Monday 8 June 2015

Swedish Roaming has Moved!

It's a been a while since I have written here, but I've finally got around to typing up some rambling words.

Check them out on my new website:

Monday 9 February 2015

Skiing - Swedish Style

One of the things I wanted to learn to do while in Sweden was to cross-country ski. On the first sign of snow last year, Tina and I eagerly purchased a set and used them three of four times each such was vagueness of the 2013/2014 winter. I didn’t even really get a good feel for what it was as the local tracks in the nearby Ursvik forest were not even groomed; and playing around on the local fields just doesn’t really cut it in the world of cross-country skiing.

So we were both looking forward to a proper try this winter. 2014 ended up as vague winter wise (and even warmer) than the end of 2013. But thankfully come mid-January, some half descent snow started to arrive and despite some annoying positive temperatures in between we eventually got enough for the track makers to get to work and open up the popular Ursvik area.
Some decent winter weather... about time!
I actually know Ursvik pretty well. It has a half decent mountainbike track circumnavigating it which I’ve done quite a few times, there are walking and running tracks that we have explored on a regular basis, I’ve participated in one impromptu orienteering event there and I have actually ridden the cross country skiing trails many times in the summer on my cyclocross bike.

The weekendthe trails were groomed was a busy one and we both only managed to fit in a quick effort around the local park on the skis. I gave up after five minutes as the warm temperatures (+1 C) meant that snow kept balling on the wax on my skis making it impossible to actually ski…well for me anyway. Actually the person who had got the best ski in was Ana who delighted by the loan of a full set of skis, sticks and boots from a colleague of mine, got used to sliding away remarkably quickly. There were opportunities to go, but to be honest the thought of battling it out on the narrow trails at Ursvik with thousands of needy Swedes (the trails hadn’t been groomed there for the last year and a half) just didn’t sound that too attractive. By 7’oclock Sunday night, it was a now or never moment. I changed into my skiing attire (if truth be known, ancient cycling lycra), strapped the skis on the mountain bike, donned the lights and off I went.
Start 'em young in Sweden.

Have bike, will travel. At the start of the popular Ursvik Forest Area.
Ursvik was pleasantly empty. No real surprise for 8’oclock on a Sunday night. There were a few keen bods (who looked like they knew what they were doing) still out and about, but as I locked my bike up, unpacked the skis and got myself ready for departure it looked like I was going to have virtually the whole forest to myself. My ineptitude at what I was about to do would remain largely a secret.

The trails were colour coded according to difficulty and length. I had ridden the black route on my mountainbike and had absolutely no thoughts about being able to even attempt that route in the near future. I went for an easy 5 km yellow route instead. I started off finding my way to a set of grooves (one for each ski) that theoretically guided me around the course. The reality was that since the trails were groomed at the end of last week, thousands of people had skied and largely destroyed the groves and what was left was a snaking piece of ice about three metres wide that wound its way up and down through the forest.
One of the lit trails at Ursvik... way too icy for a virgin cross-country skier like me.
At first the trail went up. I concentrated on my technique and was actually quite surprised that I was going upwards rather effortlessly in a way I thought must look quite elegant. ‘This cross-country skiing lark isn’t as hard as its beat up to be’ I thought. This was going to be fun. The track levelled out and tucking down I pushed my poles behind me and began to pick up some speed. I was really going for it now. The grooves, still largely present at this state glided me around the first couple of corners and then started to head down a small slope. Actually I know for certain that this is a small little slope as I have walked, ran and cycled up and down it many times. But on skis, well, it was enormous. Suddenly my skis took off. I tried to wedge my skis to slow myself, but my skis were two and half metres long, pencil thin and there was no cutting edge (I'm really starting to sound like I know what I'm talking about aye?). Once more, they were stuck in those stupid bloody grooves!

I should at this point also point out that I can’t actually ski! Well, that’s a bit of lie, but I’ve been three times. Of course those three times have involved fat downhill skis and a cutting edge to slow down with. No such chance of that now. After crashing at least a dozen times, I took the shortcut off the 5 km course to complete the 2.5 m course. I crossed the mountain bike path – complete with fresh tyre prints in the snow and was starting to wonder why I hadn’t simply gone mountain biking – something I am actually good at. However, by the end of the 2.5 km course, I wasn’t falling off too much, and with a bit more confidence, went off and did it again. Bruised and battered but pleased to have actually got out and done some ‘proper’ cross country skiing I packed up the bike and off home I went.

The next week bought warm weather (I need to clarify that by warm I mean 1, maybe 2 degrees Celsius). The snow slowly melted and by the end of the week if was virtually gone. Another bloody fickle winter… here we come. It then snowed non-stop the following weekend but with the temperatures still basking in the positives it just meant slush. Luckily, by Sunday evening the temperature started to drop and it was a snowy ride to work come Monday morning. I nearly got buried in a large pile of snow as an over-zealous speeding snow-plow shoved about half a metre of snow on top of the cycle path as it cleared the road on the way to work! But I smiled, the snow was looking good. It continued to snow all day and by days end everything that wasn’t hot, moving or been driven on was covered by a good 20-30cm of the lovely white stuff. Time to ski! I had been feeling a bit average over the weekend so Tina got the first ski pass while I settled in for a night of parenting duties. By Tuesday I was feeling much better and after the kids were in bed, I eagerly loaded up the bike and off to Ursvik I went.

On arrival I was surprised by the number of people. But I soon figured out that conditions were good and the conditions when I had been the Sunday before were absolutely horrible. I was nervous about skiing the main trails though as I was afraid of been a hazard to everyone else. But after a few laps of the learning field, I got the confidence to give it a go and off I went… this time determined to do the 5 km loop. To my surprise, I actually passed someone going up the first climb. But it wasn’t the up bits that I was worried about. However, the icy path of last Sunday was now rather pleasant and the descent seemed more like the little slope that it really was. Once more, I actually surprised myself in that I could turn, go fast, and not fall off… well not too much anyway. Once more I was a similar speed to many other people on the course. Although I should put a disclaimer on that, they had style, my technique was still… evolving.

Back at the start I practised some more on the field and started to feel some fluidity to the whole thing. Oh… I like this.

Tina and I alternated nights for a while and I slowly graduated to the long 12 km ‘unlit’ course – evidently the only thing not an icy death trap after a few days without snow. Ironically, I actually learnt to mountainbike in the dark, probably not the safest way for a novice to negotiate their way down the steep Port Hills in Christchurch at night but I figured it out in the end. It seems I am now learning to cross-country ski in the dark, it feels a little like deja vu.
Sking in the dark. Not a bad way to spend the evenings.
When I wrote this it was Sunday night, exactly two weeks since my first ski and I really feel I am getting there, and am yes I am getting addicted. I’m learning a whole new world of what wax to apply and when; what types of snow are fast, slow and shear bloody treacherous; and a whole new technique that involves opposite movements where one side of the body pushes and slides and the other stays still and slides, yes it is possible. How good I get (Tina can already do it) is totally dependent on the weather gods. I think I can confidently claim that I can now cross-country ski, something I would never have believed I would be saying in such a short time two weeks ago. I doubt I’ll be lining up for the Swedish Olympic team any time soon, but the New Zealand one? Now there’s a thought!

As a footnote, by Monday, temperatures were racing into the single digits and Stockholm was melting. Ugh, not yet, it's too early, we want to ski!
Way too much sun and too warm. Can't believe I'm saying that.

Monday 29 December 2014

2014 Over and Out

The first week of November was a busy one for us. On Wednesday we finally received an offer for our house in New Zealand, on Thursday we had the first real snow of the season and on Friday we popped into the city and Loiuse arrived in our life. Sydney, Berlin, Christchurch, Stockholm. Reads little like a Hard Rock CafĂ© t-shirt doesn’t it, not that I’m a particular fan, however it is in fact a list of birth places for our wee family.

We handled the lack of light better this year. Whether that was due to the fact that we were better mentally prepared for the greyness (I think the first 3 weeks of November had 5 hours of sunlight recorded in Stockholm), the fact that it wasn’t as cold as last year, it was due to the excitement of the arrival of a new member of the family, or whether it was due to the fact that we were popping drugs (vitamin D for the whole family), I don’t know. It was a probably a combination of all of these things but I was definitely not as miserable as the same time last year.

If you were to have a child in a country where you can’t speak the language – yes my Swedish is flagging at the level of a two year old, Sweden would be the place to have it. An excellent public health system and the widespread ability to speak near native English among the populace, it really wasn’t that much of a drama at all (I know, it’s easy for me to say that). Our biggest worry was who was going to look after Ana when the time arrived? Our neighbours of whom we have never set foot in their house kindly offered to take Ana in as did several other friends who live nearby. But we and most importantly Ana, really didn’t know anyone well enough to really leave our mind at rest. In the end, Karin and Micha helped us out on that department and kindly flew in a week before D-day to spend several weeks with us in what is generally regarded as the most miserable month to visit Stockholm.

BB Sophia is a maternity unit in central Stockholm. Louise was a text book case. Tina called me just as I was going to lunch at work on Friday afternoon. It was the last day in our present office before we moved to new digs. So I returned to the office, finished packing, changed into my cycling wares and rode home. There was time for a relaxed lunch (imagine if I had missed out on that!) before we called the taxi and headed in the city. I’ll spare you the details, oh well OK I won’t. We were served ice-cream smoothies and freshly made sandwiches. After Louise was born, we requested more ice-cream smoothies, fake champagne  and given a hotel like room to catch a few hours of rest before taxing home the following day.
Hosptial Food in Sweden. Mmmm.... no wonder the taxes are so high
We were both a little nervous to how Ana would react to the competition in her life, or even if she really understood what ‘we are going to bring home a baby’ meant. We had already had one false alarm earlier in the week and returning from kindergarten she quickly scoped the house and asked us “Where is the baby?”, obviously disappointed that it had decided to not come out. Well, we didn’t disappoint this time and her reaction, caught on film, was over and above our expectations and could really only leave you with a warm fuzzy feeling inside.
The two sisters
So then were two. It’s quite different to have one isn’t it? But fun and rewarding and insanely hectic and busy as well. Kind of like it was when there was only one, or when there were none if truth be known. I guess you are either busy people of not busy people and busyness is really just a relative term. However, there is definitely more washing to do!
Is this a sign?
Parental Benefits are pretty sweet in Sweden. Out comes one baby and wham, there you go, 480 days paid holiday… thank you very much. Well, OK, perhaps it isn’t all one long holiday. Apparently there is a Swedish television commercial where the father to be is busy conjuring up plans for his parental leave. It exists of fishing expeditions, long days at the pub and other likely manly activities – I have actually never seen it as we don’t have a television, but you get the picture. Then it fast forwards to the man battling a screaming baby, overflowing laundry, a sink full of dishes, dirty nappies and his dreams quashed. Well, being our second, I wasn’t blind to the actually practicalities of looking after a tribe of young children (is two a tribe?) But I hope to at least spend part of that leave enjoying it out in the forest, on short bike trips or other such pleasurable activities. There is definitely a hum-dinger of a summer holiday planned for next year! One thing that made us laugh a little is that men actually get more leave than women. What? Well, on top of the 480 days which is shared any way you want (although 150 days are reserved for each and cannot be used by the other and also includes any time the expectant mother takes off work leading up to the birth of the bundle of joy  - I know outrageously ungenerous), the father gets an additional two weeks to take off immediately following the birth to catch up on sleep help out at home, paid of course. And yes we have two children so yes that amounts to 960 days of paid leave. Yes I know, Ana wasn’t even born in Sweden, but I don’t make the rules.
Off on an adventure...
Due to imminent journey to Germany for Christmas and the finalisation of our house sale, a one week old baby couldn’t prevent us from traipsing around the city in what is generally the gloomiest month in Sweden to visit various lawyers and embassies to get all the paperwork in order.
Christmassy stuff
At the lawyers we had to get a whole heap of documents witnessed to finalise the sale of our house, however the Lawyer refused to sign a statement saying we appeared of a ‘sane mind’ … apparently lawyers aren’t allowed to make such judgements in Sweden, well that’s what they told at us least. With one day to spare, I luckily found someone at work who did actually think we of sound mind and the four year battle with our insurance company, tenants and a million bits of paper was over and our earthquake damaged house was no longer our problem. I know we are incredibly lucky to sort it out so fast… yes depressingly enough I think we both consider four years fast. We both still know way too many people in Christchurch that are a still way off and I can’t help but feel a tinge of guilt.
Budget airlines have really gone no-frills in Scandanavia
 November merged into December and… I actually don’t really have any recollections of December apart from doing loads of washing, before we jetted off to Germany for Christmas. Did you know that with certain car rental companies, if you are five minutes late to pick up your pre-ordered and pre-paid car, they will rent it to someone else and then put you on a lucky dip waiting list for the next available car. I won’t mention any names but it’s needless to say we won’t be using THRIFTY ever again. Opps, damn, it just slipped out. Just what you need after a 4.30 am start with a tired and hungry 3 year old, a six week old, a lot of luggage, a tired and grumpy mum and dad and a reasonably long drive of Germany’s Autobahns ahead. At least I had the option to drive at 500 km/h if I so wished.

Germany, as last year was light. That was despite it pouring down with rain the day of our arrival and extensive cloud cover. I don’t think too many German’s would agree with us… they didn’t, but we are Swede’s now you know. Well, kind of, not really actually.
There wern't too many peple eating icecream outside in Freiburg... but that wasn't going to stop us!
  It wasn’t a white Christmas, but it nearly was which is close enough for me.
It felt like Autumn in Germany
And then it decided to be winter.
Happy Christmas and Happy New Year.

Tim, Tina, Ana, Louise.

Thursday 2 October 2014

Three Peaks Cyclocross Shenanigans

During summer of last year I had figured I may as well make the most of living in Europe and in close vicinity to so many great and historic cycling events, and actually do some of them. I’ve never been a big fan of travelling long distances to participate in a day event, the time involved travelling to and from can usually be better spent doing something else, like actually riding the bike, not to mention the financial outlay usually involved. However if there was one event that I didn’t mind putting this personal prejudice aside for, it was the Three Peaks Cyclocross Race in Yorkshire, England. There may be another event like it somewhere, but I don’t know about it.

The race bills itself as the world’s hardest cyclocross race. Personally I have not, or are unlikely to, participate in every cyclocross event in the world so it would be hard for me to ratify this statement. However the race had caught my attention some years back when I first started riding cyclocross and I was eager to experience the pains for myself.

The Three Peaks Cyclocross Race - the hardest in the world? Maybe
The first Three Peaks Cyclocross Race was held in 1959 and took in the three highest peaks of the Craven Dales – Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-Y-Ghent. Over the years the course leading to and from each peak has been tweaked, however the three peaks have become a permanent fixture in the British cycling calendar and an event that any self-respecting cyclocross addict aspires to first compete, secondly finish and for a very select few, actually win. I set my sights realistically on the first two and dreamed of the third.

First things first though. As I sometimes forget, this is not New Zealand, where you can put off your entry to the week, or even the day before. In Europe events fill up fast. So my plans were set back a little when I went on to the race website last summer to find that entries had been massively oversubscribed (as they are every year) and that no further entries were being accepted. I didn’t make the mistake this year.

By June I had received news that I had made the final cut and that I had three months to put in some decent training. Well the training was a bit hit and miss but I did manage a fit in a few decent blocks and as September neared its end it was too late anyway, I chucked the bike in its bike bag and off to Manchester I went. 

From Manchester I navigated my way north to the countryside to the house of friends Hugh and Pauline. Tina and I had met them both in Patagonia while cycle touring, they had since visited us in Christchurch and were now spending some rare time at home in between cycle touring in the world’s most imaginative places.

We followed up a heavy steak which was eaten at my usual bedtime with pancakes and lashes of bacon the next morning for breakfast before I drove to Helwith Bridge for a course reccie with an old cycling buddy Wayne. For such a famous event, the starting location was particularly low key and consisted of a very small pub and a small row of terraced houses. 

The most important consideration for the endurance competitior = calories
There wasn’t a lot of the course we were actually legally allowed to ride, however it was nice to loosen the legs, gaze at the towering triple peaks and at least ride part way up the Pen-y-Ghent, the last of the three peaks to be negotiated. It prepared me mentally for the what would be store the following day and after a lunch of pie’n’spud and a pint of shandy at the Helwith Bridge Inn it was time to head back to Hugh and Paulines for some last minute preparations, stock up my stomach up with more calories and yarn away the night about the joys of travelling on the old humble bicycle with two fellow converts. Finally I got a very good night’s sleep.

Wayne and I reccie the descent of the Pen-Y-Ghent
Race day saw me rise early and back at the start at Helwith Bridge as the flotilla of cars that inevitably and ironically congregate on mass around cycle races begun to clog up the narrow roads surrounding the area. The 500 odd fellow participants were a slim fit looking bunch and I would hazard a guess that the body mass index was probably the lowest in Britain at Helwith Bridge on that particular morning.

At 9.15 a race briefing was held of which I didn’t hear a word of over the nervous chatter of my fellow participants. I would guess it was along the lines of ‘Be careful, help others if they need it and try not to give yourself a major injury’. I had been advised to get to the start line early so as not to start at the back and then have to negotiate my way around half of the field on the first big climb of the day, however as the star riders were herded to the front, us mere mortals tried in vain to hold our place near the front and I was inevitably relegated backwards in the confines of the middle of the bunch.

Eventually we were off and using my bunch riding skills from yesteryear I weaved in and out and passed a large number of those that were in front of me while the bunch cruised along at a neutralised 40 km/h on the first road section. I stuck to the middle for safety as much as possible and was relieved that a large tangled mess of carbon and bodies that crashed heavily to the tarmac beside me didn’t actually include myself. Through the small village of Hoton we wiggled and not long after a farm track veered left and up towards the first climb of the day  - the Ingleborough, we went.

After a short sealed section the route negotiated some farm buildings before being thrown out onto a bumpy field. By the end of the road section I had managed to fight my way up into the top 100. There was a bit of hussle and tussle for lines and position once the going got rough, but to be honest, with the soaring heights of Ingleborough looming above I didn’t mind dropping a position or two as I had avoided the worst of the bottle neck on the climb and there was an awful long way to go.

After what seemed an incredibly short time since the start – I would guess 20 minutes, the Ingleborough bent upwards, the bikes were dismounted and shouldered, and off up the hill we ran… well I think I took a full bountiful strides and then thought stuff that and started to walk. And up it kept going. It just didn’t stop. Twice I looked down behind me to see not the view but the awesome sight of 500 plus cyclists, with bikes shouldered, heads lowered, heaving themselves up the impossibly steep climb, two abreast for as far as the eye could see like a giant cyclocrosser’s conga line. This ‘cycle’ race was ridiculous and although I knew I was going to hate every minute of it, I was enjoying myself – I’m not expecting everyone to understand that!
The climb up the Ingleborough - photo credit :
The climb didn’t relent particularly quickly and at times the wall of hill in front of me was so steep, even shouldering the bike was no good as the front wheel bounced off the ground in front of my eyes. The only solution was to sling the bike even further back so that the frame lay parallel to my back, push my face into the grass and pull myself with the aid of tufts of grass or the fenceline which served as a sort of guide to the heavens.
After about ten to fifteen minutes the gradient eased somewhat and the next twenty odd minutes were spent part riding, part carrying to the top. Our electronic dibbers were dibbed at a check point at the summit and mine was dibbed at just under an hour. I had done a paltry 12 kilometres.

 The descent was not particularly straightforward. From the summit it headed south east over a boggy / rocky plateau before dropping off so steeply, the bikes had to be dismounted and dragged down the slope while we slid down on our backside. Then a mine field of jagged rocks greeted us and with 70 psi in the tyres, my eyes shook in their sockets in such a chaotic fashion I actually couldn’t focus on anything up ahead… something I have never experienced before. 

As the path began to level out and the rocks gave way to some hard packed grass a crowd up ahead signalled the second road section and I cornered off the last few bumps to hit to the glorious stuff, immediately taking my hands of the handlebars and treating my wary body to a very good stretch. Then some sod sprinted past me at about 50 kilomteres an hour, I stuffed half a bar into my mouth, forced myself back down onto the drops and off I went in pursuit.

From Cold Coats to Chapel-Le-Dale the race sped along like a rocket. I caught the guy in front and soon we were five. One of the five was intent on setting the world ten kilometre cyclocross speed record and that suited the rest of us just fine, as we largely sat in his slipstream taking only the most cursory turn at the front and readying ourselves physiologically for the climb up Whernside, the highest of the three peaks. 

The road was over too soon and the bumps quickly returned. The climb up Whernside was marginally more rideable than the Ingleborough, but only by the smallest margin. It’s the climb I have the least memories from although I do distinctly remember a lot of very steep rock steps. Near the summit I made the most of every riding opportunity, more to give my calves a rest that for any other reason. I spotted Hugh and Pauline who cheered me on, Hugh ran up beside me asking me if I needed anything. Ironically Hugh was a triple winner of the three peaks running race, he was probably wandering what the point was of carrying the bike when you could run without it much faster.
The top was a relief until the decent started. Sharp jaggered rocks with no natural riding line through them littered the landscape and it wasn’t long until I jumped off my bike once more, shouldered it and started running down – it was way faster.

I took the rest of the descent cautiously in order to avoid the inevitable pinch flat and/or broken bone. I was surprised to come across a lot of walkers going up the rocky trail. We had been warned that the track wasn’t closed but I wondered at the folly of some people walking up a mountain with 500 near uncontrollable cyclocross bikes coming down towards them. 

The decent of Whernside - enough to make a cyclocross rider turn in their sleep
Near probably the most famous landmark of the race – the railway viaduct at Ribblehead, I picked up speed on the first actual graded track of the race thus far and weaved my way through the crowds holding spare bikes, wheels and nutrition and once again hit the glorious tarmac.

The Ribblehead viaduct with Whernside towering in the background
There wasn’t too much relief this time though as a head wind coming up the valley put an end to any easy ride and for the first time in the race I found myself fairly isolated. I was also quite knackered and I still had one final behemoth to get over. I shoved some food into the mouth and reasonably sedately made my way down the valley. 

The nine kilometres of road was nearly over when I reached Horton for the second time in the race. The same guy who had attempted the world record on the last road section overtook me furiously once more and it kicked started me into action. I nailed it to get onto his wheel and a few twists and turns later, the road veered left and off up the Pen-Y-Ghent we went.

The Pen-Y-Ghent was a different beast compared to the others. Where the approach to both the Ingleborough and the Whernside were largely on rough farm tracks, the ascent up Pen-Y-Ghent was on a formed gravelled track. Not that that made it any easier mind you. The day before when Wayne and I had done our reccie, it was up the lower reaches of Pen-Y-Ghent and it was a stony mess. I had childly sprinted up one horrendous section to see what it was like, however I was now under no illusions that this would be even remotely possible with 50 very hard kilometres in my legs and nearly 3 hours in. I did manage to ride the lower reaches though…just.

I wasn’t actually that far into the slog when calls up ahead of ‘rider’ alerted me to fact that if things weren’t hard enough, another peculiarity of the final climb was that you came down exactly the same way that you went up. Rob Jebb, winner of the past 10 editions then whisked by me, skimming over the rocks like he was on a full suspension mountain bike, and on his way to his 11th straight win. I was a little stunned that I was only just on the final climb and soon the pointy end of the race would be sitting in the pub drinking a pint!

From the top I plummeted down into the oncoming rider’s fast, bunny hopping anything that looked like it wanted to sink its jaws into my tyres and attempting to keep the cramp at my calves, which had been threatening me since the first climb but was now getting tighter and tighter, at bay.
All concentration on the final decent photo credit:

I swung back onto the road at the bottom with relief. Riders were still heading up for their final douse of pain but I just had to survive three more kilometres and the torture would all be over. A rider flew past me but I couldn’t summon the strength within me to try and catch up. Then a car up ahead held him up and together with someone else we hunted him down. As a trio we raced towards the finish.
As we took in the final few bends my legs were cramping all over and I resigned myself to simply rolling in after them, but a bad piece of cornering by one of them saw me squeeze in between both of them for the final twenty metre grassy section to the finish line.

I had finished. A print out at the finish gave my time as 3:46:16 and 95th place. I was pretty happy with that, I don’t think I could have gone faster on the day, I was spent. 

The race summary gives a total distance of 61 kms, of which 6-8 kms are unrideable and 33 kms are unsurfaced. The climbing, at only 1524 m doesn’t seem to fairly reflect the severity of the event but I would hazard a guess that the gradient in parts is well over 50 %. Keen? I thoroughly recommend that you sign up if you ever find yourselves in that neck of the woods.

Race HQ - Helwith Bridge

Pauline and Hugh - always a pleasure to stay with like minded people
Plenty of photos and videos on the race website: