Flemish Impressions

It´s about a month since we (wife, son, me) returned from Belgium where we had a great week, all told. We were lucky to be able to rent a small holiday chalet near Bruges, so that´s where we went first, of course. Our abode being about 17 km away from the City, we cycled.

xbiketrekI myself took the 100 Euro Trek again which had given me good service in France already. I must say it´s a quick bike.

Here are some pics from Brugge, as the Flemish call it:

xbrug79estafette xbrugtache xbrugpauper xbrugmarkt xbruggate xbrugezel xbrugcanal

xbru%cc%88gfleam xbru%cc%88gschatten xbru%cc%88gresto

There´s so much to see and do in this most fascinating of Europe´s cities – unbelievable. The combination of waterways and solid, huge buildings never fails to amaze me.

xcobbledroad xcobbledslechtAnd we really used a genuine, Belgian cobble stone road. The road sign says “Road surface in bad state”. Who´d have thunk.

The windmill we cycled past is in a very good state, though.

xmolenwhite

Entering Brugge from the North, you come across yet one more bridge, Scheepsdalebrug, that can be lifted for passing ships. This one, however, is very different in that it has a cantilevering system. I didn´t see it work, but it must be fascinating to watch when the large arms roll down as the road surface lifts up to an estimated 45 deg angle. It was opened only in 2011, its predecessor, having survived WWII, having been scrapped despite a public outcry. It´s a bridge with its own Wikipedia article.

This is what you see first. When the bridge opens, the ends of the arms decend until…

xscheepbar

… the bolt at the end of the arm…

xscheepanchor

… engages in the huge hook on the quayside, securing the whole construction. Simple, but very place consuming.

 

Some photos from the town we stayed at.

xdehcoqstation xdehstation xdehprom xdehhouse xdehcyclistA place called de Haan was where we stayed. It´s about the only place left on the Flemish North Sea coast which has not been completely concreted over and built up with high rise flats. De Haan really is a nice place and can only be recommended. The station building belongs to the Kusttram, a tramway which goes all the way from the Dutch to the French borders, a staggering 67km.

Cycling still is the sports in Flanders – you meet many road cyclists, and also you see a number of street furniture items to remind you that you´re in the heartland of cycleracing. Flemish TV will not shy away from showing cyclocross amateur races live all Sunday. And all the drivers I encountered actually treated me, the cyclist, like a genuine participant in road traffic. On small roads drivers of huge tractors actually stopped, drivers slowed down.

People planning and maintaining cycle paths, or indeed road signs, seem to have different ideas, though – cycle paths are there to cause you flats, excepting where tourists are expected to use them, and road signs are non existant. I got lost one day until I felt quite irretrievable and I thought I´d never make it home. It was a very good thing that my Dutch enabled me to ask for the way, and the usual overpowering friendliness of the locals had me heading in the right direction just before nighfall. (A good map and/or SatNav system are perfectly irreplacable if you don´t speak either Dutch or English.) That´s one more thing I really value highly about Flanders: Even in the hottest touristy hotspots people are invariably friendly, helpful and relaxed. One saleswoman right in the middle of Bruges actually allowed me to take my bike inside the store while choosing a T-Shirt.

Here are the two neighbouring towns to the East of De Haan, Wenduine and Blankenberge (the big buildings).

xwendaps xwenplage xwendchurchTo the other side of De Haan there´s Ostende, a modern looking town, with a more usual bridge construction.

xoostbru%cc%88cke

xoostprom

Maybe you are going to dislike this, but I must say I find the modern fifties and sixties buildings in Ostende rather attractive.

xoosttrackinner

The former public cycle race track, now converted to a skater track. Ugh.

xoosttrackfull

xoosttrackskater

xoostpromother-end xoostkursaal

But Flanders also is the country of some of history´s most horrible battles, and in the Westhoek around Dixmuiden there are literally hundreds of cemetaries, monuments and other places to remind the tourist of the First World War.

xdixbhofwar

This is what the Begijnhof below looked like in 1918. It´s the exact angle of view.

xdisbhofrest xdixytoren xdixshell xdixroute xdixcouncilh xdixcanal Dixmuiden was completely destroyed in WWI and has been rebuilt to look quite exactly what it was like in 1914. The huge Ijzertoren of course is a structure that was erected in the early fifties, and its Flemish nationalist and hardcore catholic background make it a a little suspect to my mind.

Ieper / Ypers is another example of a town that was completely flattened and rebuilt.

xypmarketDon´t really know what the huge ferris wheel is doing in the market, but somebody will.

xypmpfullThe Menin Gate is a monument to the missing British soldiers of WWI. There are tens of thousands of names inscribed in every available nook and cranny of the impressively large structure.

xypmpnames xypmpnamesiiIts ceiling strongly reminds me of the one that adorns the recently finished monument to WWII Bomber Command crews in London. I wonder if it´s intentional.

xypmpceiling

Ypres

sam_7438

London

In spite of the size of Menin Gate, not all names of those missing in action in the battles around Ypers could be accomodated there. There is a huge annex to Menin Gate in Tyne Cot cemetary just outside the town.

xtynecentr xtynecmonum xtynecfullMore WWI – of course one site must be visited if you`ve got the time. It´s the place where John McCrae invented the Poppy.

xypmccraeclass

Not only is this a place drenched in history, but because of that you´re likely to meet British school children on excursions.

In Flanders Fields

But of course you can´t miss the monuments – they´re everywhere. You cycle along a road, see a sign…

xyptalcemfull

… follow it across a field on a superbly kept path…

xyptalcempart

… and there you are on yet another site of a forward medical post, a military hospital or just a battle site where so many soldiers were killed quite sense- and uselessly.

xypstrudw

This is the grave many British students on excursion leave a cross at. Look at the age of the soldier – he was the youngest Britain killed on active service in WWI.

xyptalcembennlwr

Very unusual to find a history of an officer´s educational carreer on his headstone. He was a student at the same public school as Robert Graves, btw. Also his family would have paid a handsome sum for the inscription – contrary to the stone itself and the standard data personal inscriptions at the base of the stone were not free and billed by the letter.

But you also find the smaller historical sites, like this field which once was a German airfield. It´s amazing how present WWI still is in the minds of the people.

xflandhoriz xflandhoutaveflugpl

On a less sombre note, Flanders also is Volvo Country. The Volvo works in Ghent must have a part in this, although I just saw one 760, and no other 7/9 series cars. I can´t imagine what happened to them all, you see them everywhere else in Europe on a daily basis. In Flanders it´s the modern, flashy Volvos that dominate the roads. But then again, there´s the odd exception.

xvolv144whiterust

That´s what happens if you leave a 140 series out in the open, close to the sea, for 20 odd years.

xvolv144greendixfull

Cycled past this one. Aren´t the rims ugly as hell?

xvolv940rear

My trusty 940 Turbo near Ypres canal harbour…

xvolv940front

… and someplace else.

xvolv144whitefull

All the chrome, lamps and other brightwork is still good – a real treasure trove

xvolvpolrear xvolvpolfront Not only Volvos to catch attention, though.

xvomehari

A Citroen Méhari in really good nick

xvolvmust

Hi Nikki! Is this the one?

Our family were quite unanimous in that it won´t be long until we return to Flanders.

Belgian Beauties

During my recent short holidays in Flanders I saw two very nice bikes, both in Bruges. One is a Champion – no idea if this is a repaint decal or the original brand. It is a very nice hand made frame, though, and would certainly merit saving and not being used up as a hack bike as it seems to be at the moment.

xbikechampfull

Classic Belgian bikes have brazed on carrier racks – advantages and shortcomings of this method are obvious. So the third tube brazed on the rear dropout is a rack stay. Very neat brazing throughout. Also it´s a sports frame with a single top tube and not a Mixte, as usual.

xbikereardo

This must be the most astonishing feature of the frame: A strut distributing the forces from the top tube to both down and seat tubes, thereby greatly reducing the rist of deforming or breaking the seat tube, as frquently seen in lady´s bikes. The clamp is by no means meant for a brake; it really seems to be off a Sturmey variable speed hub periphery.

xbikechampstrutsturmey xbikechampseatcl xbikechampheadtr xbikechampheadt xbikechamphbarxbikechampfrontdo xbikechampforkbr xbikechampfcrownrear xbikechampcrank xbikechampchaing xbikechampcarrier xbikechampbbside

 

The original, high quality crank – the Solida on the r/h side is a later addition. The Solida is not too well fitted (cotter) either…xbikechampbbAgain, very clean lugless construction.

 

The other bike is an AS-Thor – strange name, but a great bike.

xbikeasthorfullxbikeasthordttransfIt shows typical Belgian features, like the brazed on rack and the slightly bent French type top tubes.

xbikeasthorheadlxbikeasthorracktopxbikeasthorheadb xbikeasthorhbarxbikeasthorchainguardAlso the chain guard is rather Belgian.

When the Belgian Forces left the Cologne area in the early nineties I happened upon one of those bikes in the bulky refuse. It was seriously beautiful with some special constructional details in the frame and a wonderful paint scheme. Would you believe it – I sold it some years later. It´s now in a renowned private collection. Ah well.

London…

… is full of bikes now, really.

blogtouristsTourists borrow them,

blograiling bloglockall sorts of railings are adorned with them,

blogcanarywthey´re tucked away in the most impossible places even in Canary Wharf.

Fixie riders zoom past that quickly that you´ve hardly got a chance to snap one. Balconies are also used to store them in an age old attempt to secure them.

Also the Powers That Be have taken note:

blogdismount

French Ramblings

France – again and again a wonderful destination for holidays and sightseeing. Last year it was Paris in the rain, or so it seemed. This year we wanted to visit our friends in Normandy again. We were looking forward to short quiet holidays, but the first thing was that I fell ill the day before we wanted to set out. Nothing serious, but there was no way I could travel.

My family then decided to give me the opportunity to try out our recently acquired Volvo 940 Turbo, and left for France in our old 740 which we still had. After I had recovered, I raced after them to save as much French time as possible.

This is what I raced after them in:

X940rear X940fullIf you want more info and visual impressions, watch this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEB0ppM_PZ8

Funny thing to say on a bike blog, but this car is fun with a capital F. It cuts hours off the traveling time from here to Normandy, and with its LPG installation, fuel cost per 100 km is about 6 Euros at the moment.

Anyway, not feeling completely healthy again, and what with the time saved by using the 940, I was able to have another good look round the Nécropole Nationale de Notre Dame de Lorette. Having been several times, but only fleetingly, I took the chance and combined a long lunch break with a stroll round the newly (2014) built Anneau de la Mémoire which is a ring with a perimetre of 345 m, containing the names of all those soldiers of WWI who died in the area:

XNdlRingExplThe ring is hugely impressive and, to my mind, very much worth a visit.

XNdlViewdown

Looking down at Ablain-St-Nazaire

XNdlRingSlitView XNDLRinginner XNDLRingfullIt is situated right next to the Chapelle and the Tour-lanterne which, together with about 45.000 crosses, make the Nécropole Nationale.

XNdlBasilXNDLLighthfullThese buildings also are extremely impressive and were erected during the 1920s. Contrary to the many British cemetaries in the area, which have a distinct military feel about them, the Nécropole Nationale reminds visitors again and again how horrible and wasteful WWI had been. It says for instance that the Chapelle was built on “the tears of the French women”, and this plaque, taken from the interior of the Chapelle and now on exposition in the museum part of the Tour-lanterne, speaks by itself:

XNdlPlaque

We offered up our lives for the peace of the world, but we died for the cannon dealers

XNDLpoppywreathMany people, especially from the UK, still keep the memory of WWI alive – contrary to the Germans, who by now have all but forgotten it.

I had planned to visit poet Isaac Rosenberg´s grave at St Laurent Blangy, which is just around the corner, so I also looked up his name on the Anneau:

XNdlRodenbergSo, after one last look over the huge Nécropole I left and made for Rosenberg´s grave, fully expecting to find a lost headstone somewhere on one of the hundreds of British cemetaries on the Somme. But this is what I really discovered:

XRosenberggraveFlowers, though whithered, his portrait, many small stones on the headstone in the Jewish tradition. Amazing.

I had planned to carry on straight to Normandy from there, but the road between Bapaume and Albert had been blocked and I had to go on a detour. It was July 23, and the big Australian memorial service for which safety precautions had been taken was under way, this year of course being the 100th since the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The detour led me to Ulster Tower. I was glad I had a pretext to go because the octagenarian gentleman and his family, who tend to the tower during summertime, always are great to talk to – he is one of the few people who have owned a classic 1950s Ellis-Briggs bike since new, or nearly. I was eager to find out about the bike´s restauration progress, but the usually so forsaken Ulster Tower was in the middle of… Well, see for yourself, or you probably won´t believe it:

XUlstcoaches

Something was afoot – coaches from Scotland – ?

XUlstparade

Covering the short distance between the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing and Ulster Tower, c/w pipe band and all

XUlstVAD

Everyone in recreated historic uniforms, even the VAD nurses

XUlstafterparade XUlstparadeBand XUlstfull

After the parade, a picnic was held on the lawn, and I was able to talk to participants about a part of British folklore I until then had been completely unaware of.

Having also found Roland Leighton´s name on the Anneau at Notre Dame de Lorette,

XNdlLeighton

I decided to re-visit his grave too. It is found in Louvencourt, only a short distance from my route.

XGraveLeighton XGraveLeicrossesAgain, this year with its anniversary seemd to have made a difference, and even more flowers and crosses than usual could be found, even a large bunch of violets.

Leighton was Vera Brittain´s fiancé – “VMB” and “RAL” on the centre poppy are their initials. Brittain, one of the most ardent British pacifists of the inter-war years and author of many touching poems as well as “Testament of Youth” and many other books, had been sent a poem on violets by Leighton from the trenches. It´s called “Villanelle” (although, strictly speaking, it isn´t one), and starts with the verses

“Violets from Plug Street Wood,
Sweet, I send you oversea.”

It continues describing how the speaker finds the violets next to a dead soldier “Where his mangled body lay” and that he thinks it strange that the flowers were “Blue, when his soaked blood was red”. (Plug Street Wood was a nickname British soldiers had given to a part of the front.)

After Leighton´s death in December 1915, the day he was due for home leave, Brittain, having earlier joined the VAD, became a nurse in frontline hospitals in France, nursing, among others, German prisoners with the most horrible wounds. Utterly exhausted, burnt out as we would say, at the end of the war, she returned to Oxford and started a distinguished journalistic carreer. Her “Testament of Youth”, in which she depicts her early life, is quite incomparable. She writes, among other issues, about losing her brother, her fiancé, and two close friends. A first edition of “Testament” and a tiny brochure dating from 1920 containing first impressions of some of her poems are among my most cherished possessions.

But on to some more cheerful topics.

One more railway track turned cycle path, for instance. This one goes from Gisors to Giverny, and is most delightful:

XVoieferHomDam XVoieferrÜberg XVoieferrSchild XVoieferrBoiteLire

And one more little detail. About six weeks ago an acquaintance who does house clearances sold me this bike

trekfullview

Trek 2300, fitted with Ultegra 6500 3 x 9 and pretty new Bontrager wheels

rather cheaply. There was a lot of work as the former owner had had rather strange ideas of what one needs on a road bike, and he also must have been quite hamfisted, but never having ridden an alloy /carbon fibre frame / fork combo before, I thought I´d give it a try. It came in very handy when I didn´t have much energy for packing my car before leaving for France – wheels out, and bingo.

Once in France, I used it on several occasions and was impressed by its quickness. I zoomed along some backroads to destinations my wife had left for by car, coming across two or three really interesting spots in the area south west of Beauvais.

Here´s a really nice village which seems to be untouched by modern times.

XFlFbikepanneauXFlFfullI love those age-old signs.

In a neighbouring village, the old roadsign erected by Michelin in the late thirties had been lovingly transplanted on the lawn next to the Mairie.

XBezMich XBezfull XBezdateThis sign, in a town in the vicinity, consisting of glazed earthenware, must have been in situ for more than 60 years:

XZweitesSchildDate XZweitesSchfullLastly a wonderful view, bought with surprisingly little climbing:

XBeauvoirviewHopefully I´ll be back in Normandy in the not too distant future.

Cyclists Dismount

Sorry for the recent lack of posts.

I´ve had an utter work overload, repeated instances of illness, plus my trusty old Mac failed at last, so there was literally no energy left for most cycling activities, let alone for the blog. What I find most amazing is that the less I write, the more clicks I seem to get – up to 1.500 a month. Thank you all for this, it´s inspiring.

Here´s a photo from a recent trip I took in the vicinity, to prove I´m still doing at least a little bit:

MielehochWesthoyel

 

But for the time being it will have to be

xRAbstfor me.

 

Two Veteran Rides

I´ve had the pleasure of being able to take part in two local veteran bike rides. Both were organised by ADFC members. The ADFC is the equivalent to the CTC, roughly, so it seems to have taken on another task, that of looking after riders who care about old bicycles. Good.

The first one was for all takers, meaning, everyone who owns an old bike could take part. The average speed was very easy, the group was friendly, and there even was a stop at a restaurant at about half way. Not all participants are on the group photo as some had already departed.

xgp

xSafetylampholder xSafetyheadb xSafetyfullThe most interesting bike to my mind was an early 1890s safety, that day equipped with modern wheels to make it more rideable (brake!) Still, an impressive machine.

Also rather nice was an all original and hardly ridden 1936 Wanderer ladies in export version.

xWandheadb xWandDyn xWandbbAnd of course this early Presto was quite exciting to look at, too.

xoldheadb xoldfull xoldchainwhActually, it seemed to me that all bikes present were special.

xRabenheadb xopelrearmudg

xRabenheadbxBrandebheadb

A pre-WWII ex-Swiss Army Condor must have been the heaviest one. Mark those horrible chain- and seat stay Ends. Cranked is no expression. Not my taste in bikes at all.

xCondorreardo xCondorheadb xCondordyn xCondorbb

 

The other ride was quite well planned, too. It was specially designed for riders of veteran racing bikes – a first in our area. My problem was that I didn´t feel well that day and I had to leave early. There were two PBP finishers among the five participants of the ride, BTW. The standard in bikes was high, the riding speed would have been just right.

dT1hSFIwY0Rvdkx6TmpMV3hwZG1VdFltRndMbk5sY25abGNpNXNZVzR2YldGcGJDOWpiR2xsYm5RdmFXNTBaWEp1WVd3dllYUjBZV05vYldWdWRDOWtiM2R1Ykc5aFpDOTBZWFIwTUY4eUxTMHRkRzFoYVRFME5UaG1PR000WkRZd1lXWXlPVEk3YW5ObGMzTnBiMjVwWkQxQ1JUSTRRVFkxUmpnM09UQxRennradtourgpI greatly enjoyed the bit I took part in and look forward to the promised second edition in autumn.

 

Miele 2016 in Gütersloh

XMAFrontSo, what about this year´s Miele Meet in Gütersloh? Before I start on it, let me remark that I have ridden my ´58 Original a lot this season already. First there was a century in Gütersloh, again, a normal RTF.

XMRFStationXMRFI also met someone I would encounter again a week later at the Miele do, on a nicely restored 1937 model.

Then it was the Big Day. I always look forward to the Miele Meet a lot, and of course it´s nice to go with friends and acquaintances, so this year there were four of us – Werner, a PBP ancien who was on my son´s 1952 Sports which was much too small for him. The lack in size was a good thing for the rest of the group as Werner would probably have been bored to bits by the distance (70km in all) and the average speed (about 20kph).

We met in a place called Werther from which we had chosen a more or less scenic route to Gütersloh.

XMStartWertherAs we relied on one group member´s GPS we got lost of course, but still made it in time. When we had nearly arrived we passed by the huge Miele headquarters and could not resist to depict the group as pilgrims.

XSPilgrimsOnce at the meeting place, the Gütersloh Stadmuseum, municipal museum, we noted that there were not as many participants as in former years, which was the first disappointment. 31 riders had found their way to the event.

XMCarbide XMHeavyMetal XMHeavyM2 XMDynBadge XMCarbRTThe usual heavy metal was hardly punctured by the really interesting bikes, like very early ones or those wonderful sports bikes.

Instead, there was this machine which I personally didn´t like at all. The front Gazelle brake with its weird construction replacing the Gazelle cable rest braze on is only the most obvious instance of modern parts not really being a good idea on a thirties frame. Also the fifties sports chainset was, sorry, an eyesore on the heavy thirties tourer frame. All in all, the machine looked like a Pashley Guvnor re-make.

XMHorrorChainset XMHorrorheadb XMHorrorhbars XMHorrorfull XMHorrorfrontbrakeIn comparison to this some really umkempt bikes felt charming, reminding me of the eighties when I earned some money repairing bikes as a student.

XMPoorGirlStadtmuseum as a backdrop afforded some nice scenes which might have come straight from the fifties.

XMRow2XMRowThere were some really well restored bikes, too, mostly by the same paintwork artist.

XMSameRestoRed XMSameRestoFunnily enough, one of the most interesting bikes was a Bismarck, completely unrelated to the Marque.

XMBismtransf

The transfer says, “Garantie für Hartlötung – rostgeschütze Emaille” – Guarantee for brazed frame and rustproof enamel”

XMBism XMBismHeadb XMBismGearsMy favourite bike this time, though, was a marvel of an originial Mondia, a brand name Miele used in the late twenties/early thirties. It seems to be the only survivor.

XMMondiafull XMMondiaseatt XMMondiaheadb

One of the rare sports bikes was equipped with an alloy shell F&S Model 53 three speed, a technical achievement: It is completely silent in use, no clicking. However, as a friend likes to put it: It´s always good for a breakdown, so it was only made for three years or so.

 

XMMod52

At around midday we set off for the ca. 20km ride through the lush greenery surrounding Gütersloh, which, despite its industry of world wide renown (Miele, Bertelsmann) really is a country town. All participants enjoyed the well planned ride greatly, just like the stop with the usual lunch paid for by Gütersloh town council. The lunch for meat eaters paid for by Gütersloh, that is, as the few vegetarians among us experienced a rather unfriendly and inflexible restaurant staff insisting on us paying in full for our not very original veggie meals, not even deducting the flat rate for our meat meals paid by the town council, I imagine.

XMBreak

View from the restaurant window

So let´s hope the meet returns to its former glory next year.

XMOursOff to collect an NSU lady´s sports from about 1950 in a minute. Of course I´d bought it if it had been a Miele.

Birmingham by Canal

A guest post (thank you!) by my son who lives in Birmingham at the moment. The post muts rank among the most interesting ones on this blog.

The bike my son´s speaking about is this: https://starostneradost.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=11458&action=edit

 

 

One of the staple ingredients of touristy cycling in Britain are its canals. Once major transport arteries, they form quite an extensive route network in certain areas and are home to some impressive Victorian engineering to be marvelled at. Most of this impressive engineering only serves the purpose of eliminating any height difference in order to keep the canal perfectly level, or to allow the boats to negotiate any height difference.

 

With the advent of railways and motorways, most canals lost their relevance as transport arteries and were in some cases left to decay or even built over. Those which do survive serve mainly recreational and touristy purposes, both in terms of navigation and cycling. The towpaths along most canals allow for very scenic rides, uninterrupted by noisy motor traffic. The lack of any height difference eliminates the need for exhausting climbs, save for some shorter ‘ramps’ at some overbridges or locks.

 

The story is a slightly different one with the canal I recently visited: The Worcester and Birmingham Canal, which runs through a very densely populated area. Along its towpath, one can cycle from Wasthill Tunnel near the outer suburbs of Birmingham to Gas Street Basin, located in the very centre. Along the way, it passes major traffic destinations such as several railway stations, Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the University of Birmingham. This means that this specific canal is used by a certain number of commuters and forms a major cycling artery for the south-western parts of Birmingham.

 

To gather the material used in this post, I rode the length of the canal between Gas Street Basin/The Mailbox and Wasthill Tunnel several times. That provided me with enough observations and photos for a blogpost on an enjoyable and scenic ride along a canal. Drawing on these observations, I will then go on to making some remarks about the usefulness of this route for daily commuting, which the majority of cyclists I encountered seem to be using this path for.

 

The bike I used for all the rides is my current daily rider: A Dutch Gazelle, which I brought along from Germany. It may not seem to be the most appropriate choice for the somewhat hilly geography round here, but so far I haven‘t had any issues at all with its weight. I got the bike just a few months ago, so I am not completely used to its exact dimensions and its weight, which turned out to be quite a bit of a challenge on the narrow paths along the canal. As Dutch bikes are quite a rarity in this neck of the woods, it‘s been a conversation-starter several times.

 

I joined the canal path at Selly Oak, near the Bristol Road (B384) overbridge. Getting there meant using the somewhat narrow cycle paths along the A38 Selly Oak Bypass.

 

1 SOakNarrow

 

Yep, that path is barely wide enough to accommodate one bike, yet it is meant to be two-way. On the opposite side of the road, there is exactly the same arrangement – that effectively makes four substandard cycle lanes along the same road, when providing two adequate ones could have been done so easily. A few yards along the road, this path narrows even further and is squeezed between a traffic light pole and metal railings, before ending abruptly. Cyclists are left to deal with the messy road junction that is Selly Oak Triangle. The A38, B384, and A4040, all of them busy roads, converge into a sea of traffic lights, with several supermarket car parks thrown in for good measure. Somewhere in that mess, the access ramp to the canal is to be found after some searching.

 

Once you’ve found the access to the canal, nicely hidden behind the back of the car dealership, you’ve finally made it.

 

2 OnCanal

 

After passing underneath the B384 overbridge, we get a rather magnificient view of Selly Oak Railway Bridge.

 

3 SOakRailBridge

 

The railway and the canal run fairly close to each other, and the B384 climbs quite steeply to pass under the railway and over the canal.

 

4 SOakBillboard

 

Considering the traffic on Selly Oak Triangle that we just escaped from, the derelict plot of land in the foreground and the graffiti on the bridge, that advertising billboard just adds insult to injury.

 

5 RailOverbridge

 

The railway overbridge makes for the first nasty squeeze, with the canal narrowing to the width of a single boat and the ceiling over the towpath getting distinctly low. With hindsight, it’s not too much of an inconvenience, considering the things to come. After the bridge, we can catch our first glimpse of the University of Birmingham.

 

6 UniFirstGlimpse

 

The tower on the left is a large chimney stack. In the middle, Muirhead Tower, home to the School of Government and Society, shows its concrete and glass glory. The clock tower on the right is Europe‘s tallest free-standing clock tower, Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Tower. Colloquially, it is known as ‘Old Joe’ among the staff and students of the University.

 

Just as we think that we can finally pick up some speed, the path and canal narrow again:

 

7 ApprAqueduct

 

The narrower section with the concrete ‘pavements’ in the distance is on top of Selly Oak Aqueduct. The clock tower in the top-left hand corner belongs to the Old Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

 

8 AquedTopRbt

 

The viaduct takes the canal and the railway over the A38 Selly Oak Bypass and its hideous cycle lanes. I caught the A38 at an unusually quiet moment – usually, traffic is getting in lane (read: queueing and fighting for space) for the roundabout. A few hundred yards later, traffic plunges into Selly Oak Triangle.

 

9 AquedTopHalls

 

On the other side of the aqueduct, the A38 runs between several privatised Student Halls and approaches the Campus itself, hugging its southern boundary, before proceeding towards the city centre.

 

A little further along, the canal starts hugging the western edge of the University campus. Through some gaps in the foliage, we are allowed some views of the campus – with some strategically positioned signs to match.

 

10 UniFoliageSign

 

We continue on our journey. To our right, the campus begins immediately behind the trees, although you‘d never guess. To our left, the same applies to University Station – yep, there‘s a complete, working railway station hidden behind the fence and the shrubs.

 

11ContJourney

 

Next on the list are the overbridges for Pritchatts Road and Somerset Road. There is no connection between Pritchatts Road and the canal, which caught me out on my first visit. You‘ll have to deviate either via the University‘s West Gate overbridge or Somerset Road overbridge. Getting to the canal from these bridges requires negotiating a flight of stairs – not exactly ideal. At The Vale, there is an access ramp to the overbridge, as well as ample space and some benches for taking a break.

 

12 TheVale

 

The railway needs to make a larger bend to line up for the upcoming tunnel, so it runs several metres away from the canal at this point, freeing up the space for this resting area and the gently curved access ramp to The Vale. The only issue is that we are still hugging the University‘s western boundary – the bridge does not connect to a public right of way. However, the University does allow public access ‘during daylight hours’, according to the signs. Talking of signs, there is another strategically positioned photo opportunity:

 

13 ValeSign

 

The large tower is part of the Maple Bank complex of The Vale, the University‘s own student halls.

 

 

14 ValeCont

 

After a good rest, we continue once more. It is only now that the railway starts to become more apparent – right behind the green fence on the left. A little further around the bend, Edgbaston Tunnel awaits us.

 

 

 

15 Tunnel 16 InsideTunnel

 

That path on the left is exactly wide enough for one bicycle – panniers will be challenging; a trailer nigh on impossible. One always needs to make perfectly sure there is nobody coming the other way, and then squeeze between the railings and the wall. Certainly an experience.

 

17 AfterTunnel

 

After the tunnel, the railway line does not make a secret of itself any more. What follows is an arrow-straight run of almost half a mile up to the next overbridge, visible in the distance.

 

Virtually all of these bridges are built in a similar fashion, creating the illusion of the canal continuing almost forever in a non-changing environment. It is only when you arrive at the overbridge for the A4540 Middleway Ring Road, which of course is a 1960s concrete job, that you realise things are about to become a bit more urban in a moment. Or are they?

 

18 AfterMiddleways

 

This shot is taken immediately after the Middleway Overbridge, facing the city centre. Not exactly urban, is it? Round the gentle curve, we meet the last overbridge before the end of the canal. In the meantime, this bridge has gained some scaffolding, narrowing the path to about two feet.

 

19 LastOverbridge

 

Immediately behind that bridge – boom! We‘re right in the city centre.

 

20 boom

 

The three photos above were taken within a hundred metres of each other – that‘s a sudden transition! Gas Street Basin, the point from which almost all of Birmingham‘s canals start, is around the corner to the left.

 

Now compare and contrast this to the other end of the line (or at least the towpath): The northern portal of Wasthill Tunnel, eight miles away in the outer suburbs.

 

21 WasthillTunnel

 

That tunnel is too long to allow for any pedestrian and cycle traffic.

 

So, I hear you saying, we’ve got this de facto cyclepath that dumps you right in the city centre after an extremely scenic ride, and cleverly avoids South Birmingham’s traffic-throttling suburbs on the way. The spacing (or lack, depending on your point of view) of junctions or crossroads, with all crossings being grade-separated thanks to the use of overbridges, makes for almost motorway-like cruising along at speeds usually unachievable on surface roads, with little or nothing interfering with progress. Commuters must love it, surely?

 

Well, I’m not so sure.

 

It is the towpath’s grade-separated nature, avoiding any crossings on the level, that also is among its biggest flaws. Getting onto the path or turning off can get challenging in some cases. At many overbridges, the towpath and the crossing road do not connect at all, as in the case of Pritchatts Road, Raddlebarn Road, or the Selly Oak Bypass (the latter probably being explained by the height difference) or only by means of a steep flight of stairs, such as University Station/West Gate, Somerset Road, or Bath Row. This means that cycle and disabled access is severely limited. Over the eight-mile journey, there are just six places where you can get to or off the path without negotiating a flight of stairs: The Mailbox, The Vale, Selly Oak, Pershore Road, Lifford Lane, and Wasthill Tunnel/Foyle Road. Most of these points are concentrated towards the southern parts of the canal, i.e. away from the city centre. The turnoff at The Vale has the additional problem that it does not connect to any public right of way. A sign at the end of the bridge informs you that you are entering the University’s private land, which, according to the sign “the public is welcome to use during daylight hours”. This effectively leaves you without any level access between The Mailbox and Selly Oak, a distance of three miles. In many countries, rural motorway junctions are spaced closer than that!

 

Cycle commuting along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal is only feasible for those commuting from the south-western corner of Birmingham to either the University or city centre. However, the outer suburbs such as Bromsgrove or Redditch are too far away to make cycling a truly feasible option for most people. The main radial roads that the canal route could bypass are the A38 Bristol Road and the A441 Pershore Road. Especially the latter is severly lacking in terms of cycling infrastructure. The A38 has seen major investment in the form of the Selly Oak bypass scheme, which came with some rather hideous cycling provisions. My daily commute involves crossing both of these roads on the level, and the congestion has to be seen to be believed. The general southern Birmingham area is characterised by an apalling lack of both cycling and driving infrastructure. During the evening rushhour, Cannon Hill Park basically becomes a cycling motorway, only to come to a screeching halt at the badly congested B4217 Salisbury Road. In terms of driving infrastructure, there’s the A435 Hollywood Bypass and ermmm… well. Again, the rat-running and ensuing congestion along residential roads such as Stoney Lane and Yardley Wood Road has to be seen to be believed.

 

So, what is there that stops this towpath from becoming a cycling superhighway, convincing commuters to switch from driving to cycling en masse?

 

In terms of alignment, not much at all. Okay, some bends are a bit tight, reducing forward visibility. Vertical alignment? Well, it’s a canal, so it has to be dead flat of course. The locks at Parson’s Hill Junction actually come with a sign explaining that these locks are studiously maintaining a water level difference of one inch (!) between the different branches. Except for some ducking under overbridges, you’ll get from Stirchley to The Mailbox with just a few feet of ascending and descending.

 

It is this ducking under bridges and threading through Edgbaston Tunnel, that makes things hairy. Under most bridges, you really need to mind your head as these are almost invariably of the arched type, compromising headroom over the towpath quite badly. In most of these places, the path is not wide enough to accomodate traffic in both direction at the same time – you have to take it in turns with oncoming traffic. This is an especially large issue inside Edgbaston Tunnel – the path, hemmed in by the tunnel wall on one side and railing between the path and the water on the other side, is barely wide enough for one bicycle. Two pedestrians will struggle to squeeze past each other, so pushing your bike is not an option. The only option: Crank your neck round the edge one last time to check for oncoming traffic, take your life in your hands and cycle through it. Thankfully, ending up in the water is nigh on impossible. Accidentally steering towards the water or ‘ricocheting’ off the tunnel wall and then ending up in the water is made impossible by the railing.

 

Generally, width is a bit of an issue on the whole path, even on the ‘open’ sections. The path could certainly do with an extra foot or two in most places. However, this is much easier said than done due to the path being sandwiched between the railway line and the, well, canal. Roadspace, both in terms of pavement and verges, really is at a premium, and it is up to the users to avoid ending up in the water. Especially during your first few rides, this can be quite unsettling. Due to these width constraints and the lack of forward visibility mentioned earlier, overtaking slower cyclists or pedestrians becomes an extremely hairy business.

 

What really got me, though, is the state of the road surface. I know that this specific towpath is lucky to have a paved surface, but I daresay it would almost be better to go without it in this case. Compared to the unpaved south edge of the Birmingham Canal, I am almost tempted to say that the latter was a lot smoother to ride on and allowed for higher speeds, save for the odd muddy puddle. On the Worcester and Birmingham canal, you will need a mountain bike with full suspension in order to maintain at least a decent speed without having your bike shaken to bits or, even worse, shedding your load into the water.

 

I have some very fond memories of zooming along the recently opened Véloroute du Lin in norther France last summer, for long stretches maintaining 40kph except for the somewhat daft junction arrangements, forcing traffic on the Véloroute to stop and give way at every single crossing, including the tiniest and most overgrown of dirt tracks. On the Worcester and Birmingham Canal with its grade-separated junctions, even 20kph will become an incredibly shaky business. Of course, this comparison is not a truly just one as I used different bikes for these trips: The Ellis-Briggs Randonneur I used in France may be much more appropriate for maintaining high speeds in cramped conditions than the much heavier and larger Gazelle I used here. Nevertheless, the point about the truly awful road surface remains.

 

 

To conclude: Is the towpath of that much use for cycling? I’m afraid not. While the idyllic setting lends itself to recreational cycling, the disadvantages discussed above do constrain the recreational value. If squeezing between oncoming traffic and a tall fence while being shaken to bits by the bad road surface is your idea of recreation, then go right at it. Everyday commuting? Progress is not as quick as it could or should be, and you will often find yourself having to use or even doubling back along other roads to destinations located in the immediate vicinity of the canal due to the lack of access, which somewhat defeats the point of riding along the canal in the first place. Again, the road surface does constrain speeds quite dramatically. Any load you accidentally shed from your luggage rack or your panniers almost inevitably ends up in the water – not exactly the fate you imagined for your laptop or these vitally important project files.

 

How could the situation be improved? Well, it’s obvious, really: Widening the path by an extra foot or two (where possible) will eliminate the hairiest of squeezing manoeuvres, but what’s really needed is resurfacing. In my view, improving the towpath that way would be a much more feasible way of providing truly cycle-friendly infrastructure than the rather hideous cycle lanes along the A38.

54 Zoll und Karbidlampe

One more German language post about a meeting in Germany. Asked to publish the text by the organizers I thought I´d better not translate it.

Historisches Radrennen beim Jugendstilfestival Bad Nauheim

„Es gibt davon vielleicht noch fünf fahrbereite Räder in ganz Europa“, Wolfgang Fickus vom Radfahrer-Verein 1893 Gross-Gerau ist stolz auf sein Opel Kettenlos. Gebaut 1903 stammt es aus der Blütezeit des Jugendstils. „Die ‚Kardan-Technik‘ machte es damals extrem teuer und nur für die gut betuchte Gesellschaft bezahlbar. Deswegen existieren nur noch ganz wenige davon.“ Zusammen mit vielen anderen Rad-Raritäten aus der Zeit um 1900 ist das Sammlerstück beim Jugendstilfestival in Bad Nauheim zu sehen. Vom 9. bis 11. September zelebriert das „Weltbad der Belle Epoque“ die Lebensart des Jugendstils mit Architektur, Mode, Musik, Kunsthandwerk und einem besonderen Höhepunkt am Festival-Samstag – dem Historischen Radrennen.

Beim Rennen tritt Raritäten-Sammler Fickus auf einem „Opel II“, einer „Leichteren Tourenmaschine“ aus dem Jahr 1898 und in Kleidung von anno dazumal an. Mit Kerzenlampe vorne, einer Öllampe mit rotem Glas hinten, einem kleinen Rennlenker und noch ohne Freilauf zeigt sich das Gefährt im originalen Zustand. Das Rad und sein Fahrer müssen beim Rennen nicht besonders schnell, sondern besonders gleichmäßig ihre Runden im Kurpark und dem angrenzenden Sprudelhof drehen, um zu gewinnen.

Die Kulisse für das Spektakel ist einzigartig. Die historischen Kuranlagen gelten als größtes geschlossenes Jugendstilensemble in Europa. Da ist es stimmig, dass auch das Outfit der Fahrerinnen und Fahrer zum Baujahr ihres Vehikels passen soll: Die authentischste Erscheinung bekommt den Publikumspreis. Radfahren galt zur Zeit des Jugendstils ohnehin eher dem „Sehen und Gesehen werden“. Damen und Herren, die sich ein Rad leisteten, fuhren damit in feinem Zwirn zur Promenade in den Park aus.

So besteigen auch Udo Kühnel und Sohn Michael in Frack und Zylinder ihre Hochräder. Sie messen 54 Zoll und sind mit Karbidlampen bestückt. Die Vereinskollegen von Wolfgang Fickus bauen Hochräder der Jahre 1880 bis 1890 nach historischem Vorbild eigenhändig nach.

10. Jugendstilfestival Bad Nauheim vom 11. bis 13.09.2015 2015 mit dem 1. Historischen Radrennen am 12.09.2015

Kühnel & Sohn: Udo Kühnel baut mit Sohn Michael Hochräder nach historischem Vorbild. Foto: Fachdienst Kultur und Sport Bad Nauheim, Oliver Groß (Und sie können´s nicht lassen mit Frack und Zylinder zu fahren… Anm. d. Red.)

Teilnehmen dürfen am Historischen Radrennen alle, die mit Vehikeln bis Baujahr 1935 antreten. Neben Hoch- und Niederrädern, sollen auch Laufräder, sogenannte Draisinen, Velocipedes sowie Drei- und Vierräder an den Start gehen. Anmeldungen sind bis 30. Juli möglich.

Jugendstilfestival Bad Nauheim, 9. – 11. September 2016, Historisches Radrennen am 10. September. Programm und weitere Informationen: Bad Nauheim Stadtmarketing und Tourismus GmbH, Telefon 06032 / 92 992-0

 

 

10. Jugendstilfestival Bad Nauheim vom 11. bis 13.09.2015 2015 mit dem 1. Historischen Radrennen am 12.09.2015

Hingucker: Das Outfit der Fahrer passt zum Baujahr der Räder. Foto: Fachdienst Kultur und Sport Bad Nauheim, Oliver Groß

10. Jugendstilfestival Bad Nauheim vom 11. bis 13.09.2015 2015 mit dem 1. Historischen Radrennen am 12.09.2015

Mit Blütenschmuck: Auch die jungen Fahrer haben mächtig Spaß. Foto: Fachdienst Kultur und Sport Bad Nauheim, Oliver Groß

10. Jugendstilfestival Bad Nauheim vom 11. bis 13.09.2015 2015 mit dem 1. Historischen Radrennen am 12.09.2015

Stramme Waden: Knickerbocker verheddern sich nicht in der Kette. Foto: Fachdienst Kultur und Sport Bad Nauheim, Oliver Groß

Bad Nauheim/Sprudelhof/8.Jugendstilfestival/Hochrad/Radfahrer-Verein Opel 1888 Rüsselsheim e.V./fotografiert am 08.09.2013

Tarnung: Damen auf dem Hochrad waren seinerzeit verpönt. Allenfalls durften sie das Rad bestaunen – oder sie tarnten sich als Herr, um fahren zu können. Foto: BNST

Text und Fotos: Jugendstilfestival Bad Nauheim

A Souvenir

A quick look at a book I brought from Neerkant, now already four weeks ago. Time flies.

SAM_7044It´s called Brik Schotte, I think (there´s no title given anywhere, and it was written by Rik Vanwalleghem (yes, he´s done it again) and published in 2011 (I think) in – well, where, actually? – by Uitgeverij (Editors) Kannibaal. Strange.

But then, when you open the book, you can see that it´s not really yet another bio on Schotte, but more like a private album of this most fascinating of all cycle racers.

SAM_7045This idea strikes you when you discover that the picture on the cover is detachable, again like in a photo album. Nice, and unusual.

SAM_7046What you get is memories by Brik´s sister, scans of his diaries, a scan of the cover of his well-worn French textbook, and a picture of the surface of the moon accompanied by a recipe for Briekbrod, Briek´s bread. Ah, not the moon, but bread. Right.

The book also gives a solution as to why Schotte used both Briek and Brik as his first name: If you have to sign so many picture cards, it makes a difference if there´s one letter less. In print it´s OK to have one more.

All of course written in Flemish, a language which I really like. What´s better than the word overwinningskes to show that a series of victories wasn´t really that important.

What I definitively do not like is this:

SAM_7050Or this:

SAM_7047Namely, large pics I would have liked to savour, printed across two pages of the standard small format softcover which does have stitced binding, but only as far as the layers go. The book itself looks quite fragile,

SAM_7048and I surely do not want to crack its spine. I hate that even more than not being able to look at the pics properly.

So who are those people who make books equipped with good ideas, wonderful archive material but lacking the binding to make it fully enjoyable? They´re the people behind Merckxissimo, the book on Merckx, after which there were several to follow. Guess why they call themselves Kannibaal.

They say that they love sports and books. Founded in 2009, the firm has a very healthy catalogue taking into account the low number of years. The catalogue comprises books on cyclesport, war, car racing, football and lifestyle, to name but a few. The website also reveals the whereabouts of the uitgeverij: It´s in Veurne.

The catalogue also reveals very moderate prices, our Briek book is but €9.95, which I think is a steal, especially as I guess that only a few hundred copies can have run off the press. The lack of a hard cover is now forgiven as one can easily buy two copies: One to read, and one to save. I paid seven Euros for the (perfect) used copy, which goes to show that I assumed it cost much more new.

SAM_7049After three book reviews more or less in a row, I guess it´s about time the new season rendered some cycling posts again. I have promised myself to do more rides on my old bikes – yeah, right, as I did last year, the year before, and the one before that. But, big BUT, I´m going to scour the pages of retrokoers punt nl in a moment. I´d love to go to Holten on May 22, for example, let´s see if they haven´t got more info on this ride now. Keep your fingers crossed it´ll work out.