Thursday, September 29, 2011

Road biking in the Helsinki hinterland

Old bike
Shortly after washing up on Finnish shores about a decade back I decided I wanted a road bike. I'm not sure why, watching Greg Lemond beat Laurent Fignon on the Champs-Élysées in 1989 probably. I went to Velosport, at the time probably the only serious shop for road biking in the capital. The guy there who served me looked suspiciously like 'Il Pirata', an impression that I'm sure he was only too happy to cultivate. Nevertheless he was great, talking me through everything with no hard-sell, despite my budget was the bottom of their range. I was sat on the jig and measured up before all that info was faxed off to the Olmo factory in Italy where (I would like to think) a little man called Giovanni built by hand the frame of my bike. My red, all Italian beauty did a decade a grand service, working impeccably over many thousands of kilometres and seeing me comfortably through my first long sportive rides last year (see here and here). But this summer revealed that really its whole drive train needed replacing - along with the wheels - and the cost and hassle of doing so actually made getting a new bike a consideration.

Bikes have moved on, road riding has increased hugely in popularity with rise of the MAMIL of which, I guess, I am sadly now one. My Olmo was probably at the end of the era where hand-built steel frames were more common. Now aluminium and carbon frames are the norm, with most of them I've been told coming from the same few massive factories in Taiwan. Unless you have a lot of money to spend, bikes are off the peg, so buying off the internet is a bit of a worry with educated guess over what size to order. But on the other hand, huge competition between so many brands and shops in different countries means that you are getting a lot of bike for your money - mine was a more than a third off in an end of season sale, letting me get something much nicer than I would have been able to afford at full price.

New bike
Road biking has definitely gained in popularity here in Finland as well; the Tour de Helsinki had another record breaking year for numbers doing it earlier this month. Out here on the edge of the city its quite normal to see groups gathering to head out into the countryside for evening rides, and through the summer it was normal to see a few other riders out when I went out to ride. Ten years back it was quite different, other riders would come for a chat if they saw you because road bikers were pretty rare - I remember at least a couple of guys, despite my lack of Finnish, invite me to club rides and the like as they were just pleased to meet other roadies. It's a very similar situation to climbing that I've watched rise massively in popularity here over the last decade and a half.

Typical rush hour in the Helsinki hinterland
Nevertheless, I think road biking could/should be more popular here. The Helsinki hinterland is just such a great place to ride. Firstly, unlike further inland, there are lots of roads. Secondly, most of these roads are paved - no need for cyclocross or hybrids. Thirdly, and most importantly, there is virtually no traffic on them. The five motorways radiating out from Helsinki take a huge percentage of the traffic leaving or entering the capital region, leaving a big network of well paved country roads with next to no one driving on them - and making them just wonderful for cycling on. You get to notice all the 'old Finland' of human history that is still there; sagging barns, elevated cow sheds, the plentiful volunteer local fire stations and small schools - stuff you never notice zipping up and down the motorway - alongside the natural environment. Expect all the birds, from tiny songbirds up to storks and hawks high above, or currently - fields full of geese getting read to migrate. You'll see squirrels and hares, and might see badgers and deer - I have. Best of all, I almost ran into a moose once, free wheeling nearly silently around a forest road corner. It's all out there, and for the vast majority of the time you'll be completely on your own to enjoy it.

Anyway, from a few pics and some video - all taken from my phone so please excuse the low quality - I've made a little film. It's my bit to help out Helsinki's tourist board to promote the quiet lanes of Helsinki's hinterland to the world road biking community. Enjoy.

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