Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Come On, Pilgrim! ...Or, Why I Could Not Ride My Bike for Days

“Old women climb it in their bare feet.”

I believe that was the phrase that drew me in. First, because of the sheer exuberance of the mental picture it painted. I imagined a tight procession of tiny octogenarian ladies – faces weather-beaten, backs bent under the weight of rucksacks, tanned limbs chalky with mountain dust under long skirts, callused feet leaving a trail of blood up a narrow path that winds, winds its way up the mountain to the tiny chapel in the clouds.

The mention of the old women also serves to make the climb seem accessible. If the frail devout dears do this bare-footed, it cannot possibly be that difficult. What is a pilgrimage anyway? If the Cantenbury Tales are anything to go by, basically a long walk.

Croagh Patrick is known as Ireland's Holy Mountain. In year 411, St. Patrick climbed upon it and fasted there for 40 days. And now we, feeble mortals that we are, can climb it in honor of this to atone for our sins. We can climb it to find inner peace, or for good luck. We can climb it for the views, or for the mere satisfaction of having climbed a thing that can be climbed. So say the descriptions of this County Mayo attraction. And having read them, I wanted to climb it too.

We set out on a day that started off hot. 20 degrees may not seem like a lot to those from warmer parts of the world, but there is something about the climate in Ireland, with its special flavor of dense mid-summer humidity, that makes 20 feel closer to 40, and the term “heat wave” does not feel misapplied when used unironically by locals.

The mountain sits right on the coast, and making our way to it from the nearby town of Westport we marveled at the luxurious bike paths spreading in all directions with fantastical island and mountain views. Today Croagh Patrick, but tomorrow certainly bikes.

Marked with a discrete sign, access to the climb was just steps from the main road, behind a clump of woods. There, at the foot of the mountain, stood a white statue of the namesake saint around which crowds gathered for photos. And just beyond that, a steady stream of people could be seen scrambling up a rockface. Funny, because I did not see a trail. They were sort of half-climbing, half-crawling up jagged slabs of stone alongside a stream. As I followed, it slowly sank in: This was the trail.

The start of the climb was immediately tight and steep. So steep, that after climbing for just a few minutes one could turn around to see sweeping views of Clew Bay and its scattered islands.

The climb was also immediately rocky. At first the rocks weren’t loose, but firmly embedded into the soil. Jutting out from the steep pitch at strange angles, they made for extremely awkward footholds, making the climb like an intense, vertical game of Twister. An additional layer of excitement was added by these rocks’ sleekness. Perhaps that had to do with the stream nearby, or maybe whatever kind of rock this was just inherently slippery. But even in my good hiking boots, stepping on some of these rocks was not unlike stepping on ice - the larger and more stable a rock looked, the more likely this being the case.

After nearly a mile of this, the trail widened and began to resemble an actual trail, while the terrain changed into what in cycling terms is known as loose gravel. In some sections the rocks were small, pebble-like. In others they were more like boulders. But as we climbed the pitch kept growing steeper, the loose stones sliding and rolling downward beneath the soles of our boots as we fought gravity to progress upward. It required a great deal of focus, and it never let up.

For someone moderately fit like myself, the difficulty of the climb was a little embarrassing to acknowledge, especially considering how many other people - (pilgrims!) - were attempting it alongside me without complaint. There were no devout old women in bare feet as had been promised. But there were elderly persons of both genders, as well as children and variously aged adults, dressed in a dazzling variety of footwear and clothing from technical climbing gear to sundresses and sandals. Most moved very slowly, taking plenty of breaks, but with an air of determination about reaching the top. The heat and humidity of the day had risen a few degrees by now, and my clothes - a thin wool top and lightweight leggings - were already drenched in sweat. I had drunk a third of the 1L bottle of water I'd brought with me, and eaten a handful of trail mix.

As the climb progressed, it continued to grow steeper, until it reached a plateau. Here the final stretch to the peak loomed in the distance like a mountain in its own right.

At this stage there was only a third of the way left (the climb being 3 miles in each direction), and this fostered a sense of being "almost there." However, the last stretch to the peak was the most difficult. Here again the trail as such disappeared, with climbers struggling to pick the least treacherous line up the now near-vertical rockface. The surface here consisted not of loose rocks in the standard sense of that word, but of loose thin flat slabs of what must have been quartz. These slabs combined the sleek properties of the large sturdy stones in the first part of the climb, with the unstable, crumply properties of the loose gravel in the second part of the climb. This, in addition to the steeper-than-ever pitch, made the final section stunningly difficult and time consuming. As I climbed, gaining height proportionally to distance, not only did the flat jagged slabs of stone give out under my feet, but my boots also slipped on the rock surface itself. Now and again I would lose my footing and fall forward onto my knees, bracing with my hands so as not to slide backwards and down. It was then it occurred to me how difficult it would be to get down this slope on the return trip, with my sense of balance. But for the time being, I suppressed this thought, aiming for the top.

The top came into view with excruciating slowness, but eventually come into view it did. Though I did not know it at the time, I was exceptionally lucky for the day on which I climbed Croagh Patrick to have been crystal-clear, as more commonly the top of the mountain is obscured by cloud. But on this day, the humidity had disappeared by the time we neared the peak and there was a crispness to the atmosphere that made even the most distant feature of the landscape sharply visible.

To one side stretched the mountains of inland Mayo and the neighbouring County Galway. To the other, acres of peat fields spread across the mossy hillside, dotted by sprinklings of young heather.

But the most prized view was that of Clew Bay, showing the mad messy scattering of tiny islands it is famous for, of which there are said to be 365. Here, several sheep - their coats and improbably clean shade of white - patrolled the viewing point, charging pilgrims admission for approach - the currency being banana peals and sandwich crusts.

Since not long after St. Patrick’s time, there has stood on this mountain a chapel of some sort or another. The current one is a white, tidy little structure that is kept functional by a caretaker who climbs to it 4 times a week (albeit along a less steep alternative route to the Pilgrimage trail). On special occasions, Mass is held here, with thousands of people attending - which also means climbing to reach it.

Considering how many people had been climbing the mountain alongside me, there were not a great many at the top - perhaps a dozen, which makes me think that many turn back at some point. Here I also finally saw a barefooted woman. Looking to be at least in her mid-70s, she was sinewy and tanned, dressed in high-tech hiking gear and a bandanna around her forehead, her bare feet sturdy on the slippery rocks. Just as I reached the top, she began to descend, singing songs radiantly.

Alas, my own descent was neither celebratory nor composed. To put it bluntly, I could not get down the steep top part of the mountain. I tried it this way and that, but I only slid and tumbled, losing my footing with nearly every step down the vertical rockface.

Above me and below, the pilgrims who had made it this far and now needed to get down did so the best way they could. Their methods varied wildly, from running with jaw-dropping confidence, to a weepy slip-sliding down on their behinds. The latter was a method I had seriously considered. The tops of my thighs began to burn with the effort of bracing myself against gravity's pull and the rocky downslide. My legs trembled and gave out form underneath me, weakened by effort and anxiety.

At one point, I found myself unable to pick a line through the dangerous slippery rock and, exhausted, I collapsed on my behind and began to sob involuntarily. A woman on her way up seized the opportunity to remind me triumphantly that Jesus was with me. "Be brave my girl, and Christ will save you!" I stopped myself just in time before replying with the first thing that popped into my head. "Does he have a helicopter?"

Anyway. Whether it was due to Christ saving me or not, I got off the mountain intact, and proceeded promptly to the pub with a few of the other pilgrims, where we had a "feed" of local lamb. I could not walk down stairs or properly pedal a bike for the next 3 days, coasting around Westport feebly for the remainder of my holiday while the coastal bicycle trails mocked me with their crisp white markings.

At the pub hung vintage photos of Mass held at Croagh Patrick Chapel at the turn of the 20th century. Men in suits and brimmed hats. Women in long skirts and high heeled boots with elaborate Edwardian hair. Feeling my own still-drenched top, I imagined doing the climb in a long tweed skirt and heels, then pedaling home on a high-geared fixed wheel roadster. People must have been hardier in the day, as well as more religious, to subject themselves to such an adventure. A pilgrim I am not. But there's nothing like ruining your legs for days that makes you pine for cycling, singing a song of thanksgiving once you're fit to pedal again.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Making Faces When Pedaling Places

Brompton Blur
Last week some bicycle bloggers and forumites were passing around a link to a funny post on Vox.com. Entitled The 19th-century health scare that told women to worry about "bicycle face," it brings to light an article circa 1897 written by a medical doctor that warns ladies who pedal against producing a "wearied and exhausted" facial expression. So unattractive! 

Of course the title and content of the article immediately made me think of the popular online comic Bikeyface, whose author sees the matter differently. To her, a "bikeyface" is an expression of unbridled joy, rather than a pained grimace.

But despite their polarised definitions, both parties do agree on the underlying notion: that there is such a thing as a facial expression specific to bicycling. As someone whose former career included research in nonverbal behaviour, I find the idea irresistible. Could there really be a set of facial expressions specific to bicycling? 

It's a cool idea, though anecdotal evidence gleaned from my own experience gives me pause. 

Thinking back to the days before I began to ride a bike myself, my impressions of transportation cyclists fluctuated depending on what country I was in. I remember observing cyclists in English cities and finding their demeanor alarmingly aggressive. And I remember thinking that people on bikes on the East Coast of the US looked huffy-puffy and stern - as if what they were doing was both very difficult and very important. On the other hand, watching cyclists in Austria, Holland, Belgium and France, I  do not recall finding their facial expressions remarkable in any way. Some people looked happy, some looked sad, some annoyed, bored or lost in their thoughts - but none of these states seemed to have anything to do with them being on a bicycle. Cycling in its own right was matter of fact, causing neither bliss nor wearied exertion. 

Interestingly, I first noticed the "bikeyface" - in the joy/bliss sense of the word - in myself, catching my grinning reflection in a storefront as I cycled shakily past. And with the rise of the city/transport/ cute bike movement, I did begin to spot other cyclists in the Boston area with this stamp of bliss on their physiognomies. Increasingly, that, as well as the continental European indifference, are if not replacing then at least generously supplementing the super-serious look that first dominated in those parts. 

What this extremely unscientific sampler of impressions tells me, is that the faces we make while pedaling may depend less on cycling in itself than on our attitudes toward it - which can vary tremendously. Today, cycling can be perceived as a risky athletic activity, a fashion statement, a political act, a way to relax and have fun, an independent means of travel, or as any combination thereof. Unsurprisingly, the facial expressions these attitudes yield will differ. And in cultures where transportation cycling is so normalised and easy as to be unremarkable, we are as unlikely to see the bicycle face against which Victorian doctors admonished as we are to see the bikeyface which pedaling enthusiasts promise.

By now, cycling really should be normalised for me. After all, I do it in some form or other nearly every single day. But even when riding my bike in entirely mundane circumstances, on occasion I still catch myself grinning. What can I say? I love it.

Stranger though is the habit I apparently have of smiling even when I am not having fun on the bike. Several friends have now pointed this out to me, but it seems that when I am having a particularly difficult time on a roadbike I tend to smile in leu of displaying the "pain face." This gives the impression that I am far hardier than I actually am and that I am enjoying myself, creating genuine puzzlement among my companions when I later tell them I was struggling or suffering. "But you seemed so happy! - see?" And sure enough, a snapshot will be produced showing my red face distorted by a mad grin. As I never remember doing this, all I can say for myself is that smiling must be a coping mechanism - à la the facial feedback theory: Research has shown that if our muscles contort in a way consistent with a specific emotion, we can genuinely feel some dose of that emotion regardless of whether it is situationally appropriate. So the smile must be my way of saying "I will not surrender to the pain face! If I smile, then I won't be miserable…" 

Thankfully most of my time on a bike gives me no cause to employ this technique and my grins on two wheels are, for the most part, quite genuine. Is there such a thing as a bikeyface? Perhaps not once we control for other factors. Nonetheless in me it is alive and well. When I catch myself doing it, it feels silly and embarrassing - though I am hardly complaining that cycling makes me happy!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Love Bicycle Art? Share Your Favourites!

"Milk Race" Poster, by Mark Fairhurst
In honour of renovating a good chunk of my house, I have put up some paintings, photos and posters, including a couple of pieces of bicycle art. This is actually the first time I've surrounded myself with any sort of cycling-themed decor. For some reason I'd never felt like doing that before. But when I saw Mark Fairhurst's "Milk Race" poster, I could not resist. Living next door to a milk farm (with access to unprocessed milk as one of the perks!) a scene like this has been a fantasy of mine for some time. And while I'm not sure the local farmers would go for it, this poster makes me smile whenever I look at it - which is often, as it hangs right over the kettle. 

Mark Fairhurst is a photographer and graphic designer active on twitter whose cycling posters have gained popularity over the past couple of years. A good deal of his work is racing-oriented. But the poster that caught my attention initially was "Mercian Dream" - depicting two boys standing in front of a Mercian Cycles shop window and staring in awe at a purple track bike. Almost every Mercian owner I've met in the UK and Ireland has described to me a childhood memory similar to what this picture depicts. I thought it was interesting how the poster managed to express that sense of longing for the glorious unattainable bike. Its rather austere style simplifies and sharpens the sentiment of the scene. If you're into cycling-themed art deco posters, Mark's work is a treat - even just to browse online. 

"Hollyhocks" Print, by Dave Flitcroft
My other acquisition is a lovely linocut print by Dave Flitcroft. Entitled "Hollyhocks," it is a small, intricate thing, based on an old Victor Bicycles advertisement, depicting a woman standing with her bicycle in a garden. Being a printmaker myself who works mostly with linocuts and wood blocks, this piece immediately appealed to me. It is not an image I'd be inspired to make myself, but I am glad that another artist was, because I enjoy looking at it on my wall. Combining my love of the printmaking medium with my love of old cycling adverts, it draws me in every time I walk past.

Dave Flitcroft - or Velo Dave - began making bicycle themed art as a hobby, but has recently opened up his own etsy shop called Art from the Bike Shed, selling mostly limited edition linocut prints. Have a look!

And if you like printmaking, another artist worth checking out is Mike Rubbo. On his website Sit Up Bike Art, Mike sells moody linocuts and rubbings, as well as paintings and drawings, with themes centered on utility and leisure cycling. 

"Hollyhocks" Print, by Dave Flitcroft
At one point or another, we all buy things to decorate our homes with. And if you're looking for cycling themed decor, it may surprise you to learn that handmade items and limited prints bought directly from the artist might set you back not much more than mass-produced trinkets. So why not support an artist and fellow cyclist?

Andy Arthur - aka the Magnificent Octopus - has become quite well known for his lovely and often hilarious posters (he even made one of me in his early days!). Christine Evans - aka Artist on a Bike - is one to go to for cycling themed cards. Bekka Wright - aka Bikeyface - sells t-shirts, bags, and other lovely things through her online shop. And of course there is the famous Taliah Lempert, who will create your very own unique bespoke painting of your bicycle.  

Have you any bicycle art in your home? Share your favourite pieces and artists!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Drafty Morning

Today something amazing happened to me on the way into town. I was cycling though the countryside,  half way through my usual 7 mile commute, when behind me I heard the put-put-put of a tractor. I scooted over toward the hedges and slowed down, to make it easier for the cumbersome heap of metal to pass me. And it did, huffing and creaking as it maneuvered around me on the narrow winding road. It was one of those smallish things with a flat-bed at the rear, piled high with freshly cut grass. These types of machines are not meant for the road and they move slowly - faster than a typical bicyclist, but closer to bicycle speed than car speed. In the cabin, the driver gave me a friendly wave as he passed. He then made some other gesture I could not make out and slowed down. I did not understand what he wanted at first. Why did he pass me only to slow down to a speed slower than mine? Soon I was a foot behind him and applying brakes. Now what? If I pass him, we will only play leapfrog.

Confusing me further, at this point the driver turned around, made eye contact and gave me a thumbs up. Then he began to speed up again. I followed suit, and as I did, it finally hit me what was happening: He was offering me to draft him!

Quickly I scanned the back of the tractor.  A metal ledge and a pile of cut grass; no sharp edges to impale myself upon. This was crazy, but what the heck!

As he increased his speed, I followed suit and increased mine, so that the distance between us remained the same. I did not have my computer, but by feel alone I could tell I was traveling faster than I would on my own power. It was just like riding in a paceline, sort of.

Occasionally, the driver would turn around and give me a questioning nod, like "speed still okay?" And I would reply with a thumbs up.

Cruising along at what was probably 25mph on my folding bike, I spun madly in my high gear feeling little resistance. It was just like that scene in Breaking Away, sort of. I kept expecting him to stick his fingers out the window to challenge me to daredevil speeds - three fingers, four, five! Alas, the rickety farm vehicle was no more capable of such feats than I.

At the next roundabout, the tractor turned off and I rolled into town, beside myself with giddiness in the flickering sunshine. There are plenty of drafty mornings. But not quite like this one.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Room at the Inn? Accommodation Strategies for Bicycle Touring

Approved Farm House Accommodation
Some years ago, an Austrian friend of mine planned a lovely bicycle tour around the west of Ireland. She put together a scenic route, booked rooms in B&Bs and hostels, took a week off work, flew overseas with her bike, and… had a miserable time! It rained every day, with visibility so poor she could hardly make out any of the scenery, and winds so strong she struggled to complete her daily milage. After a few days of this and with the forecast promising more of the same, she decided it might be better to stop and hang out locally instead of continuing to tour. So she tried to extend her stay at the B&B she'd last spent the night and cancel her other reservations. Unfortunately the B&B had no room for her to remain there for extra nights, and some of the places she'd booked ahead would not allow last-minute cancellations. She was essentially locked into continuing her tour. And she did, returning home with a pannier full of soggy clothing and pictures of blurry rainscapes. Now whenever someone mentions touring in Ireland, she grimaces and tells this cautionary tale. It was in fact what influenced me to pick a place and use it as base-camp for day trips, instead of touring from point to point, when I first visited in 2012. 

The thing about bicycle touring in Ireland, is that you have to be kind of flexible. There are stretches of beautiful, sunny weather here. And there are stretches of stormy, miserable weather. If you plan too far in advance or too rigidly, you might be committing yourself to a trip consisting entirely of the latter. And while normally I don't mind cycling in the rain one bit, with touring it's more than about being cold and wet. It's about wanting to experience the local scenery by bike. If all you are seeing is mist and sheets of rain, that rather defeats the purpose! 

Luckily for me, I do have some flexibility. What working freelance lacks in income, it makes up for in allowing for a degree of scheduling freedom. And so this summer I'd love to take advantage of this and try a little mini-tour. Nowhere far or exotic, but maybe to this little spot I like in County Sligo, just over 100 miles away. One day last month, when the forecast for the next few days looked good, I thought "Great, this is it!" and began to phone up B&Bs and hostels. But my spirits were quickly deflated when it turned out that most of them were booked, with the ones that weren't either costing a fortune or inconveniently located. Planning has its perils, but apparently so does spontaneity. 

There are other options of course, such as camping and asking around for contacts of people to stay with. One friend has even told me that he's toured all of Ireland, making no plans in advance what so ever but simply knocking on farmers' doors every evening. They would usually have a spare room where they'd let him crash - sometimes for a modest fee, and sometimes free of charge. I don't think I'd be quite comfortable with that, but it's nice to know that people can be so hospitable. 

For those experienced in touring, what are your strategies for securing accommodations? Do you book in advance, or take off and hope for the best? Do share your stories!