Monday, June 25, 2012

Alpkit in operation - kayak touring in Southern Finland

I haven't been blogging much recently, but when writing up my last post noticed I had uploaded a bunch of photos last summer from a kayaking trip, saved them as a draft, and then had forgotten about them. I've also been meaning to write a review of some Alpkit gear I've been using for some time now so, and as all my Alpkit gear got taken on that trip, I figure I can get two birds with one stone - although not literally as obviously that would a) be cruel and b) I'm not that good a shot.

Unpacking for night one of 3 day/2 night trip
It is almost boring to say nice things about Alpkit because, like motherhood and apple pie, everyone seems to like them and this post isn't going to be much difference. With a direct to the public, internet-only business model, the folks at Alpkit have realised that they need to make customer service an absolute priority and this they do exceedingly well. They must be a pretty busy and fair sized business by now, but still you always feel that it's a personal service and it doesn't matter if you are spending a few quid or many hundreds, your order seems to matter to them. About the worse I can say is that their chosen courier service was a bit hopeless on the last order I made when back in the UK. I nearly didn't get my parcel before coming back to Finland, but Alpkit did what they could do from their end and it turned up just in time.

Two airlock dry bags and the Gourdon dry-rucksack
If there is one problem with Alpkit it's that they are a victim of their own success and have problem keeping their products in stock. Over the years I've on a number of occasions wanted to buy something only to find that they don't have any in stock and aren't expecting more for some time. I presume it is a constant battle for a business that gets its products made in the far east to have enough to meet demand, but to not end up with tonnes of unwanted stuff on their shelves. Nevertheless Alpkit is simply so competitive on price, that as consumer I really don't want to buy, say, a drybag from anywhere else as all other brands seem so expensive. So it's particularly annoying when they don't have what you want in stock as it makes you feel like you are being 'forced' to spend more on an alternative. The fact that they leave the product pages up, but just with a little "out of stock" note when you go to click to buy, amplifies this.

But, moving on to the actual kit I have bought. First, a Gourdon 25 - a drybag masquerading as a rucksack, or vice versa if you prefer. My 25 litre one is small, lightish (and light if you pull the back-pad out), waterproof, has a couple of handy pockets on the outside and best of all is bright orange. Actually, if I'm honest, the best of all thing is that it cost 22 quid. Can't say fairer than that. It works perfectly as a drybag in a kayak, and is fine as a little rucksack (stable enough for mountain biking and even running if there's not too much weight in there).

Midnight on Hiidenvesi
Next, tent pegs. Yeah - I know tent pegs aren't very exciting but short of buying some hugely expensive brand name ones from a camping shop when you need them, its hard to find cheaper but non-trashy or super heavy ones than Alpkit's. I originally bought some of their titanium v-pegs when I bought a tarp, figuring if you had a tarp you should really have Ti pegs to round out your ultralight image. They don't pull out and are light but they can be hard on guylines due to their shape - they have cut the soft nylon guylines I put on my tarp a couple of time. Also, don't try to push them in by foot if you are wearing Crocs. A hole in your Croc (and possibly your foot) will be the result. I subsequently got some of their jolly red aluminium ones; these weight a little more but are more user friendly and are cheaper so you won't get as upset when you inevitably lose one.

Kayak touring is just super-civilised, the marginal cost of a bit more weight is minimal so beer becomes a 'necessity'!
Referring back to my earlier point about stock availability, the next item I'll mention is the Alpkit Numo air mattress. These don't seem to be on Alpkit's site anymore, so it may be that they don't plan to reintroduce them, perhaps connected to the issue of them being very similar to a model made for the American outdoor equipment firm POE by the same factory in China. If this is the case, it's a shame because having slept on the Numo a good few nights now, it is by far the most comfy mattress I've used for camping. I've not used a non-self inflating mattress since family camping as kid (and those ones always leaked!) and its a step up in comfort from even a thicker thermarest style. It also packs down pretty small, is light and, of course being Alpkit, was far from expensive. I used it camping in Glen Nevis last September and it was there that I noticed what others say about this style of mat not offering the same insulation value as Thermarests; it seems that you get convective air currents within the tubes and this takes heat away from your body. The Numo has some insulation the torso area but I found this effect surprisingly noticeable around my feet. So comfy, yes, but perhaps a three season mat at most.

Gamma headtorch in operation
The Gamma head torch is pretty famous now, they are just so ridiculously good value - money for candlepower, nothing comes close. I've had mine three or more years now. It used to spend most of the winter, minus its elastics, attached semi-permanently to my bike helmet. Commuting in winter in Helsinki is pretty dark affair and I like the high position of lights (it has a red blinker on the battery pack at the back as well) on my helmet, in addition to numerous bike-mounted lights. If there is anything wrong with it, I would prefer that the small red LED would come on first out of the secondary front lights. Red doesn't take away your night vision when, for example, reading a map, so it would make sense if you didn't need to cycle through the white and green, to get to the red. The Gamma might not be the best head torch in the world, but at 15 quid nothing else comes close.

Leaving camp for day 2
If drybags work, there's not much more to say about them - Alpkit ones do work, and they cost very little. I have an older one of the simple dry-bags (now I think they are in a lighter material than mine) and one of the slighty more techy ones. These have lashing points that make them great for bikepacking for example. They work, they're tough, they're cheap - not much more to say really.

South to Lohjanjärvi
Finally, I want to give a shout out to Alpkit's little zip pouches. They call them their "Mission packet" which sounds very cool, but actually they are little zip bags, going up in size. I bought them thinking they looked cute but wondering whether I'd ever use them. Of course it turns out that I use them constantly. Particularly the little ring attached to them means you can clip them to something like the key clip inside the lid pocket of a big pack ensuring your wallet and car keys never get misplaced. The biggest one will just fit my MacBook in it, and the mid sizes can stop a paperback getting squashed, make a decent wash kit bag, keep your matches and penknife handy, etc. etc. etc.

Is there anywhere in Finland where the dubious 'delights' of ABC's monopoly of mediocrity doesn't reach?

Portages don't come much easier.

Fantastic weather on Lohjanjärvi.

Breakfast and packing up on day 3

Your - slightly piratical - correspondent, somewhere in a big Finnish lake. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Big Ride. Kangasala-Vantaa, 190 kms.

If you can see your ride from space, it has to be good eh? :)
Some times by mistake, you can end up impressing yourself. I’ve been riding a fair amount so far this spring and summer but mainly commuting and mountain biking; so the urge to ride a bit further on my road bike had been gathering. The family were heading to Kangasala, a small town on the outskirts of Tampere, Finland’s second city on Saturday. Kangasala is about 180 kms north of Helsinki. My original plan based on the weather forecast and general lazyness was to get up early and start riding towards Kangasala, and then when my family caught me up in the car - probably about halfway up - I’d put the bike in the boot and carry on the rest of the way with them. This was not to be though; my better half saying she wanted the whole boot available for the return journey; therefore if I wanted to ride it would have to be home, and the whole way. My protests about this being quite a long ride (Google maps suggested the most direct route home would be 150 kms) were dismissed as whining and that I shouldn’t be looking for easy ways out. 
Crossing the river in Valkeakoski
And so the dice were cast. I left Kangasala under blue skies and the warm mid-summer sun early in the afternoon, with Wittertainment playing quietly in my ears (hello to Jason Isaacs). My first decision was which side of lake south of Kangasala, Roine, to ride down. The highway back to Hämeenlinna goes on the east side, but driving up that road it was straight, relatively busy and narrow; hence not a great bike route. So I took the west side where a quiet and pretty road runs down to the mill town of Valkeakoski. Crossing the bridge in Valkeakoski seemed like the first target reached. Beyond the town I carried on down and over the attractive bridge crossing Rauttanselkä. This was probably the scenic high point of the ride; classic Finnish lakeland scenery.
Rauttanselkä, filtered via Instagram
My route then took the old highway down to Hämeenlinna; this section was distinctly weird, as it’s a big wide straight highway that now, with the motorway being so close by, has virtually no traffic on it. Maybe I’ve been watching too many episodes of the Walking Dead recently, but deserted roads are a bit spooky. The odd car trundling past was actually appreciated, in that it reminded me that I wasn't the last man standing after the apocalypse.  Such thoughts were dispelled on reaching the relative bustle of Hämeenlinna where, beyond the odd drunk, no zombies were spotted. I could have continued on the old highway straight back home but its straightness and proximity to the motorway make for unattractive riding, so I took a diagonal through the town leaving its southeast and taking back roads to Turenki. Leaving Hämeenlinna I had a minor disaster - pulling my food bag out of the back pocket of my jersey, the plastic split and jelly beans and cereal bar chunks were scattered across the road. Fortunately, coming into Turenki I spied a Lidl still open so was able to buy more jelly beans, plus some other snacks and drinks. A supermarket carpack might not be the most beautiful of picnic spots but I was happy just to loll around on the grass for a bit. 

Chocolate milk refueling stop; Lidl in Turenki
South from Turenki the roads got quieter and more attractive. I skirted east of Hyvinkää and eventually made it to Jokela for another refuelling stop. A couple of times Jokela has been the far end of a loop from home, but getting there on saturday felt like being nearly home - no more need to check the map for example. I had been watching clouds building in the southwest all day, but the last 40 kms were ridden under thick grey and the last 15, with the rain starting to fall. By the last ten or so, back on the old highway, I was bored and wanted to be home, and the rain didn't help. Nevertheless, on the positive side I wasn't getting any of the cramps or back pains I've had towards the end of long rides in the past.

A pretty knackered me, back home at last.
So too summarise; 190.48 kms ridden. Time riding: 6:39.25, plus an hour or so split between four off the bike rests and stops to look at the map properly. A 28.6 kmph average speed, of which I'm quite proud. From the time multiplied by my average cadence of 76, I think I turned the pedals 30 400 times! 5.5 ltrs of liquids drank (2 litre bottles on the bike, bottles refilled once; + a litre of choccy milk and a bottle of coke). One Apple pastry, two energy gels, about 100 grammes of peanuts, and 200 grs of Lidl's finest American style jelly beans (which were great) consumed. I was glad I didn't have to do it again the next day, but it was a great way to spend and afternoon and not as hard as I thought it was going to be. In particular I was pleased that I kept my pace up at a decent level for the whole trip.

En route - a Kirkonkylä (church village), can't remember which one
I don't really have much practical advice to give if anyone else fancies trying a ride along these lines, but I can give a little context: I've always had bikes, but I've never raced or been in a cycling club, so for me a long bike ride like this is more akin to my climbing and mountaineering adventures than a sporting event. I know many keen cyclists will have done many runs of this kind of length, but I think it is the second longest ride I've ever done after the Kallaveden Kierros, and by far the longest solo ride where you don't have the huge advantage of riding in a group. 

I've not really thought about it before, but road bikers were the original lightweight fanatics, long long before moutaineers and backpackers got in on it. You look at the weather and work out the minimum of gear you need for the worst it could be and then just figure you'll keep riding to stay warm if it does crap out. There isn't much room for packing 'just in case' gear as you can with rucksack-based trips. For this trip I rode in bib shorts and and a short sleeved jersey and had an ultralight windproof/water resistant jacket in my saddle bag. Also in the bag, I took some allen keys, a chain breaker (I've broken and seen friends break chains in the past, so figure it's worth it, others disagree) and two spare tubes. Normally I just carry a single tube, but being alone and someway from home, two seemed prudent even if punctures seem to happen rarely to me. Then my phone, which also serves as my camera and gps (in a plastic bag), iPod, food, cut down map, pump, ibuprofen tabs and some money plus bank card went in my jersey pockets. My only 'luxury' I guess was a small cable lock. Finns are a trusting lot but my knee-jerk Englishness still makes me think someone will try and steal my bike the second my back is turned, so for shop stops it's worth it for me. My bike behaved impeccably. Some say aluminium frames like my BeOne give a harsh ride on long rides although I can't say I've noticed this over my old, steel framed road bike. Having a decent track pump means I can now pump the tyres up to near their maximum pressure, which makes them roll really fast. And when you've got a lot of miles to go, that's what you want!