a LiveStrong wristband for something like 10 years. I’ve just taken it off, cut it up and chucked it in the bin. I don’t mind being a fan of someone that might be a drug cheat (we’re all innocent until proven guilty), but I’m no fan of someone who is a cheat.

The podiums – and most of the top 10 places – of all 7 TdFs he won are littered with drug cheats, names like Ullrich, Pantani, Zulle and Basso .. The list goes on & on.

They should just put an asterix next to his name in the record books and be done with it. I doubt the guys that came second wanted to win that way (I doubt Schleck is all that proud of the 2nd place that turned into a first thanks to Wee Bert & his steak sandwich), and finding someone 110% clean isn’t going to be easy.

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I’m really pissed off ….

We all have dreams, and as someone who spends a lot of time on his bike, a few of mine involve cycling …. there’s always the hope that a week before a grand tour (I’m not fussy, even the Vuelta would be fine) I’ll get a call from Dave Brailsford at Team Sky to say “Wiggo is injured, Froome has a stomach bug, are you available? we need a new road  captain”; the other is that I wake up Wednesday week and Melbourne has become Amsterdam, with real cycling infrastructure, separated bike lanes, and 25% or more of trips being done on bikes.

And I know that neither are going to happen, but they’re my dreams and I’m allowed to have them. But I shouldn’t have to dream about the motorists of Melbourne LEARNING the EXISTING road laws.

The law clearly states you can ride two abreast, provided you’re not more than 1.5m apart. It ISN’T illegal. And I’m sick of being abused by motorists who think they know better. There was the woman who SCREAMED at me about “disrespecting the traffic” because we were rising two abreast, and yesterday morning – the reason for this post – not once but twice we were blasted by car horns; the second time, he wanted to argue about it.

If I do something wrong, I’m entitled to be called out about it, (possibly) yelled at, and if it’s something really serious the good folks at Victoria Police might need to get involved. But if all I’ve done is obey the law, LEAVE ME ALONE YOU GRUMPY BASTARD. It’s not my fault you’re running late for a job you hate. That YOU’VE DECIDED cyclists should ride single file so it doesn’t slow you down doesn’t make it law

What can I, as a citizen cyclist, do to help educate the poor uninformed motorists of Melbourne? I was going to print the page from the VicRoads website, carry it in my back pocket so I’d be able to show it to the next ignorant fool who toots at me. Except a) that relies on them being prepared to stop and read it (they’re already pissed off that I’ve “held them up”); b) it doesn’t help anyone other than me (unless we all start carrying copies).

So, I need to do something a little more global.

My first post of call was Bicycle Network Victoria. They explained that the further you get from the centre of the city, the more this problem exists. Their theory, which seems to hold water, is that there are less bikes on the road in the outer suburbs so motorists are less used to seeing them, and much less tolerant than in the inner city.

BV have suggested a letter writing campaign, to get Victoria Police to put some effort into educating the public – I’m not asking for the laws to be changed (not yet, that’s for down the track), just that more people understand what the existing laws are.

So, do you ride a bike in Victoria? Please write to:

Assistant Commissioner for Road Policing
Victoria Police
G.P.O Box 913
, Melbourne, VIC, 3001

Be nice, be polite, but ask that they put some effort and funding into educating motorists on the existing road laws regarding cyclists, and that people know it’s OK for cyclists to ride two abreast. I don’t know if this is the best way to tackle the problem (got a better idea, let me know) but it’s a start!

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Slightly weird night out in Bangkok, with a bit of #watchnerd fun

You tend to see odd things on holiday …. perhaps they’re not odd for the locals, but they sort of make you look twice and scratch your head: like the gent I saw at Frankfurt airport: in his 40’s wearing a nice business shirt & lederhosen, without a trace of irony.

Sarah wanted to buy some t-shirts and bits & pieces for the kids last night – we’re almost home, so have to make sure we stock up on kid friendly things for our return – so we headed for Patpong. I won’t trouble you with a long winded description of the sights (touts for girly bars) and smells (most amazing, a few eye wateringly bad) … But first up on the list was something to eat.

It was a Thai religious holiday yesterday, and alcohol couldn’t be served. (NB: check the calendar before traveling!) Unless it was in a paper milkshake cup. And as if by magic, I was transported back to Stalactites in Melbourne, circa 1983, where they used to serve red wine in cappuccino cups and stubbies of VB hidden in brown paper bags, this being a long time before Victoria’s licensing laws were overhauled.

But that wasn’t the odd thing.

We were drinking our beer flavoured milkshakes, chatting and waiting for the food when I noticed a bloke crossing the street with food, under covers, on a tray. He walked to the restaurant, a couple of the wait staff appeared, took the food and put it in front of diners. And then it happened again a minute or two later.

It seems the kitchen was somewhere across the road.

Now if we’d been in a seaside town and he’d carried plates across from the main part of a restaurant to some tables that they’d setup on the sand, I wouldn’t have even blinked. But this was in the middle of Bangkok, on a 4 lane road jammed with traffic in both directions. We made a few jokes about food being run over, but when it arrived was very good, and had no obvious carbon monoxide aftertaste.

Dinner and a few milkshakes done, next up was shopping.

T-shirts for the kids. Check.
Copy bag. Couldn’t find one she liked.

Then I started looking at copy watches. As a fairly full time #watchnerd, I’m always interested to see what garbage people buy (and they wouldn’t be selling them if people weren’t buying). Horrible Rolexes seemed to be the biggest seller, closely followed by painful Omegas and nasty looking Panerais.

I stopped to chat with a few of the stall holders, and it seems what’s on display are the C grade versions, while the A & Bs are kept under the table (no, I don’t know why). And if you line the three versions of the same model up, you can see the differences, although even the A’s still have a slightly off look about them, eg: the otherwise excellent looking Deep Sea’s date wheel was off centre.

What I did like was the odd model variants: colours, dial & hands variations that have never appeared in the real catalogue.

Did they really recognise that the GMT II I was wearing was real? Or were they just pulling my chain? I’ll never know, but I did have one stall holder offer me an entire tray of dodgy Rolexs in exchange for mine.

A fun night out!

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Love lock ,,,

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We found out about a quaint Estonian wedding custom (and doesn’t everywhere seems to have a cute wedding custom) …. The couple have their initials engraved in a padlock, attach it to a bridge, throw the key in the water, and they’re shackled to each other for life.

Although I think the coupe that used the combination lock were having a bet each way.

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Tallinn seems to be full of #abandonedplaces

I’m nearly 50. I grew up on spy movies & novels, so the former Eastern Bloc has always held a fascination for me … It’s the dark place, they’re the bad guys are; although the hero usually escapes to the bright lights of the West.

I’ve been to the eastern side of the former iron curtain only once before: Sarah & I had a fantastic short break in Berlin maybe a dozen years ago … we stayed in a very groovy hotel, we had some friends living there who took us to see all the groovy bars & introduced us to mojitos, I got to see Check Point Charlie. And what European city – especially for someone from a warm country – doesn’t look brilliant under a light blanket of snow?

But Tallinn was our first trip to one of the former Soviet Socialist Socialist Republics.

Ok, I know the Sovs left Estonia in ’91, so I wasn’t really expecting glowering border guards studying our passports and begrudgingly letting us pass, but I was almost disappointed not to even have to show the damn thing (it was an internal European flight). Luggage collected, and a 10 minute taxi ride later we were at the hotel. Too easy.

We had a wander around the old town .. like Brugge, but a bit shabbier, just as many tourists being led like sheep from place to place, and then it was time for our #cycling tour to begin. We did the Funky Bike Tour that promised to show us all sorts of things outside the Old Town.

Former Soviet era factories that have been taken over by artists, former Soviet era factories that are derelict (and that’s being generous), Soviet era apartment blocks from various “Glorious Five Year Plans” (interesting to see they got crappier as time when on) and the high point (I think that’s the right thing to call it), the Tallinn jail.

I’ll give you the history, as I remember it. I’m sure I’m not 100% right on the dates, but if you’re really interested, you’ll google the place and leave a correction in the comments.

Built, originally by the Tsarist Russians as a seaside fort in the 1860’s, over an underground river, the soldiers who were there until about 1920 complained from day one about the damp. And the first thing we noticed on walking into the kitchen area on the ground floor was the chill (it wasn’t a cold day, and I can’t begin to imagine winter), the smell (damp) and funnily enough the wet floor that apparently never dries out. The feeling of damp lasts as least as high as the 3rd floor.

Wars, independence, all sorts of other things happened, soldiers were finally moved elsewhere and it became a prison, which the Soviets put to good use when they moved in to “protect” Estonia from the Germans in 1940. The Nazis used it during WWII, then the country, and the jail, returned to Soviet hands at the end of the war.

It was used by the Sovs until they packed up and headed east in ’91.

But the really shocking thing is the Estonians kept using it until 2004 or so, then it was derelict for a year or two, punks & artists squatted for a time, and finally it’s become a tourist “attraction”. Oh, and you can hire it out for functions & rave parties.

We saw the kitchen, interview cells (one for lawyers, one for psychiatrists); the hospital – complete with an operating table and dentists chair (I’ll never complain at the dentist again, I promise), cells .. 16 men lived in each, I’m it not going to try to describe them; exercise yards, maybe 3m x 4m (but only if you’d been good) and on it went. I decided I didn’t need to see the capital punishment room.

Chilling to think what it must have been like for the warders, who left for home every day, much less the poor inmates.

I’ve been to Old Melbourne Goal, which closed in 1929. You wander around, amazed at the tiny cells thinking “it closed nearly 100 years ago, things are much better now”. Tallinn’s jail was still in use 10 years ago. I don’t want to sound to trite, but imagine the nastiest jail you’ve seen in a Hollywood movie, and multiply by 100. You’ll be getting close.

A set of 40 or so pics are on my Flickr stream.

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A very #watchnerd sort of post

The marketing departments at large watchmaking companies would like us to believe that they have a room somewhere in Geneva where three gnomes (probably called Klaus or Johan) assembled that Omega, Rolex or Panerai you’re wearing (see #womw on twitter)

I can’t be certain, but I think the reality might involve a large factory somewhere, clean rooms, shift work, and all the other glamorous aspects of modern high volume production.

I was lucky enough today to meet a very different watchmaker.

Fred Dingemans, is CEO, Chief Designer & Engineer, head of marketing & sales and coffee maker at DMH, a very small scale (2 per month) watch manufacturer located in the Dutch countryside.

At 24 or so watches per year, Fred is never going to be the next Nicholas Hayak, and he’s very happy with that.

I ordered a watch a bit over a year ago, and it’s still a few months from completion. That fact that I was going to be nearby, in Amsterdam, and wanted to visit, didn’t move me up the waiting list. Fred is adamant that he wants to treat his customers the way he expects to be treated, so it’s strictly first come, first served. And for the last few additions to his order book – which now numbers over 70 – it’s going to be about 3 years until their DMH is on their wrists.

Fred was kind enough to meet me at the station (great trains in Holland, Australia could take a lesson from them) in a slightly ratty but mechanically sound Triumph TR5. I would have been happy enough to just take a spin in the Dutch sunshine in this beautiful classic and go back to Amsterdam, but the workshop beckoned.

In a small shed at the bottom of his garden Fred makes his cases & dials on an old (1940’s) lathe & a milling machine that were both his father’s, along with a few odds & ends that he’s fabricated himself to make the process easier.

This wasn’t a factory tour conducted by some bored lower level functionary who knew the presentation by heart. No, this was a peek inside the life of someone who is passionate about what he does, the process, and of course the end result.

Fred showed me all sorts of things, explained what had been difficult during the early stages & what he’d done to work around the problems. He was even kind enough to answer what I’m sure were some fairly inane questions.

We talked at length about the importance of good quality drill bits and how hard it is to tap 0.9mm thread inside a 0.8mm tube

Could he make more than two watches every month? Of course he could, but that would cut into the time he has for tinkering with and driving either Triumph (he’s got a motorbike in addition to the car) and would impinge on his holidays. He’s one of the lucky ones who is doing something he loves and is passionate about, and he’s managed to get his work / life balance just where he wants it.

Ordering a watch from a small independent watchmaker isn’t the easy choice – that would be a Rolex or some other big brand – but having sat in the watchmaker’s kitchen drinking coffee and chatting about why the Dutch all seem to speak such good English (TV isn’t dubbed, it’s broadcast with subtitles, like SBS does) means my DMH, when it arrives, will mean that little bit more to me when it’s #womw.

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A is for @amsterdamized

I’ve been lucky enough to host a couple of Twitter #cycling buddies when they’ve visited Melbourne: taken them for a bit of a spin, shown them a few of my favorite places, had a coffee or a beer together.

Today, I got really lucky, when Marc, aka @Amsterdamize, was kind enough to show Sarah & I around Amsterdam.

Sarah & I had a sleep in (thanks to a bit of a late night exploring the bars in the red light district), had some much needed coffee and pancakes, then hired BIGHT YELLOW rental bikes – I’d been hoping for cool, black Dutch ones – and rolled back to our hotel to meet Marc.

The three of us spent the afternoon cruising around, talking about cycling, politics, attention deficit disorder, beer, life, the universe & everything.

I wanted to try to understand a bit about cycling culture in The Netherlands, but as Marc explained, it’s a bit like trying to talk about running water …. it’s just there. I remember when I visited Rotterdam two years ago thinking: these people aren’t cyclists, they just happen to use bikes …. And today confirmed that.

I could bang on for the next five paragraphs about the infrastructure (nearly perfect – at least it is to Melbourne eyes) but I won’t try to: plenty of people who know much more about these things that have said much smarter things than I ever could. But, the one thing that really stood out for me today was that it’s universal: EVERYONE rides a bike; if my mother or mother-in-law lived here, they’d have a bike, something that would be almost beyond comprehension in Australia.

And the other think I learnt: the only thing that’s sexier than a pretty girl riding a bike is when there are two of them.

Thanks Marc, it was a great day!

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W is for WIND

They don’t give a wind a name unless it’s something serious. In this part of France, Provence, there is a wind called The Mistral. At the top of yesterday’s climb, Mt. Ventoux, the wind has been recorded at upto 320Kph. (it wasn’t quite that strong yesterday).

We cycled the ‘classic’ Mt. Ventoux climb, from the town of Bedouin, about 22K to the top. The grade is recorded as about a 7% average, but this is a little misleading as the first few Km are only 2.5% or so, the rest being around 8% and above.

The first 2/3 of the climb is through a forrest, and yesterday morning it was cold and windless. Flies buzzing, I nearly had one for morning tea but managed to spit it out.

This was our 5th (and final) big climb for the trip, and I’ve learnt that climbing is 60% fitness and 40% mental effort. Maybe 10K in I was thinking “I’ll take a break after the next corner” but when I got there, I decided to HTFU and just kept riding.

6Km from the top is Chalet Reynard, a bar / restaurant that serves cold drinks to thirsty cyclists in summer and, I’m guessing, things like hot chocolate to skiers in winter. We stopped at the Chalet for a break, then began the final assault.

The remainder of the climb is above the tree line, and there seems to be just nothing that grows there, it’s what I imagine the moon looks like. Rocks, rock, rocks, very little else, and as you go around every second or third corner, a blast of wind that tries to knock you over.

As I rode past the Tom Simpson memorial (a racer who died on Ventoux in the late ’60s) I knew I only had one km to go.

On the final little hairpin, maybe 50m from the top the wind was so strong I was almost blown over and decided to walk my bike the last few meters. David arrived soon after, we bought some souvenirs in the shop next to the weather station, took our photos and began the descent. The section down to Chalet Reynard was hairy: the wind that had been just annoying on the ascent was now trying to push me off the road!

Once past Reynard we were back in the trees and out of the wind, so the remainder of the descent was much more enjoyable, and quite a bit faster. We descended to Sault so we could take the “Route Touristique” and ride through the Gorges de la Nesque. More amazing scenery (as if we’d not had enough!) as we climbed for a few Km – and easy ascent, this wasn’t a major Col – then rolled down for maybe 25Km through the gorge.

The gorge done, and a few Km later we we’re back in Bedouin. A cold drink from the supermarket (I think I’m starting to like Orangina), bikes back in the car and the serious part of my cycling adventure is over.

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H is for HORS.

In cycling, climbs are categorized by difficulty from easy, Cat 4, to hard, Cat 1. I don’t know the exact details of how they work it out – i think it’s one of the UCI’s closely guarded secrets – but it’s a combination of grade and length of climb.

And anything that’s harder than one is classified as “Hors catégorie” which is Cycling French for BLOODY HARD.

On Thursday we rode Col de la Madeline, my first HC climb, about 25Km of uphill. The Tour was going up there (I did one big climb that day, they did THREE) so the plan was to get as close to the top as we could before we were stopped by the promotional caravan and then the race, because the road is closed for about 2 hours.

We were a bit late getting going (I’m on holiday), and a little slower on the ride across the valley than planned (things happen) so we ended up being stopped about 10K from the top. Luckily there was a little bar there, we had a sandwich – that hadn’t been in my back pocket for a few hours before it was eaten, a comfy chair, and even a TV to watch the race on.

Getting going after lunch was tough, and I needed a couple of stops for the remaining 10K.

Our hotel was about 5K down the other side, so the day finished with a great bit of descending (what goes up must come down).

Yesterday started with an amazing 15K descent, then a short run across the valley to see the start of the day’s race. We were on the side of the road a Km or two from the start, so we saw the bunch go through all together while the race was still neutrailsed, very exciting.

Next challenge was the Col du Telegraphe: 12Km of climb, with an average gradient of a bit over 7%. But unlike most climbs that dip and vary, this was just a solid slog that didn’t go below 6%.

Picnic lunch at the top (I decided a glass of Rose wasn’t a good idea) then the big one: Col du Galibier – 20 something Km at an average of around 7%.

Relentless. Endless. Bloody hard. Nothing quite describes what it was like. I needed a few little stops on the side of the road, and we had a good rest at a bar about 10K from the finish. And after that I was the Little Engine that Could: I think I can, I think I can, and maybe 2.5 hours after starting I was at the top.

And of course there was another amazing descent as a reward! Here’s a bit of it … http://t.co/mRCKG0V8

I’m not into golf or a footy fan, but I think the last few days have been like sinking a put at Augusta, or having a kick on the MCG: I got to ride where any number of epic cycling battles have been played out, saw some amazing scenery and ticked off a few HC climbs.

Epic.

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