Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Fantastic cycling routes in the Appennine mountains in Italy

For a lot of cyclists, riding in Italy means climbing Passio di Giau, Stelvio or Passio di Gavia, all in the Italian Alps.

And exactly that was my plan when I drove to Italy. But the weather was not exactly coorporating so when I woke up in the Dolomites (Northern Italian region) and saw rain, fog and cold, I packed my stuff and left.

My plan?

Driving to a place where it is sunny, mountainous , remote and very Italian.

Another four hours further South from the Alps, I found the place that had it all - the Northern part of the Appennine mountain range.

The terrain features everything - flat, rolling, hilly and some serious climbing - shallow or steep. And the best part - little traffic, great weather and well...amazing recovery food! Prosciutto, Parmesan cheese and Balsamic vinegar all come from this region.

If you find yourself in this region, check out these rides - from a tough day on the bike to lazy recovery rides:

Post-ride delicious Italian coffee.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Quick and dirty tips for your ultra-light bikepacking trip in France

Information on climbs:

  • Website that states what Cols are open:  (The German is not always correct!) 

  • The German website: has all information possible about a pass. Even as a non-German speaker, coloring and numbers tell more than any word. Just click on "Pรคsse" (meaning pass) and search for a specific pass or explore by region. Once you click on a pass and scroll down, you can see the elevation gain, profile and much more in detail.

  • For bike tourists on a budget, try, a free “coachsurfing” website specifically for touring cyclists. I have used that site in New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii and Switzerland and I had always fantastic experiences!

  • Otherwise, if you stay in a remote ski resort for a week+, they might have a great offer. I stayed in a 3 Star studio apartment in Modane, for 140 Euro/week. (In other places, I paid 50-70 Euro/night for a one person private bed and bathroom)
  • I always navigated via paper maps (they never run out of battery) of at least 150000:1. I would not get anything bigger (like 200000:1) as the less-travelled cycling roads might not be on the map anymore.

  • Download the app. From there you can download maps for specific regions.

  • You can also make specific regions offline in Google maps.
  • The meteo earth app is fantastic as you can follow every single cloud and rain drop.
  • Always switch your wifi off while on the road, the battery lasts sooooo much longer.
  • If you don’t speak French, I would get an offline French dictionary app. Otherwise smiling does most of the job.
  • Some stuff to know in regards to the bike might come handy like assembling your bike out of your bike bag and changing a tube. 
 Enjoy your trip!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Under the spell of Mt Ventoux

With my current “film-the-most-epic” climbs mission, Mt Ventoux was a no-brainer since it is in this year’s Tour de France.

And this climb is special in so many ways. 

First, its an entire pilgrimage to get to the climb. And that was only the beginning.

Since it is the only bigger mountain in the region, you don’t exactly need to get a map to find it. 
And if you still don’t see it, just follow anything resembling a cyclist, bike-racked car roof or just the Dutch camper vans. Every soul is heading to the mountain.

There are 2 unique ways heading up Mt Ventoux. Of course, I had to climb the one in the Tour de France – from Bedoin. (Just for the number junkies:  21.2km/1599m climbing, 7.5% grade average) It is seen as the hardest ways up.

Being not in the mountains anymore, the atmosphere has changed. The mountains emanate this mystic, reserved feeling where you are never quite sure you are accepted -  the moody weather, the sheer vertical disparity and the mooching Yetis (oh wait, wrong mountain range). In contrast, Mt Ventoux radiates this intriguing, welcoming “hey, look, you can see even the top, come on up!” message lulling cyclists in their spell.

It got me too. I had to ride up.

The scenery of Mt Ventoux is basically an American/Italian climate sandwich: Bottom: Rome (Italy). Very Mediterranean flair with old stuff around, a lot of terracottan color. Middle part: Bend, Oregon (USA): Green, smell of pine trees and yes, even pine trees. Top: Tucson, Arizona (Desertish color), wide views and the tower as mirage.

In the Alps, I was climbing my own pace taking it all in but this time, there was so much happening, no time for tranquility. The mountain was covered in English, German and Dutch cyclists, drivers and camper vans. I made it a game to guess what nationality the cyclists were depending on their riding style. I can tell you, time does go by that way!

With all the trees around, there was no view expect the steep pavement ahead of you so keeping yourself entertained was a good idea.

1300m of elevation later, it all changed.

It opened up. No trees. Green turned to white. And that notorious tower in your vision.

Super small in the background - the tower and finish of Mt Ventoux

For the good or bad.

Although you clearly headed in that direction, the tower just didn’t get any bigger.

That meant, time for some serious distraction. The guess-nationality game lost its appeal.

But holy moly, the view definitely made up for it!

As far as you can see.

We were all of a sudden so close; the tower was right there. Something else concerned me though. I looked at my bike computer.

There is a point in both roads up to the tower that makes you realize how much vertical meters you still have ahead of you

We were short of 100 vertical meters.

Yep, and that’s where the 11% gradient appeared – in the last km….after almost 2 hours climbing. 

Although you could see the final km from far away it never appeared to be that steep. I guess when you have been climbing 8-10% the entire time, 11% doesnt seem that much steeper.

Finally, the tower came into eye height. The elevation gain on the bike computer matched with the elevation of Mt Ventoux.

And I joined all the English, Germans and Dutch on the top.

For those who need some serious sugar reload

There were several ways going up but only two routes that are truly unique (and don’t overlay with others).  So of course, curiosity made me climb up that as well. Just for the record, it is tough too!

Mt Ventoux

Great panorama

Monday, May 23, 2016

What happens when you underestimate Alpe d'Huez!

I am currently in France chasing all the epic climbs.
And it goes without saying, there are a lot!
I am on a mission - filming them for the indoor trainer app called FulGaz.

But there is a problem with spending an extended period of time in the mountains - you become addicted to elevation gain.
At first, it was one little climb - 700m vertical gain that blew you away.
Then it was 1000m, a big one.
Then two climbs, etc.

Well, two days ago I was on the "hell, I am going to do a big day today - two 1500m climbs, Col de la Croix de Fer from both sides".

After that ride, I also decided I never would do this climb again. (It was just not my gradient.)

In the evening I checked my ride and I saw Alpe d'Huez was so close to that route! It was one of those climbs I was planning on filming anyway so how could I have missed it!!!!

I have to go back!

24 hours later I came to this epiphany I could just add Alpe d'Huez to the 6.5 hours ride the day before.

What is one more climb?
(I might want to add that I am not a big Tour de France follower so I heard about Alpe d'Huez and that there is such a big hype about it but there is a lot of hype about a lot of things, right?)

So two days after the Col de la Croix de Fer ride, I was back climbing it again. (Here goes my promise never to climb it again!)

But then, the most essential part of my mission failed. The camera gave me a no-go!

Half way up the first col! (Just a side note for the flatlanders: Just going down the mountain to repair it is not just a 10 min turn around, we are talking about hours!)

So after climbing the reminder of Croix de Fer, I had to make a monumental decision. Heading back and call it a day or keep going?

I decided to keep going.  I have been riding with a failed power meter, only three gears, a badly-to-be-greased chain and other unidentifiable bike noises for the past two weeks. A broken camera will not make me turn around. Basta!

So I descended the other side of Croix de Fer and four hours later and 1800m vertical meters in my legs I found myself in Bourg d'Oisans - the start of this self-proclaimed, tough climb.

Well, yes, it did start tough.

But then I thought it was only 10km of climbing and 1100m of ascent.

Oh wait, what?

It was starting to sunk in. This might not be the random neighborhood climb.

There were count-down markers for the corners in the... ahem... corners.
Not sure about its intentions....was it meant to devastate or encourage you?

20 corners to go.

I lost my faith in them by corner 19. Either I was already so in the red zone that I made up corners or the count-down person was vicious! Not every corner had a corner sign! (Let's talk about mental abuse here!)

Plus, my vision got so blurry that I couldnt make up the number anymore!

In short, I was losing it.

And what set me off completely were all those cyclists who were flying down the mountain.


Excuse me! I am suffering here, have a little bit more empathy. A more pitying face would be  appropriate!

Anyway, by corner 15±3 I decided not to look up anymore.

No smiling cyclists anymore.
No untrustworthy corners anymore.
Staring at the pavement was just fine by me!

But another misery was setting in.

I now could exactly follow my progress seeing if any pavement is moving under me.

Was I moving?

Suddenly I heard someone yelling: photo, photo!

I looked up. Yes, there was a photographer in my snail-pacing way to take a picture.

I let him do his job.

Then he wanted to give me a business card.

I think he could see my eyes behind my glasses because he immediately retracted.

At some point, and do not ask me what corner, I looked up and saw two villages above me.
Oh my god! That must be heaven or hell, well, actually both.

Of course, Alpe d'Huez was the one further up.

No time to look up anymore. I had a job to do. Staring at that darn pavement and hoping it would keep moving! 

Then signs of "Tour de France this way" appeared in my tunnel vision.

Then the corner signs disappeared.

It must be going straight or only uncornery corners now!

And I made it into Alpe d'Huez.

I was confused.

Where the heck is that damn "Arrivee" sign?

I asked frantically, distressed two coffee-drinking coffee drinkers.

"Another few meters uphill."

So I climbed those "few" meters....and I still couldnt find that one-and-only sign I would recognize from miles away!

At the seemingly end of the village I turned around and was looking for the sign. More distressed.

And by chance, I found this small, piddling sign which did not represent the size of this massive effort! They must change the sign!

(Well, you might look at the sign and say, ahem Monika, this is a pretty big sign. But I say, if you stare at the pavement for more than an hour, this sign is not exactly in your vision!)

I took my obligatory col picture. I felt disturbed, mentally and physically abused. Why would someone play with you and your legs for such a long time?

And then I descended and Alpe d'Huez became a bit friendlier. I didnt know that it actually had a view:

But back to my mission, I still need to film this climb!

Next time (meaning tomorrow), the corners, the smiling descending cyclists, the photographer and the pavement need to watch out for my Vendetta! This is not how I will leave it with Alpe d'Huez!

Oh wait, the story is not done yet. I forgot that I had to climb back over Col de la Croix de Fer (1500m elevation). And if Alpe d'Huez was misery, this was absolute hell. I was mentally so exhausted that those 50m road sign reflection markers every, well, 50m kept me going.

I think the video says it all:

And just for the record, this is the ride:

Monday, May 9, 2016

Ultralight backpack cycling adventure in France - Part 2 - What I carried

Greetings from Geneva!
I just got back from five days of ultralight backpack cycling in Southeast France.
You might wonder where Part 1 of this trip is? It is coming (I only have 18 hours before my next flight to Nice for the same adventure in a different region). But on request and with only limited time, I want to share what I carried on this trip and what it requires so it works.

I am sure that style of cycling has a name but I havent come across it yet. What I mean with ultra light backpack cycling is a combination of road cycling and bikepacking. You can go as fast as you would do on a normal road ride (and not dragged down by weight, panniers, etc) but have all the essentials that you are never bound to a place and dont have to do loops.

You just go wherever you feel like. As I do like the comfort of a real bed, I stayed in hotels, with a kitchen if possible. I ate out only once, when everything was closed - it was Sunday AND public holiday, so absolutely zero chances that something would be open in France. But I will get to this in a later part of this story. Below is the list of what I carried in my bag:

- One light shirt
- One light leggins
- One tiny sleeping pants
- Toothbrush
- Travel-size tooth paste
- Travel-size laundry soap
- Maps (as needed)
- Wind jacket
- Phone/Garmin/Light charger (had all the same plug-in, dont forget to bring the right adapter)
- Passport
- Debit Card
- Cell phone
- 1-2 bananas

Always/mostly worn during the ride:
- Bandini
- Arm-/Legwarmers
- One jersey and one bibs
- Wind jacket
- Winter gloves
- Glasses with photo-chromatic lenses
- Toe covers
- Helmet
- Cycling shoes
- Socks

On my bike: 
- Two front lights (I never rode in the dark but essential for tunnels, fog, etc)
- Rechargeable rear light
- Bike computer Garmin 520
- Saddle bag (one tube, lever)
- Frame pump
- Two water bottles (there are plenty of fountains around to refill)

No shoes besides my cycling shoes and nothing spare or extra. If I lose it, it becomes more adventurous. I forgot my phone/Garmin/light charger in one hotel. Luckily, the following hotel let me borrow a charger. (It was Sunday, so nothing was open to buy something).

When I look at the list, it seems like an awful lot and thus heavy. But since it was mostly light clothes, the weight tended to evenly distribute itself on my back so I never felt it on my back. I carried it up a lot of cols and never experienced any back pain.

I didnt bring any food besides 1-2 pieces of fruit. With one exception, it works for me and I love stopping at supermarkets (Intermarche, Casino, Carrefour, Lidl, Netto, Aldi) and pick up a fresh piece of fruit or whatever I fancy at that time.

Of course, with so little stuff to carry around, there is a bit of post-ride routine involved. Where ever I felt like, I want to stay, I went either into a Office du Tourisme or straight into a hotel and asked for a room (usually between 50-70 Euro. It always had to be near a supermarket). Then, I go into the supermarket and buy food (I left my bike inside the supermarket and had an eye on it). If I didnt get a hotel with kitchen, it had to be salad or I got a roast turkey. If I got a kitchen, options were limitless. (3 our of 5 times I got a kitchen)

After the supermarket run, I got into the hotel and washed my clothes while trying to figure out how to get them dry until the next day. Creativity was in high demand. Easy ways were there was a heater or a hair dryer or balcony. But I also pinned my clothes with knife and fork into the air conditioner to have them hung right in front of them.

After the laundry routine, I finally could prepare food. By then, 1-2 hours have passed since I decided to be done riding. While eating, I studied the map and had some rough plans where my next destination is. Except the last day (where I had to get to Geneva), I never got where I intended to get. Sometimes, I found a better route, sometimes, I didnt like the chosen route and usually I got lost anyway.

After all this post-ride activities, it was time to relax.

Of course, this is not the golden formula for such kind of cycling. It worked for me well and I will do exactly the same during the Nice trip. Feel free to ask, suggest or tell from your experiences.

In the next parts of this adventure I will cover what makes this type of riding so awesome and what my routes were. I also will write about all the lessons learned from this trip.

Bye for now, I am off to Nice!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Baw Baw Cycling Classic – Taking on the hardest climb in Australia

When I first heard about Baw Baw Cycling Classic, I was intrigued.
It sounded tough – yep that would be something I would enjoy.

For those who haven’t heard about the Baw Baw Cycling Classic, here are some numbers:
The race is 103 km long, 3200m of elevation with the last 6km averaging 11% and a few pinches of 20%. (64mi, 10,500 feet elevation, last 3.7mi averaging 11% with 20% pinches). More info on the Baw Baw climb here.

Considering that the last 6 km only cover an elevation gain of an odd 700m, you can imagine where the other 2500m of climbing coming from. You dont exactly start the last climb fresh as a daisy.
Here is the elevation chart.
Baw Baw Cycling Classic 103km/3200m elevation

Very deceiving!
Just as a side note, you see that little rise just before km 30? That is an elevation gain of 100m. Not as insignificant as it looks on this chart. 

The final decision if I should race was when my fellow Hurt Box rider, Meredith, told me it would be even tougher than I imagined it to be. It was not just a climb. It was a brutal 4+hr ride.

Music to my ears.

Speaking of signing up - the number of participants shows the respect for this race. Only 15 women in total signed up. It is not without a reason that Baw Baw is said to be the toughest climb in Australia.

So here I was at the start line with 14 other girls. Perfect weather conditions.

The race was split into two parts for me. Part 1 - The first 40km were tame with A grades setting the pace. At 40km, the eventual winner put in an effort and there was a natural split between the grades. I spent the next 10km or so riding with another girl and then I was by myself.

No soul around besides the occasional appearance of carnage from the categories ahead of us. 

50km on my own. 

I was hoping that I would create a gap so I wouldn’t get caught at the Baw Baw climb.

And then, I got a feeling, I usually get after riding 300+ km - I couldn’t push beyond a certain power anymore.

I just had nothing in my legs.
Anything above a certain perceived effort would lock my legs up.

I got worried.

Would this "lock-up-cramp-threshold" be high enough that I could ride up Baw Baw? 

It is not uncommon that riders push their bikes up Baw Baw. 

And then the massive wall appeared ahead of me. Six very focused, zigzagging  kilometers. (It could have been 7km from the amount of zigzagging) Any inattention would have made me swerve which would have caused me to fall over. 

It is hard to describe what you experience when riding this climb in a massively exhausted stage of fatigue. You calculate every move and hope that those 11% might ease up to 9% for a few meters. 

But instead you are greeted with two back-to-back corners of 20%!

I am not a climber and snailed my way up. Would it be fast enough to hold my competition off?
One moment to the next, another female racer (but not in my category), Steph from my Hurtbox training group, passed me. I couldn’t believe how quickly she climbed. 

Now I got seriously worried. 

So back to crawling my way up to the finish. 

2km to go. What? I didn’t even see the 3km-sign!
Monika! Of course, you did. It was just sooooo long ago that you have already forgotten about it!

Another eternity passed.

1km to go.

The games you are playing with your mind are just amazing at that point. And if you are playing that game long enough you will see the 500m sign before you know it!

Believe it or not, the mountain has a top and I finally reached it!

And I more or less pedaled the last few exhausted pedal strokes over the finish line.

So happy. 

Super exhausted. But worth the effort.
I learned later I had a spare time of 12 minutes.

Hill Climb Champ. VRS leader. (For my category)

And man, I will be there next year!What an awesome race!

Podium - Women C grade

Huge thanks to my coach and the The Hurt Box crew for their continuous support. Thanks to Alistair for the feed zone support and for Justine's great company over the weekend!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

What gets you up to ride your bike early mornings?

Just over a year ago, I moved to Australia.

I was able to enjoy the last two weeks of summer and then winter hit Melbourne. Having lived in Minnesota (where you still could be looking for your car under the snow in May) I should have felt relief.

-20 degrees Celsius with metres high snow was traded for drizzly, rainy, dark 5 degrees. I came to think that the sun doesnt exist in the Southern hemisphere.

I had absolutely no motivation to get up in the morning to go riding. But in Minnesota, I had no problem riding in -20 degrees with two other brave souls. What has happened?

Now, looking back, it is clear like a crystal ball: Routine.

After four months of getting up at 4:45am in the morning, I even wake up at that time on my rest days. I established myself a ceremony that would definitely get me up.
Those are my highlights in the morning:

1. Everything is ready to go the night before so I don’t have any stress in the morning. The only task for me is to wake up and to look forward to the ride.

2. Cold-brew coffee. The best! The evening prior I mix water and coffee powder in a French press and let it sit overnight. In the morning, I only have to filter the powder and I got some delicious cold-brew coffee. And man, that caffeine hits quickly!

3. Music. I put ear plugs in and listen to upbeat songs. Currently (don’t laugh), it is: Flo Rida- Wild Things, Die Antwoord - I fink u freeky and Lady Gaga – Born this way. (If you feel sorry for my music choice, feel free to make suggestions :) )

 4. But most importantly: my riding group. Every day, I am so excited to see my cycling group. By riding with the same people, you get to know each other very well. Who is grumpy in the morning and you shouldn’t talk to? Who could you engage immediately into a conversation? Who won or lost at the race yesterday? Riding in a group is like reading the newspaper; you got to do it every day to be fully up-to-date on all the happenings. Thanks THB guys for making me look forward to our training rides every morning!

 What gets you up in the morning?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Behind the scenes – Photoshooting with Cyclingtips and Scott bikes in the Victorian Alps

I had the great fortune to join Cyclingtips and Scott Bikes on a gravel adventure video- and photo-shooting trip around the Victorian Alps. It was especially an incredible opportunity for me as I have never done a promotional trip before.  I am humbled by the professionalism and dedication of our crew: Andy, Matt, Tim and Malcom.

Andy – Cycling model. Part of Cyclingtips. This guy has invented Hells 500 Everesting – climbing 8848m in one go. I think that says it all. No matter what the condition – too cold, too hot, too windy, too rocky, too tired, too lost - he was thriving on difficult conditions. Badass!

I mostly saw him in this position - Andy
Matt – Cycling model. Besides that he is a top bike racer and cycling kit owner, he was always up for a good story and the challenge ahead. Never really ridden gravel before, he rode any kind of terrain – no matter how rocky or steep. Machine.The Bunch Cyclist

No matter the terrain, he was on it - Matt
Tim – our photographer. There is a reason why his pictures are incredible. You will find this guy wading through the deepest mud, getting stuck in a creek or eaten by leeches. This man doesn’t fear anything. If he cant reach it, his drone will. tbsphotography
Mostly found behind the camera - Tim.

Malcolm – our videographer. I was stunned by his running ability. I am sure it said somewhere in his job description that he must run 5 km under 20 min. While we are riding a section, he ran every time next to us to get the perfect angle. Both Malcolm and Tim could be found anywhere positioned on, at or in the car. Whatever gets them the best shot. Sometimes, I wondered who got a harder workout – the ones in front or behind the camera. malbloe

Running along with his camera - Malcolm

Although there is a romanticized view of a photo-shooting trip, we got all ranges of extremes covered.
We got lost. We had 3 degrees. We had 35 degrees. We climbed a 20% gradient. We went to the most amazing remote places. We met high country natives. We had some severe mechanicals. I had the best ride in a four-wheeler. We played hide and seek with some authority. We made the car swim. I learned how to make a truck driver honk. 

Start of our trip - at the top of Mt Baw Baw

Car hood lunch at Mt Gwenier

Fun Fourwheel ride back with these guys

We had our moments. Hard stance!

6am at Craigs Hut. The guys soaking in the sunrise.

 Thanks to Cyclingtips, Scott bikes, Andy, Matt, Tim and Malcolm for an awesome trip!