Monday, December 10, 2012

dhb Vaeon Zero Padded Bib Tight - a review

This is the second part of my review of some dhb cycling clothing, sent to me to review by the internet bike shop Wiggle. Wiggle selected this blog, and hence me, to be a reviewer of some of their house-brand equipment. For a bit more about dhb, Wiggle and the review process, see my previous post.

Keeping your legs warm whilst cycling in winter I think is harder than your top. Put enough layers on and your legs will stay warm in any weather but you start to feel lots of drag around your knees plus you need to think about not getting the bottom of your right trouser leg stuck in the chain. Starting to ride a cyclocross bike as my everyday bike, I've noticed the clearance between my calf and the chainset is much less - far more like my road bike as opposed to my old commuter hybrid, let alone my mountain bike. So when the weather gets colder, regardless of how silly they look, tights are the answer.

The best bibs I've ever tried for winter riding.
dhb call the Vaeon Zero Padded Bib Tight their warmest. Having a pad in them, they are obviously designed to be either your only layer, or at least your inner layer if you are tempted to wear something over them. The pad (or "insert" as they call it - perhaps to make it sound a little less like a feminine hygiene product) is very comfy. I first used the Vaeons last month on an overnight bikepacking trip and they were great. Putting on some brand new cycling tights and immediately using them for two days in the saddle in cool, drizzly weather might have been a silly plan, but they worked perfectly - no rubbing or chafing at all. You can read all about the "triple layered" and "3D anatomic construction" of the insert on Wiggle's page if you wish, but I can say I've found them as comfy as any other cycling shorts or tights I've used in that specific department!

"Windslam" sections over knees/thigh
More interesting is the material and construction that make up the Vaeon Zeros, because this is what sets them apart from many other bib tights. dhb have used a windproof material called "Windslam" for the panels on the Vaeons that cover the knees and go up the outside of the thighs (it is the less shiny looking material easily visible in the picture to the right). Despite being some sort of membrane fleece, Windslam doesn't suffer noticeably from either of the old problems that made the first windproof fleeces such disasters: neither stretching nor breathing well. I've not noticed the Windslam panels seeming either more sweaty nor more restrictive that the other sections. My overall impression is that the Vaeon Zeros are as comfy as my other various bib tights, just noticeably warmer.

The mix of different fabrics seems to makes these bibs hit a sweet spot of good breathability and loads of stretch from the non-membrane sections, but with the added warmth with the Windslam making them partly windproof. One result of the mix of panels and materials is that the Zeros have a lot of stitching on them. From past failures I've seen on both cycling and mountaineering clothing, stitching together stretch materials is not easy. The stitching that dhb use here looks excellent - many of the seams are, I think, a quadruple cover stitch and everything is neatly finished. The only worry I would have is that cover stitch seams of this type are vulnerable to wear, and if the seam breaks it's very hard to fix yourself. I guess you need to just try not to rub them on anything (like the road whilst sliding out at 30 kmph or passing tree trunks when mountain biking!!) and keep the grabby side of velcro away from them - it has a nasty habit of grabbing on to cover stitch seams and breaking them.

Cold night by the fire. Bikepacking in the Vaeon Zeros .
So; the Vaeon Zero Padded Bib Tight: comfy, well designed and well made. But that leaves the final, BIG question: if they are dhb's warmest longs, just how warm are they? Wiggle suggests a temperature range of 8 to -2 degrees. I think that's actually not a bad guide at all, although I've worn them at lower temperatures and been amazed at how warm they have kept me. They are fine to wear at +5 or +6 degrees, but I've also worn just them on my legs for riding on a windy, snowy day when the temperature was between -5 and -6. My legs stayed impressively warm - normally by those temperatures I would be using a number of layers. At the weekend I rode out to our nearby cross country skiing area to see whether there had been enough snow yet for them to prepare the tracks. I got chatting to guy there who was doing the same and we ended up chatting for half an hour to 40 minutes before I rode on. Over all, I must have been out from the house for a couple of hours and never got cold legs - either actually riding or just standing around, and despite the wind. I did a similar ride in the same sort of weather a few days later wearing some old, thick unpadded longs with bib shorts underneath and was amazed that my thighs were quickly cold and, by the end of the ride, unpleasantly so. I find it pretty hard to believe that the one layer of the Zeros could be so noticeably warmer than the two layers I used on the second ride, but that would appear to be the case!

The Zero's list price is a hefty 90 quid (although that remains considerably less than similar products from more famous brands cost) but are currently on sale for £62.99. When you consider the complexity of the construction and quality of the materials, meaning you can keep riding comfortably even as the mercury goes below freezing, the Zeros seem rather good value. If I had a snowy-rider-in-the-north seal of approval, Vaeon Zeros would definitely get it.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

dhb Cycle Clothing reviews: EQ2.5 Waterproof Jacket

Back at the end of October the British all-things-cycling internet shop Wiggle said via Facebook that they were looking for some bike bloggers to review some of their own brand dhb cycle clothing. I've been a Wiggle customer from time to time for years now and actually use the basic dhb road cycling shoes. These have been excellent and, particularly considering they only cost forty quid, superb value for money. So despite being only a blogger who sometimes writes about cycling, rather than a pure bike blogger, I put this blog forward and was very happy to be chosen.

Being a "house brand" makes dhb gear often amongst the most affordable option for technical cycle clothing but from what I've seen the lower prices come from the business model not at the expense of quality. I presume it works on a similar direct-to-the-consumer model that, for example, Alpkit has been pioneering in the outdoor world. Various middlemen are cut out and with the savings leading to competitive prices. Anyway, the long and the short of it is: good cycling gear for very reasonable prices. The two items they asked me to review, the dhb EQ2.5 Waterproof Cycling Jacket and the dhb Vaeon Zero Padded Bib Tight both seem well made out of quality fabrics. Wiggle wanted the reviews reasonably swiftly, so I can't attest to how well the items last over years, but I've ridden several hundred kilometres wearing the tights and the jacket now with no problems.

the dhb EQ2.5 Waterproof Jacket
I was interested in testing the EQ2.5 waterproof jacket for the rather self-contradictory reason that I probably never would have bought one myself. This is simply because, as a rule, I don't wear waterproofs whilst riding. When I ride, I do so at a pace where I warm up and get sweaty. For me, breathability to get rid of that sweat is by far the most important aspect of my bike clothes. Even top of the range expensive breathable waterproof fabrics like eVent and Goretex Pro Shell don't breath enough for me when doing aerobic sports like XC skiing or indeed cycling. The only exception to the no waterproofs rule when biking is when I go bikepacking - then I take a superlight Gortex paclite shell but only to wear it if the weather becomes unexpectedly horrible; most of the time it is stuffed away in a bag.

The EQ2.5 is not a 'just-in-case' jacket. With a mesh lining and pretty complex design, it isn't light enough to stuff into your commuting bag on the off-chance and won't pack down enough to fit in a jersey pocket for a road ride. It's a jacket to put on and keep on, with a design that reflects this. Firstly it's very well cut for cycling in. Short at the front and longer at the back (for me it could actually come down a bit more at the back) with gripper strips at the hem. Commuting with a satchel means sometimes the hem needs pulling down a little, but this isn't a problem with no bag. I've mainly used it whilst riding my cyclo-cross bike commuting, the arms are cut well for riding on the drops without pulling up. The collar is also great, coming high up at the back for lots of protection. There is a good, big zip pocket on the back, with an inner safety pocket inside it and a little internal pocket at the front that takes keys or an iPod safely.

The material itself is completely waterproof (and the jacket has taped seams) and somewhat breathable. How breathable is one of those almost unanswerable questions. Not breathable enough to avoid getting sweaty in, is one answer but that's no different from past experiences riding in jackets made of Goretex Paclite and Gore Windstopper for example. dhb seem to accept this will be the case for many cyclists riding hard, so have addressed the problem in other ways. Firstly the jacket has a mesh liner. This doesn't make it more breathable, it just minimises the unpleasant feeling of your sweat dripping down the the insides of your jacket! Secondly there is venting-galore; the jacket has vents on both sides at the front and right across the back. It's hard to say how well they work, I couldn't feel cold air through them - although perhaps that's a good thing (in the video below you can see the back vents open, so it must make a difference). Much more noticeable were the pit zips. I've never been a big fan of pit zips on mountain jackets - often far more hassle than they are worth - but the pit zips on the EQ2.5 are easy to use even whilst on the bike and make a very noticeable and significant difference, cooling you and letting a lot of sweat quickly evaporate.

I've been wearing the EQ2.5 over the last few weeks commuting in weather about as miserable as it gets in Helsinki. Late November days are so short it seems it is always dark or getting that way. The temperatures have been fluctuating between just above freezing and about 6 degrees. It's windy, it's soggy, the bike paths are damp and muddy. In these conditions the EQ2.5 has been pretty good, although even in these cold and drizzly conditions I get way to hot if I wear a microfleece mid-layer under it. So I've been wearing it over just a base-layer and with the pit-zips open more often than not. Like that I've been warm but not too hot, nevertheless the jacket is still damp to the touch inside due to the breathability issues after my hour-long commute and my base-layer damper than it would be with my normal system.

So, overall, the EQ2.5 is a well-designed, -cut and -made waterproof jacket for serious cycling. My reservation though is how many cyclists need waterproofs? A jacket identical in design and cut to the EQ2.5 but made of a windproof, highly breathable but NOT waterproof material could easily become my main jacket for 3-season cycling. For the cyclists in rainier climes, perhaps a commuter who rides daily regardless of the weather, the EQ2.5 may well do good service on wetter days. Also, if you are one of those lucky people who don't perspire too much, even when working hard, it may be perfect in autumn and winter. But for me it's too heavy and bulky to carry in case of rain but not breathable enough to wear when it's not. For me once the temperatures are below freezing I don't need a waterproof but in temperatures much above 5 degrees I quickly get too hot in the EQ2.5. So, whilst it is a well made and reasonably priced cycling jacket, for me it only works well in a rather narrow niche of conditions.

To follow in the next few days; a review of the dhb Vaeon Zero Padded Bib Tight.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Dark times: November bikepacking on the Ilvesreitti (Lynx route), Häme, Finland.

Bike packed for bikepacking. Swollen stream from the autumnal deluges behind

Hillbilly country
The older I get, the more I can’t ignore it, November is a shitty month in southern Finland. Snow is a rarity but so is sun. Do expect darkness, rain, wind and misery. Today, where I live, the day was 7 hours and 4 mins long, and when I say ‘day’, don’t get over excited: with 100% cloud cover, the skies have gone from black to grey and back to black once more. 6 hours of greyness and drizzle; that was the day. It’s interesting to note that we’ve actually lost over an hour and half of daylight since the first of month as well. So like I say: November - it really is a shitty month.

Old collapsed farm building, quite normal in rural Finland
Last weekend my son had a Scout camp to go to. In a fit of making-myself-do-something-I-might-otherwise-not-do, I volunteered to take some of kids up early on Saturday and bring them home on Sunday. The plan was, once out in the countryside, I’d stay and do something outdoorsy rather than drive there and back twice in two days. Climbing was one possibility, but didn’t quite work out. Rock climbing in November is always a bit marginal, so perhaps I didn't miss out on much. Instead I decided to go for an overnight bikepack trip near where I was taking the kids. I mentioned in a past post I've been to various parts of what are called the "Häme Lake Uplands", and have the outdoor recreation map to the area. Using the map I figured I find some sort of circular route around the Liesjärvi National Park and taking in what I presumed might be good single track riding on bits of the 250 km long Ilvesreitti long distance hiking trail. It didn't quite work out like that.

The 'path' as state of mind...
The map is great, showing loads of different potential adventures in this area. Besides the Ilvesreitti itself crossing the whole region, there are loads of other, much shorter circular paths that join it for sections; canoeing routes; cycling routes using quiet back roads; and even a long distance horse riding trail. Someone has been investing in the Ilvesreitti, there are plenty of signs and waymarks where it crosses roads and the like but actually in the forests, the path is almost non-existent in the places where I tried riding it. There are strips of faded plastic tied around trees every 50 metres or so. They take some effort to spot but you need to, because the path on the ground in places just disappears. There are little bridges and such across ditches, a few duckboard sections here and there, but over all the sense you get is that not enough people are using the route to really make an actual trail on the ground. Sections were essentially unrideable and I was pushing or carrying my bike. It's not easy hiking even without a bike.
...rather than geographic reality
In other places the route follows pre-existing dirt roads which make for easy mountain-biking and perhaps rather dull hiking, but don't get complacent because the route will suddenly leave the road and head off into the forest with just a few strips of plastic on trees showing you the way! It's interesting, because if I have any complaints about Finnish national parks it's that they make the hiking trails idiot proof: so many waymarks that walkers don't really need to take any responsibility for themselves in navigating. I followed the Ilvesreitti for maybe 20 kms or so of my trip and found that I was consulting my map and compass regularly, and backing that up from time to time with the GPS on my phone. I could imagine anyone used to the more normal Finnish marked trails finding the bits of the Ilvesreitti I followed frustrating and easy to get lost on. I eventually bailed out after a good few kms of pushing and carrying my bike where the trail follows the northern shore of Onkimaanjärvi (just east of Liesjärvi national park). After the autumnal deluges, the path was underwater at one point, so I escaped away from the lake, giving up on the trail for the nearest logging tracks.

The map showed a laavu on the shores of a small lake called Kivijärvi. I realised that it was past 3pm and overcast, meaning I didn't have a lot of daylight left, so it only being a few kms from where I had escaped from the bike-pushing torture on the Ilvesreitti, it seemed a like a good bet. The main thing I wanted was a fireplace and some dry wood, which often comes with hikers' laavus in Finland, and I wasn't disappointed with this one. The wind meant most of the smoke from the fire went into the laavu which was unfortunate, but considering that my gas stove was malfunctioning (until a little emergency repair work with the pin from my swiss army knife later) it was great to have the fire to cook my food on and boil tea and coffee water.

The inky dark of a cloudy November night
 By 8pm I had ate, drunk and fixed my stove, so I realised there wasn't much else to do beside let the fire go out, roll out my sleeping bag in the now less smokey laavu, and go to bed. I think that's the earliest I've been to bed in years. It was a very dark night, only one electric light visible off in the distance and the stars and the moon hidden behind thick clouds. The noise of the wind driven wavelets on lake slapping against the shore and the gusts of wind kept away the claustrophobia that all pervading darkness can bring. I got stuck into a new book, but after 45 kms of biking (or bike pushing!) that day I soon went off to sleep.
The laavu fire bucket made an excellent windbreak
Trail signs; we're just missing the trail!
Dawn on Sunday was marked by a slow and subtle change from blackness to greyness. The wind was blowing straight off the lake and into the laavu. It wasn't desperately cold, a few degrees above freezing, but the dampness, wind and greyness made getting out of my sleeping bag and unattractive prospect. Eventually I did, and once breakfasted, packed and back on the bike it wasn't too bad. I rode around the top of Liesjärvi on some pleasant quiet roads and into the national park. Virtually no one else was around, so the highlight of the day was riding along the amazing two kms long esker ridge of Kyynäränharju that splits the lake in half. I imagine in summer this could get quite busy but I saw no one else. After that I did some much better, technical single track riding through to Korteniemi Heritage Farm. Leaving the farm area I took another footpath that turned out to be a bad move as it followed duckboards for a couple of kms through a swamp. Normally riding duckboards is a fun challenge of your riding skills, but these were in lousy shape, often broken and with a gap in the middle big enough to catch even the fat tyres on my mountain bike. They are also as slippery as hell after the autumn of rain. Even just walking on them and pushing the bike was no easy task. Duckboards escaped, it was nearly back at the main road. Once on the road, now in real rain rather than just the drizzle of the morning, just a few kilometres of tarmac bashing had me back to the car and the closing of the circle.

The woods are rather dead feeling at this time of year; the leaves are all now just brown mulch under your tyres, all the ferns and grass have died back and perhaps most noticeable is the almost total absence of any type of bird song. Biking should be (if you have everything running well) very quiet, so I have had far more close encounters with wildlife when riding than even whilst walking; but on this trip - nothing. There must have been moose around somewhere because I saw a standard huge Finnish hunting party out to shoot something, but if the moose were about they must have been sensibly keeping their heads down.

Brown and grey
Overall? By no means a bad trip, but there is something melancholy about this time, these dying weeks of the year. Nevertheless, without it we would neither appreciate the glaring purity of the thick midwinter snows and hard frosts, nor the manic abundance of life and growth that is the short northern summer.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Marmot Basic Work Glove: a review

As noted before, I've long taken an interest in the 'outdoor sports' equipment industry: as a climber/hiker/mountaineer/cyclist/etc., as someone who has worked in the industry (albeit at the very lowest level as a shop assistant); as gear reviewer for and, finally, as someone who just uses the bloody stuff.

Belaying in the basic work gloves
Perhaps like all apparel industries where fashion plays a much bigger part than many care to admit, there is little static about it. Certain brands do keep certain models in their range year after year, but these are the exceptions and its more likely to be, for example, technical climbing gear that goes years unchanged than technical clothing. Some items of clothing do make it into the 'classic' status and stay forever. I still wear a Patagonia Snap-T fleece jumper that I bought in January 1992 - but you can buy an identical one from Patagonia now if you wish! But far more normal is finding some item of clothing or equipment that you think is great - using/wearing it loads until it starts, fairly, to wear out; trying to replace it only to find the firm has dropped that product from their line. You then end up buying an alternative model that doesn't work or fit as well as the old one. C'est la vie. It also makes reviewing many things more than a year old kinda pointless as the chances of people being able to buy the same product drops off.

Ski touring in Arctic Norway in the basic work glove

Anyways... that's a long way of saying I really want to recommend the Marmot Basic Work Glove. Not only are they good - I've had a pair for something like 4 years and have used them loads - but because the old ones were looking really tatty I recently bought a new pair for 'town use' and they seem to be identical! Yes, a product that works really well, and remains in a company's line year after year. Would you believe it?

Grubby and tatty but still going strong
The Basic Work Glove is, well, rather basic: all leather with a fuzzy warm synthetic lining. That's it really; but what you get is gloves that you can grip things with and that are pretty dextrous (meaning less taking them off); that are windproof and breathable; and that are for me at least surprisingly warm. They are not waterproof so aren't great for ice climbing due to that. I waxed mine with Nikwax and that helps a lot, wet snow isn't a huge problem for example, but still they are gloves I use whilst walking to the icefalls, and whilst gearing up and the like, but I'll put on Goretex or eVent gloves to actually climb in. I like wearing them for skiing in all but the foulest of conditions, again because of the dexterity whether that's grabbing your pass to beep at a resort, or taking off climbing skins when touring. A basic leather glove seems to be favoured by many guides for summer Alpine as well; I've not used mine for that but I suspect they would work well. Perhaps one place where they might not be the best choice would be UK winter hillwalking and climbing, where having something more designed for rain and sleet might be better.

Strong and well sewn seams
They are as tough as old boots (or "old gloves" maybe?!), I got some slices in the palms of mine from the edge of a file when sharpening an ice screw whilst out climbing once but that's the only real damage to them. It didn't cut right the way through but went pretty deep, so I painted over the cuts with seam grip and this seems to have very effectively fixed it. It's nice that being leather you can 'fix' them so easily. Perhaps the best thing about the quality of their construction is the bomb-proof stitching. On my old ones it shows no signs of blowing even after four winters of hard use, something that isn't true on many of my more expensive ice climbing gloves.

So there you go: a simple glove that works really well. Finns should note that Partioaitta always seems to have them in their annual (or bi-annual?) sale. I think the normal price is €30, but both times I've paid only €20. There are various work gloves available from other brands that look very similar and cost a bit less. They may well be just as good, I don't know, but I can say the Marmot Basic Work Gloves are the best value and toughest general winter gloves I've owned.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Watching Syria from afar: some thoughts on reading the Crisis Group's report "Tentative Jihad"

Photo Freedom House via Flickr/Creative Commons
I've long been interested in the extremities of politics in all directions. In the last year I've followed some discussion on Syria and taken part in others and it has been fascinating to see how different groups on far right and left, have tried to deal with the complexity of the situation and arrive at a 'position' on it. It has been both bizarre and amusing to see how many who describe themselves as being of the radical- or anti-imperialist-left have ended up, defacto, supporting the Assad regime. Jess Hill in the Global Mail calls these predominantly Western leftists: Assad's Useful Idiots; it's a bracing read if you, like me, find it deeply creepy how unwilling some are to not learn the lessons of the 1920s and 30s, and the willful ignorance of some over Stalin's crimes

Following the Syrian regime's line, the "anti-imperialist left" claim the rebels in Syria are all foreign-sponsored al-Qaeda throat-cutters, who want to turn a supposedly progressive Socialist secular state into a Taliban-style Islamic one. There are many things deeply problematic about this claim; it is at its heart deeply patronising, even orientalist. The Arabs of the Middle East are given no agency, they are forever pawns in machinations of the West (i.e. the US). Not only does this deny them agency, it also takes away the moral responsibility for their acts: if a Syrian rebel group decides to use a suicide bomb, well it's just because "they're al-Qaeda" and "they're being controlled by the Saudis/CIA/Mossad/Biderberg group/etc.". In actual fact those rebels should be answering for their actions just as the Syrian government should be. To me the moral case for the rebellion seems pretty clear; the Syrian regime has become a neo-monarchy, power passed from father to son; power that was, of course, gained originally in a military coup and maintained over the decades via violence, fear, corruption and co-option. The revolution began peacefully like elsewhere in the Arab Spring - protesters on the streets. But people power was met with regime bullets, mass arrests and torture. The anti-imperialists have to cling to the idea that those tens of thousands of unarmed Syrians on the streets in early 2011 were all "al Qaeda" or American stooges because, if not, then Bashar al-Assad's resort to brutal repression would be the crime that most know it is.

Nevertheless violence begets violence and the regime's reaction led to civil war. From Our Own Correspondent this week has a haunting illustration of this. Ian Pannell interviews an Aleppo businessman turned rebel commander. He was turned by the horrific torture he experienced and saw happening to others after being arrested for peacefully protesting:
"Dr Raouf said that before they were arrested, the group had long discussions about whether they should get some sticks to defend themselves during protests. 'But when we were released, we decided to buy every weapon we could afford,' he said."
Homs. Photo Freedom House via Flickr/Creative Commons
The situation in Syria has changed - it is evolving or, perhaps better, it is mutating. The recently released Crisis Group report "Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition" I think is a very important document of this. It is (as so often with Crisis Group reports) a fine example of actually 'going and looking', and reporting back on what you actually see - not what fits your ideological persuasion. I won't try to sum up the report, beyond saying it is centrally about the role of Salafism amongst the armed opposition, a role that is becoming progressively more prominent as Salafi groups both fight more successfully than the more secular groups (generally grouped under the FSA banner) and as those secular fighters become attracted to Salafism (be that for purely instrumental reasons - attracting funding from the Gulf monarchies and Syrian exiles - or because it's austere simplicity becomes attractive to men facing death daily). The Crisis Group report is good at pointing out that the Salafi ideology on the rise differs in some ways from the more nihilistic Jihadism that we have come to expect from the various al Qaeda franchises around the world, and most clearly seen in the horrors of Iraqi civil war. For example, Crisis Group argue that the most prominent Salafi group, Jabhat al-Nusr, while being the most radical and sectarian and unapologetic for suicide bombing a regime intelligence installation in a Christian neighbourhood of Damascus that killed many civilians, still made it clear that they were not targeting Christians per se, they were 'collateral damage'. This differs from the intentional massacres so often seen in Iraq.

I've seen many on the aforementioned "anti-imperialist left" say that the US/NATO is just itching to intervene in Syria, like it did in Libya. This is another bizarre claim in the face of now over a year of 'the West' failing to really do anything helpful for the people of Syria. Many in Syria were imploring the West to save them a year ago but the US electoral calendar, military exhaustion and budget deficit was always going to make this unlikely. If the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia are the only people handing out money for guns, you can see why some Syrians will grow beards, shorten their trousers and take the cash, even if it is obvious to outsiders that only further darkness will come of this. Crisis Group leaves us with a horrible image for the future of the Syrian Civil War:
"As the number of internally displaced and refugees grows, and entire towns and neighbourhoods are damaged to the point of becoming uninhabitable, armed groups risk cutting themselves off further from their social base and coming to resemble combatants roaming in the rubble. As they eat, struggle and pray together, fighters increasingly form insular units detached from the cross-cutting popular movement from which they sprung, inhabiting their own world, so more prone to spin out of control. Their reportedly high attrition rate may empower second-generation leaders with less of a strategic vision, legitimacy or experience – lacunae for which they might seek to compensate with ever more radical beliefs and violence."
The obvious and frightening parallel is Syria's neighbour to the east; six or seven years ago as the US lost control and civil war flared. But as the armed groups amongst the Sunni Muslims sections of Syrian society differentiate themselves on religious grounds, or by allegiance to one area or one commander, and whilst Alawi communities radicalize in support of the rump regime, other communities like Christians and Kurds will end up either defending themselves with militias or fleeing. Syria's neighbour to west, Lebanon, and the horrors it saw from the 70s to the 90s in its vicious and multifaceted civil war, serve as another stark example of what Syria may still have to face.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Trail riding and avoiding cold toes

After a family walk this morning in one national park east of Helsinki (Sipoonkorpi), the weather was still so good in the afternoon, that I decided to head out west on my still newish, but getting ever more grubby, cyclocross bike to hit a second (Nuuksio). OK, they're only 'pocket' national parks compared to the huge wildernesses of the north, but they are not without their attractions. If nothing else, the trails designed for easy walking make decent non-surfaced cycle paths when so much of the forest is sodden, if not actually flooded. Whilst having a little break to eat and massage some life back in to my toes, I posted the picture on the left to Facebook and Twitter  along with the plaintive cry of a caption "Does anyone who rides in autumn and winter manage to keep them warm?" It was actually more or a rhetorical comment on the passing of the seasons, and the fact that my toes had gotten a bit nippy by this point, than really are a request for advice. I've had cold feet many times whilst riding, even once getting some superficial frostbite riding home from work. As a result I've spent a lot of time and quite a lot of money, trying to combat the problem down the years. But via both channels, many kind hearted mates and contacts who also bike left suggestions on what works for them. All were pretty sensible suggestions and actually things I have tried down the years. But I thought I'd bang out a few lines here on my experiences with trying to keep toes warm whilst riding to accompany some phone-snaps I took while out on the trail. It was a beautiful evening, and my phone's camera doesn't really do it justice, but these are the best I got.

It's an odd thing, I don't have big problems with cold toes anywhere except when cycling. Ice climbing - yes: occasionally they get cold. I bought some warmer boots last winter partly to combat this, but if I get cold feet ice climbing, it is normally a predictable result of choosing to climb in light boots that day. These are better for climbing in, but not so good for keeping your feet warm. If you're willing to wear old school plastic boots, your feet will stay warm almost no matter what.

But cycling is different - even in summer when the temperatures are in the teens, my toes can get cold in my road shoes. Cycling shoes are stiff; this transfers more power from your legs to the bike, but the lack of your foot flexing really limits the amount of blood that flows to your toes, and coldness easily results. The fact that I ride all my bikes with SPD (or clip in) style pedals adds to this.

So the first thing - loosen your shoes off. In summer, that is often enough. Next up, again very thin shoes covers - my came from Decathlon and are cheap 0.5 mm neoprene ones and work very well. In rainy or damp three season usage on my road bike, they're normally enough. On cooler autumn days I'll wear some thicker socks as well and make sure the shoes are pretty loose from the start.

For riding off tarmac, you're far more likely to get damp feet. And damp feet get cold quickly. For commuting and also I've used them touring, some big, slightly bulky Shimano DH-style shoes with minimal mesh sections work well. In damp conditions or as autumn turns to early winter I use water-proof socks made by SealSkinz

I've been pretty impressed with these - the membrane that makes them waterproof also makes them much warmer. I also use them a lot with more classic XC MTB shoes, like I was today. But even if they keep your feet dry, if your shoes get wet, you can get cold toes. Dry cold toes, yes, but cold all the same.

So the next step is to add over-shoes as well. I've got two different pairs, with the best being some super cheap Biltema own brand ones; the Swedes make them out of some seriously thick neoprene. The others are stupid Decathlon ones, where the zip won't lock at the back and creeps down as you ride. Been meaning to sew a velcro tab on for years to stop it! The problem with over-shoes is if you have to get off and walk. Most cycling shoes can be a bit slippy, but a layer of neoprene under them makes even MTB shoes hopeless to walk in.

Finally, for mid-winter riding, i.e. -5 or below: this is the serious business. I've come to the conclusion that the cleat on cycling shoes (metal) that itself clips into another bigger lump of metal (the pedal) conducts too much energy away from my feet. Via the sole is how you supposedly loose the most heat from your feet in winter, so it makes sense. For mid winter, I change pedals from SPDs to some basic cage-style ones with the addition of "Power Grips": a simple but really effective strap system. Then I wear a baggy leather hiking shoe, with thick wooly socks (or the Seal Skinzs), and then the neoprene over-shoes on the outer layer. That seems to work ok into the minus teens. 

As the temperatures head down toward -20, I decide I'm too old for this shit, and walk to the bus stop. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mud and gears and rock and roll(ing over it)

Autumn colours
Bike with bags

I apologise to Joel because I think my phone is playing up - he tried calling me Saturday morning to arrange climbing as we had discussed, but couldn't get through. By the time my phone did ring, I had had enough of sitting inside the house watching the un-forecast blue skies and sunshine and had decided to go bikepacking, so the climbing got shelved. Helsinki has had the wettest September for 150 years or something equally depressing (there have been floods elsewhere in Finland, something that is pretty unusual here), so climbing has been a bit hit and miss this summer anyway. The Finnish Meteorological Institute also seem to be incapable of getting their forecasts right more than 24 hours in advance anyway, which makes planning if and where to go climbing difficult in times of changeable weather. So bikepacking seemed the less conditions-dependent option.

oh bugger...
Once having made a decision, I needed to pack. Compared to climbing where I have a bag packed with my current rack/rope/shoes of choice, this took some time - it's not so much that I didn't know what to take, it's more about getting that packed in bags that can be strapped to my bike or me successfully. I've used a seatpost rack in the past, but this time I decided to see what would happen if I just strapped a dry bag under the saddle. This turned out work almost perfectly. Fortunately one of the Alpkit dry bags I have has lashing points on it and with some bungee hooks and web straps it stayed on fine. I threw some more gear in my Alpkit Gourdon 'dry' rucksack and some more in super-cheap but effective handle bar bag and it all seemed to work out well - very little weight on my back but the bike felt balance and stable as well.

Sausage and beer, what else do you need?

slightly damp trails
By this point it was late afternoon so I knew I didn't have huge amounts of riding time before it got dark. Fortunately from where I live I can use some single track and forest roads to hit the top end of Nuuksio national park in about 20 kms, there's even a convenient petrol station just before going into the park to pick up that bivvy essential, beer. Quite a lot of the way I was following Reitti 2000/Route 2000, which must be a really dull hike, but makes an OK if very untechnical off-road ride. The woods are so wet currently with all the rain, that being on prepared trail is a big help, otherwise you'll be up to your ankles/axles in mud. The first challenge of the ride was just after if had got proper dark and I was riding by headlamp. A sudden "ping" and my chain snapped. Oh, the joy of fixing a chain by headlamp in a dank, cool, dark forest where the soil is typified by clay-like mud. Oh well, the pliers on my new half-price Leatherman tool came in handy but the main thing was that past chain breakages have taught me to CARRY A BLOODY CHAIN TOOL! And so I had - insert smug grin here. I arrived at my chosen camping ground a little later and more dirty handed than intended but you can't win 'em all.

View from my campsite

The one thing to say about horrible wet windy weather is that when the sky finally clears, it is really clear. Finland is for the half the year a dark place and the cities compensate for this with lots of street lighting. It's odd, but it's much easier to see the stars where I come from in small and crowded England than it is anywhere in the Greater Helsinki area. So it's always nice to get out away from town and see the stars, planets and even some shooting starts so clearly. After pitching my tarp and stowing my kit under it, I rode the kilometre down to one of the 'official' campsites, with the a huge supply of chopped wood for the fireplaces. National parks in Finland are a rather "convenience" type of "wilderness experience" but it stops people from attacking the standing trees in order to grill a sausage. So I chopped plenty of logs into smaller pieces, loaded them into my bags and cycled back up the hill to my camping spot and had a nice little fire in the fire ring there. A slightly out of date but still surprisingly good chicken casserol ready meal followed by grilling sausage on the fire, drying my socks out, drinking beer and reading this week's Economist on my phone (again, "wilderness" is relative) filled out the evening under the stars. Just before going to bed I thought I saw headlights shining through the trees, but with no engine noise I wondered if it was other late night mountain bikers with very bright/expensive lights. Only after watching for a little and the lights not moving, did I realise it was actually an incredibly bright moon rising. Later it was above and bright enough to cast shadows. Magic. In the morning, I had some breakfast, packed up and rode home getting rather muddy in the process.

Normally that would be enough to feed the biking bug for a weekend, but - oh no - some people just don't have the good sense to know where their very limited limits lie. Having recently become the proud owner of cyclocross bike, in a fit of completely abnormal enthusiasm I had signed up to the Facebook group of VPCX - a (the?) Finnish cyclocross group - and promised to attend a race. If you don't count some sportives I've ridden, I've not done any type of race since leaving school - knowing that I'm just not one of life's natural athletes and generally, even when trying hard, I will suck. Anyway, I tried really hard... and I sucked, but that was almost completely besides the point. All of the other VPCX people were super-welcoming and friendly to the foreign idiot falling down rocky hillside on a bike only vaguely designed for that. Then again, they were doing exactly the same, only faster and in more style.

Strapping on my race number. Photo courtesy of Jasu. Click here to see the rest of the set.

The Kivikko track was a horror. When some people started strapping on body armour I should have realised. Before Sunday, I would have been quite happy riding it on my mountain bike and surviving. The evil geniuses at VPCX have even tracked down some utterly horrible cobblestones (built by the Russians a century ago to haul artillery along) to include in the course. There was technical rocky single track, bomb holes full of muddy water, more slippy tree roots than you can shake a stick at and even spectators to applaud/laugh as you passed.
The fear! The fear! Photo courtesy of Mikko, see the rest of set here.

It hurt like hell and was ridiculously good fun. Then we all went for sauna and beer, Finland at its best. I didn't come last although only just. Somewhere at the back is my natural place in athletic endeavours though, so I look forward to floating around last place at next race in a few weeks.

Taking your bike for a run. Photo courtesy of Ville. Rest of the set here.

Thanks to all the photographers and BTW, you don't need a cyclocross bike to join, any bike will do - so if you're in the Helsinki area and want to get muddy and have a laugh, join up!