Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Product Review: Winter Jerseys - GroundEffect Thermos + Berglar

Ground Effect  : Thermos + Berglar

I tour in Australia in the winter quite a bit, with some long tours. It doesn't get super cold, but it can be challenging. When it hovers around 0 centigrade (32 F) and it is blowing a cold wind, and it is raining, then the effective temperature can get towards the -5C or even lower. You want good gear to keep warm and to be comfortable.

I have had the Thermos for a few years, and recently I actually wore out my old jersey and replaced it with the Berglar.

When it's extremely cold I wear a synthetic thermal, with the Thermos over that, then the Berglar. On top of that I have a Netti rain jacket that I wear even when it's not raining.

Four layers? Yes. Layers are good. When I start for the day, I will take a few kilometres to warm up. Then I will start taking off layers. On a typical cold day when I'm in motion I will finally have the thermal and the Berglar.

The Thermos is a wind blocking undergarment. It's specifically built to block cold winds. You'd expect in New Zealand that they would know a thing or two about cold, and they certainly do. It blocks the chill really well, and it's comfortable with large arm holes.

The Berglar is a jersey made from a combination of merino wool and synthetics.

What's important in  a jersey?

Weight & warmth

You don't want a bulky jersey. When I received it, I thought that there was no way that it could be warm, it was so light and thin. It looks a bit like a summer jersey. But the unique mix of fibres makes it work really well. Yes, it really is warm.

Drying time.

After you've ridden a whole day, inevitably there will be some sweat in the jersey. You don't want a wet jersey in the morning. Hanging it inside the tent, even when it is cold, it was always dry by the next morning. Foolishly I left it outside in the rain while I did some cooking, and it even recovered from that ok.


If anything, the pockets are a little small for my liking, but they are tough and they can handle anything that I put in them.

The groundeffect system of winter clothing works really well for me. I give them five out of five stars.

Disclaimer: even though almost everything I wear comes from GroundEffect, I don't receive any sponsorship or payments from them.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

I decided to forgive Lance Armstrong.

It's not so popular, forgiveness. Nowadays people talk of "gaining closure" when the perpetrator has been ruined, humiliated, jailed or in many cases, killed. There are two amazing instances of forgiveness in modern history. South Africa, for one, and East Timor for another. People who have been abused, tortured and killed for years and years find the courage to forgive. Incredible.

Mine is a minor thing, really. I've decided to forgive Lance Armstrong. Yes, of course, he made a fool of all of us you say. He cheated. He ran a protection racket around his racket. How can you forgive somebody that did that? Well, I think I can. 

As others have said, he broke my heart, a little. I followed him for years, stayed up late night after night watching the Tour. I'll never forget some of those moments where he just sprinted away on the climbs. One summer my daughter and I made the journey to Adelaide to watch him in the Tour Down Under. Do I regret that? Not really. 

But it was all on drugs, I hear you say. 

I can imagine how it all started. The need to compete, the fact that lots and lots of other cyclists were doing it. What is the line between self belief, and self delusion? Who knows.

Let's step back. Nobody died. It's just sport. 

You know what - I think we were all in this together. The doping authorities, the media, the spectators, everyone. We wanted to believe, so we managed to avoid the elephant in the room. All of us. I remember the lies that we all joined in on, and believed. 

"Lance pedals at a higher cadence."

Oh really? This gives him magic powers to climb a hill faster? Gee, why did nobody else think of that? What bullshit. 

"Lance only trains for this one race a year."

So the whole peleton is out there racing week after week getting race fit, and Lance somehow gets to the same level just by training? Seriously? 

"Lance completely remade his body after cancer."

Maybe. But is a re-made body after serious illness better than a healthy one? 

Things take on a certain gravity when you are in a cancer ward, I imagine. Watching a really good person come in and die quickly, then a total arsehole recover completely and walk out of the ward. The incredible, dehumanising, humiliating, random nature of illness and death. 

Along the way, Lance raised a lot of money for some charities that continue to do great things. Mostly for the people in those cancer wards. 

Yes, Lance, you are possibly the greatest cheat in sporting history. But I forgive you.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Four short bike tours in Victoria, Australia using VLine trains for transport.

I've posted about how I plan short trips in my home region. I'm fortunate that Vline  allows bikes on trains, so I can get to the start easily and return the same way. Unfortunately this is not the case in any other states in Australia. Having said that you have to be careful in picking which services to take. You can't book ahead. One very important page you should check is the "service changes" page: when they work on the tracks (mostly in winter, but not always) they substitute buses for trains, and the buses won't take your bicycle.

Most of these rides are based around rail trails - Victoria has lots of them.

I have mapped each of these tours, so you can see how it plays out in detail, right down to the lunch stop and the camping location. Some of you may be able to travel up to double the pace, but you get the idea.

Great Victorian Rail Trail

Track My Tour track The Google Map display allows you to see the path I took, at least roughly. I tend to put points only at lunch stop and at the end of each day, so it is a bit disjointed. 

This is "the longest continuous rail trail in Australia". It also is quite accessible by train at the Western end, finishing close to Seymour. Trains to Seymour run quite frequently, so this is very convenient. I wanted to ride almost all of the trail from one end to the other. So I chose to start riding from Benalla. 
The B330 is quite busy, and as you get further south it does not have a shoulder. It's not a comfortable ride. In retrospect, if I was going to do this ride again I would start and finish in Seymour.

At the end of the first day, I just camped at the side of the rail trail. The "rules" on free camping in Victoria are a bit vague, but I work on the principle of camping somewhere where I'm not visible, so I don't need to ask permission. I can't see the harm if you work on not leaving any disturbance or rubbish.

Tunnel just before Yea. 

The trail itself is almost new, and the surface is pretty good most of the way with only the occasional sandy patch. All of the rail trails are rideable with 32mm or so tires, but I wouldn't try them with skinny tyres. Most riders are on mountain bikes. It seems that this trail was a result of a government grant, rather than from a community push. A lot of the trail is isolated, and it was missing the usual advertisements for local businesses. Maybe as it was almost new, this will develop over time. It is a great ride, and with a bit of promotion it could become a real tourist attraction. 

On the final day I rode all the way to Seymour. This was a mistake. I should have just camped at Yea: it's a beautiful town. 

Bendigo to Ballarat

Bendigo and Ballarat are quite large towns, so you might think that a bike ride in their vicinity would be a matter of riding beside lots of traffic, and not so pleasant. But this is a case where picking the right route makes all the difference. The Vline trains to both cities run almost one an hour most days, so getting to and from the start is not a problem. The new intercity trains have an area where you can rest a bike. Generally if you pick a not very busy time, with one or two bikes you will be ok. It's not possible to do ten or twenty though. You will have to discuss with them to make sure you get a train with a goods van. 

On the first day I camped at the Kooyora State Park. In Victoria State Parks are quite good to camp at. I camped at the official area, even though it was at the top of a large hill. It has a basic toilet, and I like the idea of using facilities when they are provided. There is no charge to camp here, although this may change in the near future. 

Amazingly enough, on the second day I rode almost the whole morning without being passed by a car. This is one of those locations where you are riding not far from two major highways: the M8 and the A79. Almost all traffic is concentrated there. On the second day I camped at the Kara Kara State Park. There is a small camping area there, but I had a lot of trouble finding it. In the end I set up my tent, looked across the lake only to see it no more than a few hundred metres from where I was. I couldn't be bothered to move, and it worked out ok. This is right next to a reservoir of water for the nearby town, and I used my water treatment thing to top up my own supplies. 

The next day came with a massive tailwind, so I made about 90km and stopped at a caravan park not far from Ballarat. 

South West and Port Fairy to Warrnambool rail trail

This ride starts and finishes with the new Port Fairy to Warnambool rail trail. I arrived on the morning train from Southern Cross and set out only a few hundred metres from the station. The trail meanders in the tidal zone, with lots of bird life, and town joggers out enjoying the facility. In this case you can really see that the local community is really into the rail trail, in lots of small ways. Just the care in maintaining the trail, and the signage. It really is a great place to ride. 

The first day was rain, with a headwind and I struggled to make headway. In the end I stopped in a roadside plantation hoping that it would ease up. The weather here mostly comes from the west, so it wasn't a surprise that the next day was another push into the headwind. Roads here were not so busy, but the surface was quite broken up. I was lying in my tent listening to the news, when they announced an upgrade for a road. "What a waste of money" I thought, then realised that it was the very road I was lying beside.

I wanted to make it to the camping place on the great south west walk. I've got ambitions of one day walking the full length of it. I had timed my trip to avoid the long weekend, having visions of the walk being crowded with walkers taking advantage of the break. I finally found the campsite, after a bit of navigation, and imagine my surprise when looking at the log book to see that not one walker had gone through in the holiday weekend! The only recent entry was from a fellow bicycle tourer the week before. 

Great Southwest Walk campsite

You can see here that I put the bike under cover, and the tent out in the rain. Not so smart. The following day was a wonderful ride along the dirt roads of the national park. No traffic, a cover of trees. Some of the best riding anywhere.

National Park riding

I made my way to Portland along the Portland-Nelson road. This is a road that I have wanted to ride for some time, but as is the nature of these things, it is a logging road and while the trucks were extra careful it was not so easy. Only a gentle pedal along to camp at the caravan park at Narrawong. I'd ridden past this park, and it didn't disappoint. A really calm, wonderful spot.

Around the Princes Highway, with a good shoulder, I continued on to Port Fairy and the beginning of the rail trail again. This time I camped beside the trail at one of the old stations, a nice flat spot that was quiet and restful. Then, on my last day, I encountered the locals who support the rail trail on their morning ride. They have every reason to be proud of their trail. 

I got the midday train back from Warrnambool.

Gippsland Plains Rail Trail


Another rail trail! This one recently completed also. This one has the jackpot though: you can get the train both to the start and the finish. The ultimate. 

In my case I went to Sale, and rode around to Stratford, but the best way would be to get the train to Stratford and start from there, or vice versa. This trail has the occasional navigational challenge when you are going through towns, it might need a bit more signage. In every case though I found the trail eventually.

Rail Trail near Stratford

It's a bit challenging coming into Traralgon, in that the trail ends well before the town. Hopefully in the future they will improve that stretch so that even the most car-shy rider can get to and from the trail. The surface in the new stretch is brilliant, it was only in the older stretches that it was a bit patchy. But the serenity is well worth the occasional sandy patch.


Amazingly enough, this is only a small sample of Victoria's tours that are accessible using Vline. It's also only a small sample of Victoria's rail trails. There are many more. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

How I plan a five day bike tour

Why plan? Some of the truly epic bicycle rides (e.g. ) began with almost no planning at all. Just ride out the front gate and keep going. It's not really necessary. 

For a shorter tour, though, I normally plan out the tour, at least in outline. It makes for a more pleasant journey. This is a very individual thing, so it's a process of trying things and finding what works for you. 

How to get to the start/finish ?

Why not start from home? I live in an outer suburb of Melbourne, about 45km from the centre. I find this is the most dangerous place to ride.  Australia generally is a very car dependent society. Almost all trips are taken by car. It's not comfortable or safe riding in these suburbs. I prefer to start and end bicycle tours at least 300km from a major city. That might seem extreme, but you have to get out of the city type zone. Where people either commute to the city or take day trips. 

I mostly take Vline trains to the start and finish. It is best to use the stations at the end of the line. There are limited places for bicycles, and if your bike won't fit then you just have to wait for the next train. So you can be standing on the platform, train comes in, and the baggage car is already full. In some places there are only two trains a day, so the wait can be quite long. At the terminating station you can get there early and make sure your bike is on. There is plenty of time to load the bike. 

Which roads to ride on? 

We have a system of labelling roads. A,B and C. A roads are interstate highways. They typically have wide shoulders, so they are safe to ride on. It's not very pleasant though, with the traffic whizzing past you at 100km/hr. My preference is to ride on C roads, or even the minor roads below the "C" roads. Rail Trails are even better, no traffic at all. The B roads are especially difficult. Looking on the map it is hard to see how much traffic there is in a normal day. Some places have really heavy traffic before the start of work, and then nothing for the rest of the day.

Sometimes you will find a "C" road that runs parallel to an "A" road. These are great, because everyone in a car will take the highway, and hardly anybody will take the slow road. 

Why be self-sufficient?

In 2000 I set off on my first long bicycle tour through Queensland. I set off from Brisbane, heading north.  For breakfast, I like cereal (weetbix) and milk. I would stop in, or near a town, buy some milk before I stopped and use it in the morning. It was usually cool overnight, so the milk would not go off. Australians are now puzzling over this - as you go further and further north you are going to get to a point where there is 2, or 3 days ride between towns. No shop, no milk. 

I learned to carry everything I need. Now I carry powdered milk, and mix it with water. A small thing, but it makes a big difference.  

You can ride town to town, or even pub to pub (no need to carry a tent), everyone has their own style of riding.

The big advantage of being self-sufficient is simple. You can stop when you like. Once I was riding south from Swan Hill into a really strong headwind. After two days of pushing into the wind, I did my shortest day ever. At 10am in the morning after riding 30km  I put the tent up and rested. Of course, when I woke up the next morning the wind had dropped, and it was easy. 

How far to ride each day?

Until you feel tired, maybe.  I find that I tend to press on, push too long. This is fine for a day or two, but then it stops being fun. There is also the effect of fitness, and age. Nowadays I find that I can ride 60km or so most days. So when planning a trip, I discount this and aim for an average of 50km. This allows for the really bad days when the rain and wind are in your face, or you are climbing many hundreds of metres. Another way to think of this is to take the longest day you have ever ridden fully loaded (110km in my case) and divide by two - that will be a sensible average. 

How many days of food to carry? 

Generally I will carry enough food for four days. This means that if I have a major mechanical failure that will take me a day to fix, that I still have enough food to get to the next town. Distances between towns in Australia can be quite long, even up to four days in the outback. 

I tend to carry dehydrated food and water. I've met cyclists that never cook and just live on tinned food. For me, a hot meal makes me feel better, and the extra weight of the stove is worth it. 

Where to camp?

Stealth camping is worthy of a whole article on its own. I actually use Google Street View a lot. Go to 60km on the route and click until I find a good spot. It's a bit of a luxury to know where you will be camping, but it is one less thing to worry about. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

my very cheap touring bike stand

In the desert, there is nowhere to lean your bike. It's really difficult to stand holding it up, and unpack or pack it. That's how I came to think about stands.

There are the type that attach to the bike, and the pole type. My bike has a fitting for a stand, but I was reluctant. The weight when fully loaded, pushing against the frame. It would probably be ok, but I searched for a pole type solution.

I searched and found a commercial solution. They are really neat, and if you are looking for a good quality sturdy stand, then I suggest that you seriously look at them.

In my case, I had just mended my tent with great help from bluemoon200510 on ebay ( ). So I had some tent poles left over, and some of the elastic cord that goes down the middle. I wondered if I could use a tent pole as a stand.

The first version was a failure. Bike too heavy, stand bends wildly. Then I had a brainwave. Maybe two stands would do it. I got the gaffer tape and taped two together. Bingo.

I have used it for about a year now, and it has been great. You can see that it rests under the seat, and sits like a normal tent pole. I thought that it might sink into the ground, but not so.

This is what it looks like folded up:

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Melbourne's housing wars

Cities are growing all over the planet. In considering Melbourne's housing problems, I was momentarily distracted by San Francisco. Seems there has been an influx of some 75 thousand people over the last decade, leading to some well publicised incidents: demonstrations at Google buses, posting of nasty signs. Serious, I thought. Then I realised that Melbourne is growing by some 50 thousand people every year. So where SF has struggled with 75 thousand, Melbourne has somehow dealt with 500 thousand.

Wikimedia: Biatch at en.wikipedia

Impressive, I thought. Melbourne is successful. In a sense, yes. There are problems with success. It becomes expensive, for one.

"The Economist" global housing prices.

How can it be that it's more expensive to live in Melbourne than in London? At one level, it is the price of popularity. 

How does it do it? Mostly by adding at the edges. The fastest growing areas are in the outer fringes of the city. Great, impressive stuff. Only a matter of some twenty or thirty kilometres and we are all happy. Except that Melbourne sprawls in a way that makes Los Angeles look like an under-achiever. At thirty to forty kilometres, and further. 

So it's just a few extra minutes on the freeway, or a fast train to work? No such luck. The train network has remained basically unchanged for nearly fifty years. Only recently they managed to finally catch up on all the maintenance, and get it actually working on most days. In Melbourne though, taking inspiration from Los Angeles, most people drive cars.  Yes, there are more freeways, and more tollways. But when the population is growing by 5000 a week then it's inevitable that all of this will fail to keep up.

In one sense then, if you want to live in greater Melbourne, then you can. Emphasis on the "greater" part. You will be in outer Pakenham, with a train station and a shopping centre within a short car drive. Or you could live where I do, in Frankston. Only 45km from the CBD. If you work in the city it will be a 90 minute commute each way: you will spend 3 hours a day just travelling.

No surprise then, that the rise in property prices is driven by those areas closest to the city. Bernard Salt (Guardian Australia) talks of the 5km ring, but it's perhaps stretching now to a 10 or 15km ring. There is fierce competition for a limited supply of housing, leading to a steep rise in prices. Way beyond normal price to income ratios. It's quite something for a city so far from the world centres to get prices into this stratospheric area. In the last few years the balance has shifted heavily to investment (ABS), and clearly this is a speculator driven market. Fine if you are rich, but not so great if you want to live in the city.

In the normal course of events, as the price of individual houses rises, then the market would come to the rescue. Developers would buy up houses in large numbers, and redevelop the style of housing. Hong Kong and Singapore wrote the book on limited land supply, but with high rise it's possible to bring an apartment within reach of purchasers.

Melbournians are (mostly) not given to rioting in the streets, or setting up barricades. Most of this stuff is real 'frog in a saucepan of water being heated' stuff. Every week the travel time gets longer, the train or tram more crowded. There is no signal that pops up saying 'now is the time to go crazy'.

Which brings us to the fictional "Murder in the Fabric". It is 2020 and the developers are moving in. They know how to move the lifestylers, and they are going at it like there is no tomorrow. It's Chinese developers versus the 'not in my backyard' crowd, with the younger population cheering the developers on. Somehow it has turned deadly, and George Kostas has to get to the bottom of it all.


ABS statistics on housing finance: 5609.0 - Housing Finance, Australia, Feb 2014

Guardian Australia Monday April 7, 2014 Melbourne's population is Australia's fastest growing, says ABS

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Welcome to paradise...

A traveller crosses the globe, "searching for a better place". They most likely have googled the destination so much, seen the images, imagined what it is going to be like. When they arrive, they are open to the sunshine, the beaches, the people.

I live in Melbourne, Australia. Have almost all my life. Quite a lot of people arrive here with great expectations, excited that they have found a place that is so different to where they come from. For us residents, this is a bit weird.

Melbourne is visually impressive. It's only a few kilometres to a beach where you don't have to fight for a patch of sand. If you get up early enough in the morning, you might have it to yourself. The sun shines, a lot. It doesn't snow. The economy, if not booming, is certainly powering along. If you've just got off the plane from Ireland, or Spain, or the crowded cities of Asia, or the cold of Germany, then I guess it looks pretty good.

I've only lived outside Australia once, when I lived in Japan. It was back when Japan was the success story of the world. People were publishing books about the "japanese miracle". When I returned to Australia, everyone wanted me to give a talk about Japan. So I talked for an hour on 'the problems of Japan'. It wasn't what they wanted to hear, but I hope they learned something from it. There are no earthly paradises, and everywhere has some difficulties.

So what are the problems of Melbourne? All of the problems of a rapidly growing Western city. Housing is the most expensive in the world, which is quite amazing when you consider that it's only a few hundred years old. It is not surrounded by mountains like Sydney. With the right infrastructure it could grow and accommodate a rapidly growing population without major difficulties. That's not how it's playing out.

Yes, it's a great place. But it's not paradise.