Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bikepacking: first attempts

Out on the road

I've been thinking of doing some cycle touring for years. I like camping and like cycling, so why not do the two together? I'm thinking of cycling the King's Road from Helsinki to Turku - I know the areas it passes through and they are lovely, but you see so much when cycling than in a car. I think I could do it in two or three days - so needed to find a way to put gear for that time on my bike.

Early morning in northern Nuuksio

There seems to be a newish movement/fashion(?) for "bikepacking" - which is mixing traditional cycle touring and ideas from ultralight backpacking. I don't know if its a rule but bikepackers tend to seem to aim at not using full racks and panniers as is traditional in cycle touring. If you are aiming at off road riding I can see the attraction of having all your gear clear of the wheels. For me it just seemed a sensible approach as then I wouldn't have to invest in panniers and full racks.

Arriving at my campsite in Nuuksio, just before sun down on a chilly, grey evening.

I did buy a couple of things, but decided I would make do with what was available from Biltema (for Brits think Halfords, B&Q and Wilkinsons rolled into one giant warehouse shop). Firstly a bolt on seatpost rack, and secondly a handlebar bag - as much as to have some sort of fitting for the bars as for the bag itself.  Despite neither of these being perfect for my bike, they did the job and formed the basis for my packing. Everything else would be camping and biking kit I already had. Under the seatpost rack I could attach my rolled up sleeping mat and a ground sheet. In a dry-bag strapped on top of the rack I had a sleeping bag, tarp and a few bits of spare clothing.

Kettle's on - tea in bed

I had a stove, fuel, food, a pot, food, waterproofs and various other odds and sods in the handlebar bag and in another dry-bag strapped underneath it.

This water at the edge of the lake had been open when I went to bed the night before.

I was aiming at not carrying a rucksack at all. I don't like cycling with a pack on - a camelbak is OK for mountain biking but on my road bike or hybrid it just doesn't feel right and starts making my back ache on longer rides. My improvised packing system seem to work quite well, I want a few more things for a multiday ride, but there was still space available in my system so it should work ok.

The sun came out in the morning, but the end of winter on the lakes still looks dull

I decided my commuting bike - a Felt Hybrid - would be perfect. It's got no heavy suspension and goes pretty fast on smooth road, but its wheels and tyres are good for footpaths, dirt tracks, and other moderate non-surfaced riding. It's also super reliable, and the Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres on it have proven to be puncture proof in something like 5000 kms of riding.

All the gear off the bike.

I didn't get to leave until the evening on the first day due to family commitments. But the evenings are long already and I got in just short of 30 kms, on a mix of road and unsurfaced roads, westwards from home ending up at the northern end of Nuuksio national park. I opted for one of the official camp grounds as there is wood ready for an open fire - which is always nice. Being a weekday there was no one else there. To save weight I had taken just a tarp rather than a tent. It was raining around midnight, not hard, but enough to know the tarp was doing its job. It cleared overnight and there was a frost by morning. Thanks to the great sleeping bag that I got as a review from Marmot, I slept like a log, although I was reminded that a Ridgerest on its own isn't as comfy as even my normal 3/4 length ultralight thermarest. I like the Ridgerest for its unpunctureable simplicity - mine is coming on 15 years old and is still perfect, but maybe I will consider taking the thermarest for multiple nights out.

defeated by snow still on the path

After breakfast I headed off for the best bit of the day's riding, south through Nuuksio - generally following Reitti 2000. The day started with a great 10 or 15 kms on tracks and forest roads, nothing technical, but quiet riding with no one else around through the forest waking both from the night and from winter more generally. There were plentiful birds and butterflies about, and I saw hares and toads on the tracks. Down at Solvalla the route heads off eastwards but turned out to be impassable due to snow still on the track. Most of the snow in the forest had thawed, but because the path is a major ski route in winter, the snow there had been packed down. I headed back for the tarmac road and the longer way around. I ate lunch by the thawing lake Bodom, then head the last 30 kms or so home.

Overall I only rode a bit less than 90 kms in an evening and then the short-ish following day, but really it was more about camping out and figuring if I could strap the gear I need onto my bike and whether it would all stay there. And indeed it seemed to work - I was worried that vibrations would work my packing loose but this didn't seem to happen.

I would want a few more spare clothes for a multiday trip, as much as to avoid being too stinky as anything else - but otherwise it seemed I had about the right amount of stuff. Importantly, even when fully load, the bike didn't feel too heavy. Could I go lighter? Possibly if I bought more specialist stuff than I was using. My tarp is just the one I happen to have bought some years ago; if I had a shit load of money I could get a lighter sleeping bag; etc. I experimented with making a beer can meths stove before the trip - it wasn't a huge success, so didn't take it but I might give that another go. My MSR pocket rocket is ridiculously light, but the gas cartridge isn't. Swings and roundabouts. With frost still around I wasn't bothered at all by insects but this become more of an issue as summer comes on - some sort of mozzie net that goes under the tarp is probably the answer although of course it is something else to try and pack. Nevertheless, not a bad start at bikepacking I think. Something I will do again.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Dispatches from the northern front. The Finnish general election of 2011

What it's all about
So most people will have seen the Finnish election result by now. The success of the populist-right wing True Finns has made the headlines around the world, particularly in relation to whether they will enter government and block the EU financial assistance package to Portugal. But here are a few thoughts on the election from an outsider who has been watching Finnish politics for quite a long time now.

Firstly, this is PR – everyone’s a winner or loser depending on your outlook on life. Yes, the True Finns hugely increased their vote, but they still only got 19% of the vote. Less than one in five voting Finns agrees with them. If you think the True Finns are scary or wrong or silly, then don’t worry – 4 out 5 voting Finns agree with you.

The leader of the SDP said that “there’s no shame in getting silver”. She’s right – they came second, not too bad considering how poor the SDP has been looking in recent times. But let’s not forget, they came second by 0.1% - hardly clear blue water.

There's a foreign minister lurking in my local coffee shop! Seemed to work though, he got the second biggest personal vote in the country.

Likewise, the leader of Kokoomus, the National Coalition Party, was proud to announce that it was a historic night for them becoming the biggest party in the country for the first time. And this is also true, so congrats to Kokoomus, but they also lost votes from the last general election, and were only clear of the second place SDP by 1.3%.

So as I said: that’s PR for you – it’s fair but no one is even close to being a majority on their own and even the winner can only fairly claim to speak for one in five of the electorate. No party has a ‘natural’ right to be in government in such a system – if the second, third and fourth placed parties got together they would have a simple majority in the parliament, and could exclude the party that actually ‘won’ the election. This is unlikely to happen due to tradition and expectation, but it could happen.

Standing around in the rain, getting ignored. Isn't politics great?

At the moment it is suggested that Kokoomus, the True Finns and the SDP will try to form a government if they can agree on a programme. This is likely to produce all sorts of odd dynamics. Timo Soini, the True Finns leader, has said that he sees his party being close to the SDP, and economically this is true – both want to defend the welfare state and are happy to raise taxes to do so. It’s just that the True Finns don’t want any outsiders joining that welfare state (“this is a local welfare state for local people! There’s nothing for you here.”). The SDP have also been playing with Euroscepticism in the last Parliament – voting against the Greek bailout for example. There is nothing new about leftwing parties positioning themselves against the EU – as anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of the British Labour Party well knows. The SDP were from early 90s to 2003, under Lipponen’s prime ministership, very pro-EU, but the left of party such as President Halonen and former foreign minister Tuomioja always had their doubts. SDP watchers can perhaps correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the current leader Urpilainen and party secretary Jungner are identified more with the Lipponen-wing of the party, so are perhaps not particularly eurosceptic, but nevertheless the party has tacked that way, and it will make a government with Kokoomus and the True Finns ‘interesting’ when EU matters will be so central.

Anti-politics in Vantaa. I think we can put the perpetrator down as a "non of the above" type of guy.

The True Finns in government are the proverbial wild card. Tomi Huhtanen neatly puts it: “The True Finns’ party programme is actually rather mainstream; the problem is that hardly anyone in the party adheres to it.” So much focus was on Timo Soini (who as a result took the biggest personal vote in the country), less attention has been paid to those who came in on his coat tails. Quite possibly some will be hardworking, attentive MPs who regardless of their politics, will be doing their best for the people who voted for them. Others, well, perhaps less so. A number of times in the past Soini has had to distance himself from the antics, at times openly racist antics, of others in his party. Now with more media attention, there is a good chance similar will be seen and even if they do keep discipline, virtually all are new to national politics and the media will be happy to show up gaps in their knowledge.

Perhaps more importantly are the tensions within the party. Jussi Halla-Aho did well in the elections with a strong personal vote, and is well known for his outspoken anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim views. Halla-Aho’s association with the True Finns is complex, in the past he has stood on their ticket, but without being a party member – but now he seems to be in the party with both feet. His internationally influenced anti-Islam politics is closer to the politics of Geert Wilders in Holland or Vlaams Belang in Flanders, than it is to the rural-populist tradition that Timo Soini comes from. There have been and remain some tensions within the True Finns between the young Turks (yes, there is some irony to calling them that) who are Halla-Aho’s supporters and I guess what you can call the old guard. Soini is the man of the moment, but as Taneli Heikka perceptively notes that whilst “Soini has said he is happy with the current state of affairs with immigration policy, […]seven out of 39 [new True Finn] MP's have signed a staunch anti-immigration manifesto, and they want more. A government with True Finns will have to go for tougher measures on immigration, or the party (and the government) faces collapse. Mr Soini knows this.”

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

2011 Rock On

First rock climbing of the year today; well bouldering actually, but that still counts. Venue: Pihlajamäki, quick drying and convenient, which are probably the strongest points it has going for it! Actually, it was good fun, in a don't-fall-off-into-the-muddy-puddle-of-meltwater sort of way. Roll on summer and the real crags drying out.

The urban 'delights' of Pihlajamäki - spot the climbers above the give way sign.

I'm 'crag pack' reviewing this spring. The just arrived Black Diamond Demon Duffel gets it first outing.

Me actually about to send "Bungalow" 5+, which was nice.

Eärendel on a 4+, Tony and Erik try and spot the holds on their 7A.

Having found the holds, Erik now tries to hold on to them.

Trash, soggy snow, and views of tower blocks. You've just got love "Pihlis"!

Sunday, April 03, 2011

End of the season?

It's pissing rain now, and there hasn't been a frost for the last three nights. There are massive piles of brown and grey snow all over the place. Where the snow hadn't been cleared well and got packed down, its now ice, covered with a sheen of water and dirt. Lovely.

D at Kauhala
A week ago it was cold and sunny. Last Sunday Diana and I climbed at Kauhala in pretty good conditions. There was even an ice line on the far right that I had never seen before so had to try. It started with a few metres of very steep and very thin ice, up to some slightly thicker and easier angled ice above. I tried a couple of places to put my 13 cm stubby screw in here but it kept hitting rock. On about my third go I dropped it, and took that as a sign that the vibes weren't good for committing to the crux above with groundfall potential, so managed to climb back down. Oh well, maybe in another decade it will form again!

Life in the freezer
Wednesday night was the last cold one on the forecast and I wanted to use a sleeping bag that I'm reviewing near to its limit. It was actually colder than I expected at -14.5; the bag is rated to -15 and kept me pretty warm considering I was bivvying out with out a tarp or bivvy bag. Everything was covered in ice in the morning and getting up was kinda brutal.

Room with lots of view
I couldn't take any decent photos because although I had kept the camera battery inside the sleeping bag, as soon as I took the lens cap off, the lens frosted up and wouldn't clear. I had to resort to taking a few snaps on my phone.

Me on "Tappisolu Overflow" at Kurkelanjärvi
Thursday, I went to Kurkelanjärvi in Kisko with Eärendel to do some climbing. I led the first route of the day. It was fine at the bottom although the start was tricky, but higher up the ice was sun-damaged and the screws felt pretty shit. The standard late-season 'easy but dangerous' feeling. We decided to top rope the next few lines instead.

Eärendel on "Vipermafia"

It's been a good season.

Walking back to spring?

Down here in the South of Finland it looks like the ice climbing season might well be over - I know some people have been out rock climbing and bouldering at quick drying venues already. I've been ice climbing since November, so a four-month season isn't bad, including ice climbs in England, Wales, Norway and Finland, but roll on summer. It's one of the great things about being a climber who does a bit of everything; you've always got the next season to look forward to.