Monthly Archives: January 2013
I have had a fondness for black-and-white photography right from the get-go, when I first began to study photography back in Albuquerque during the 1970s. I enjoyed every second I spent in the darkroom, loved the hands-on aspect of the art and the ability of black-and-white images to tell a story, richly and evocatively, using texture, shadow and shape.
In those days though you needed a darkroom if you were to dabble in black and white – or at last I felt you did; what was the point in sending your rolls of Plus-X or Pan-X off to be developed and printed by somebody else? – and given that I was moving around a lot and seldom had much spare cash, and so my involvement in black-and-white photography pretty much ceased after I left school and no longer had access to the university’s excellent darkroom facilities.
Over the past year though, as I have come back to photography with this blog I have taken up black-and-white photography again – in the digital way now, of course, sans darkroom. I love it. Black and white is a lovely medium for cycling photography, and not only because of its wonderful fine art qualities and moodiness.
Much of my shooting is at night, especially in winter, and the use black and white can cover a multiple of sins both in the camera and out of it. While my Canon G1X has surprisingly good low light capabilities for a compact – for web use, at least, I can confidently shoot at ISO1600 – but even, so converting to black and white can neutralise (or maybe naturalise) a fair bit of grain or noise.
And then there is the matter of white balance and colour. Between the camera and Lightroom I can quite easily render a scene lifelike in colour and tone; the trouble is, the real life colour of these night-lit scenes is often sickly yellow, thanks to the sulphurous colour of the street lamps in use along my route.
To be sure, it is possible to tinker all that sickly sheen away in Lightroom or Photoshop, but how much easier – and frankly pleasurable – it is to convert to black and white and be done with the problem. While this cop-out doesn’t work every time, the success rate is high enough, and my liking of black-and-white high enough, for me to give it a try, on spec, and see what happens. Another of the many beauties of digital photography is this heaven-sent ability we now have to make limitless copies, experiment to your heart’s content and learn from your mistakes – without fear of huge bills in film, printing and developing costs.
For what it is worth I thought I would put down a couple of tips that I have picked up for shooting in black-and-white. Chief among those is not to use the black-and-white setting in your camera. Not only will it never do the job of converting a live, full-colour scene to monochrome as nicely as the software in your computer, but by shooting only in black and white you rob yourself of colour. Why do that when you can have both colour and black-and-white in the same image capture? Take it all. Often times the images can be equally strong, yet utterly different – two completely separate scenes, moods, statements. Since you can take both, do it. Shoot in colour and render it in black and white back home.
And shoot in RAW – this for the same reason, in principle, as shooting in colour: why give up all that lovely data that you can use back on your screen at home. When you shoot a jpeg your camera arbitrarily sheds the lion’s share of the data it acquires during the exposure in order to render the scene in a good average way, the way it thinks the scene ought to look. Often it does a very good job of this, and of course jpegs take up less room on your card. All well and good. But by shooting in RAW you retain all that data, it is there for you to use, at your discretion, back at your desk, when you have the image looming large in front of you so you can make critical judgements more easily and fine-tune the results.
What I prefer to do with my images is make the basic adjustments before I convert to black-and-white. You can do this conversion in a variety of ways, from tinkering about with the colour sliders on your developing software to pre-sets that you can find in Lightroom and Photoshop that will do the conversion with a click of a button. (I would assume Aperture and other packages offer similar pre-sets; I am personally familiar only with Lightroom and Photoshop).
My preference though is to use a plug by Nik Software called Silver Efex Pro 2. This is an absolutely brilliant black-and-white converter and once your image is in monochrome it offers a suite of very sophisticated re-touching tools, tints, tones, filters, sliders for brightness, structure, contrast, etc – a true digital darkroom that I’ve no doubt would have brought a smile to the face of Ansel Adams himself. You really can do an awful lot with this, and do it with great subtlety and style.
Silver Efex Pro 2 has 38 pre-sets of its own and allows you to see what each would do to your image and in a twin view mode allows you to compare the new possibility with your original. Each of these pre-sets can of course be modified infinitely with the various tools, sliders, filters at your disposal. You can furthermore make your own pre-sets and download more from the Nik site. This is not a cheap bit of software by any means – £160 – but for black-and-white photography it is about as good as it gets. It is a delight to use and the results are very gratifying. For me at least brings back much of the pleasure I used to find in disappearing into the darkroom back in the 1970s – only more so because here the creative possibilities are greater and simpler to use.
By the way, if you are leery of shooting in RAW, uncertain of your ability to process these images on your computer, and don’t want to risk screwing up good shots in the field, many cameras give you the ability to shoot both RAW and jpeg simultaneously – and while it eats up card space, it can be worthwhile for piece of mind while you experiment with RAW, and discover for yourself how easy and straightforward RAW really is to work with. And if you want a good guide to this sort of thing or would like to know your way around Lightroom and/or Photoshop, I heartily recommend the books of Scott Kelby – very well written, accessible, clearly illustrated, easy to follow. You can see by the number of stars his books get on Amazon reviews that I am not alone in finding them very useful. Good luck. Black and white photography can be both a rich and rewarding medium and a lovely way of capturing the simple beauty of a bicycle ride.
A couple of years ago when I was poking around in a flashy London bicycle shop, admiring the selection of rare and beautiful hand-built frames they had on offer and flipping through the pages of the shop-worn back issues of Rouleur that were laid out on a counter for browsers such as myself to look at and be inspired by, I happened to notice a much chunkier journal with a vibrant urban-art cover called The Ride.
I had never seen it before, or even heard of it, but when I opened it up I liked it straight away. Here was a journal (it is too thick to call a ‘magazine’) that was actually about cycling, and by that I mean celebrating the simple joys of getting about the countryside (or track) on two skinny wheels – racing, commuting, mountain biking, touring, whatever.
No race reports, no product reviews, no route maps, no emphasis on any particular style of riding, just an eclectic montage of first person articles, drawings and photographs produced and put together by cyclists from all over and across the spectrum. It was brilliant, and if the writing in it wasn’t professional throughout, the stories in it were all told with a freshness and vivacity and honestly that appealed to me.
I bought a copy, and when I got home I dropped the editor, Philip Diprose, a line via e-mail congratulating him on his fine journal and asking if he would like to have any contributions slipped over the transom. He would indeed, he said, but then explained he could offer nothing by way of payment; that in fact the whole of the publication was put together by him and his brother in their spare time for the simple joy of creation and that any surplus monies that were left over after expenses was given to charity.
All the articles, photographs and artwork for The Ride were donated, along with the brothers’ own time. I liked that. I should hasten to add here that although the journal is put together by amateurs – in that fine old-fashioned sense of the word, as in not done for vulgar money – there is nothing amateurish about its production. Both Philip Diprose, the editor, and his brother, who does the art direction, work in the media in their professional lives, as do a good many of the people who lend their time and talents to turn it out. Including me, for I have contributed several articles to it over the past couple of years.
I would be tempted to describe it as a quarterly journal, but that wouldn’t quite be correct. Because it is produced in peoples’ spare time, and around busy schedules, it tends to come out irregularly. Indeed the rather experimental first issue was seen at the time of its publication as a one-off but such was its success the brothers Diprose were prevailed upon to turn out another issue, and then another and another after that. Each one has been a sell out. Print runs now run to about 8000. Next week – after what has been about a six-month gestation period – issue number seven comes out. It will officially be launched at 6:30pm on 7 February at Look Mum No Hands, a cycling-oriented cafe-bar at 49 Old Street in London. For those who would like to check out a sample copy, issues 1- 4 will be available as a free download from The Ride’s website.
A few weeks before left on this trip I sat up late one evening reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel classic A Time of Gifts. It was the story of a journey he had made, by foot, from England to Istanbul in 1933 when he was just eighteen. The book was written some forty years after the event, and in the elegiac tone of a much older man looking back through a prism of years and experience on a vanished age and his own youthful innocence.
It is a beautiful piece of literature, full of evocative imagery and no scene more so than the description he gives of his arrival in Ulm late on a cold grey wintry February afternoon. It had been a day of heavy weather – sleet and snow, bitter cold and blustery gales so fierce and strong that Fermor had been obliged to accept a lift in a truck the last few miles into town. By the time he alights near the cathedral square the light is fading, and the peasants in the marketplace, wearing their colourful Swabian dress, are closing up their stalls for the day and loading their unsold produce into horse carts for the clip-clop journey home along the icy cobbles.
It was my favourite scene in the book.
At the time I hadn’t known my own journey to Istanbul would take me to Ulm, having had no set plans and my route being generally made up along the way. Now, as I approached the city in a cold hard driving rain, through a gauntlet of fast food joints, car dealerships, and discount warehouses selling furniture, electrical goods and carpets, I found myself thinking of those picturesque passages of Fermor’s.
My own first glimpse of Ulm’s towering cathedral spire – at 528 feet, the highest in the world – was as a faint and distant smudge above the golden arches of a much nearer McDonalds.
Yet as I sloshed through the rainy day traffic, cold and wet and miserable, with the truck tyres hissing around me, the thought came to me that on a certain plane perhaps Fermor’s and my own arrivals in Ulm might not have been so different after all. For all his Christmas card imagery, written decades after the fact, he must have been as cold and wet and miserable on the day as I was, pedalling through traffic; in fact he says he was, the weather being vile enough so that even though he’d been determined to walk every step of the way to Istanbul, he’d relented and accepted a lift into town.
And those Swabian peasants and their horse carts on the icy cobbles in the square probably seemed commonplace on the day, their picturesque qualities becoming apparent only with the passage of time and the mellowing of memories.
Who knows, I thought, perhaps someday, sixty or seventy years hence, my own description of riding into Ulm might take on a patina of charm: a long-ago rainy morning, mid-July, in the first summer of the new millennium, jostling for space on roads bustling with quaintly old-fashioned vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.
By then even my reference to the Golden Arches might by a telling detail, evocative of an old-timey era, the way mentioning, say, Harvey Houses and the Santa Fe Railway, might be today if.
You just never know, I thought to myself, inspired by this train of thought to take in the corroborative details as I pedalled along. And then a ruddy great juggernaut of a truck whooshed past, arching spray, and cold-shocked me back to the here and now. Phooey.
Nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be; I’m not sure it ever was.
I escaped this nightmarish main arterial the first chance I got, and finagled my way through the backstreets of Ulm until like Fermor I too emerged in the cathedral square. No Swabian peasants or horse carts or barrows of vegetables, just so many shoppers and tourists scuttling about in winter parkas, with their collars turned up, their chins tucked in, their umbrellas braced against the gusts. The shops all had their lights aglow in the rainy twilight, although it wasn’t even noon yet. I’d been lucky with that glimpse of Ulm Minster in the distance; here in the square only the lower reaches were visible. The spire had been swalowed up by the mist.
Down at eye level I spotted a green Cannondale tandem, laden with panniers, being pedalled briskly and with great purpose through the rain, across the square and along a cobbled side street that dropped away towards where I presumed the river must be. I followed it and sure enough a few moments later caught my first glimpse of the Danube. It wasn’t the least bit blue, more a chalky green, but it looked beautiful to me. Here was my ticket to the East. Running along its leafy bank was a wide smooth promenade and a sign that read: Donau Radveg, the Danube Bicycle Path. I carved a left and followed it downstream.
The Danube was to show me many colours during the time we travelled together – suites of greys and tannin browns mainly, with hints of green every now and then, orange and gold sometimes by the setting sun, violet in the afterglow of dusk, and once on a fine sparkling morning just east of Passau, something very close to Prussian blue.
By any reckoning, whatever colour you wanted to call it, the river was a pleasant travelling companion and the six hundred miles or so I pedalled along its banks came as near to being an Olde World cycling idyll as I could have hoped to find, even if the weather did stay largely damp and rainy.
From the moment I joined it, just off the cathedral square in Ulm that day, the journey seemed to shift into a more relaxed and picaresque gear, the river guiding me out of the city through a corridor of parkland that was so much at odds with the heavily trafficked arterials I’d followed into it that I felt as though I’d found some hidden escape hatch – if not into the grand old baroque Europe described by Fermor, at least into a far prettier and pleasanter one than I had been riding through previously, or had expected to find on my way into Ulm.
And I was riding on a splendid bicyle path to boot. It was was paved wher it ran through the city, a sort of riverside esplanade with gaily painted bratwurst stands and souvenir stalls all lit up and open for business despite the miserable weather and the distinct lack of clientele. But then the urban elements just seemed to fall astern and before I knew it I found myself pedalling along a wide earthy path through tall woods, with occasional glimpses of the river, flowing darkly, off to my right.
It was still raining, and probably pretty hard too, judging by the noisy patter of raindrops coming through the leaves, but the forest canopy shed much of it and there was no wind to drive it in your face, so it felt a bit as though the weather had lifted. The trail was smooth and flat, just the odd patch of mud here and there, and elongated puddles that were surprisingly deep, but by and large this was the pleasantest stretch of pedalling I’d enjoyed in a long while.
But then this was the Donau Radveg, and although that was a new name to me I was to learn over the coming days that this was one of Europe’s great long distance cycle routes, a sort of Appalachian Trail for cyclists, stretching from the Black Forest all the way to Vienna.
It was so well marked you didn’t a map, although I noticed that most of the other cyclists I encountered over these magical days carried trim blue spiral-ringed map books that showed the path in loving detail – better than an inch per mile – and contained descriptions of sights and villages along the way, details of ferry crossings, castles, museums, bicycle shops, places to stay, as well as offering alternate routes and scenic side trips. They were so ubiquitous they were almost like Donau Radveg badges.
I was in Bavaria now, a rural pocket of Germany that seemed to have escaped much of the bombing during the Second World War – Ulm of course being a major exception. Villages along the river were small and pretty, with onion-domed baroque churches, renaissance facades and half-timbered architecture of the sort I’d envisioned when I was daydreaming of doing this.
Much of the riverbank between these places was either woodland or marsh. The path pretty much kept to these woodsy parts, skirting whatever busy roads might be in the area. I saw little traffic over the next week, but quite a few deer. They gambolled about on the path, their circadian rhythms evidently disrupted by the perpetual rainy-day gloom. They seemed almost tame sometimes. Their ears would perk up as you rode towards them but they seldom bolted outright. Instead they stood still, regarding you curiously as you glided towards them and then, slowly, reluctantly they’d sidle away into the forest shadows and watch you go by.
The river had done a good job of eroding a path through the hills. What few climbs you came to were gentle and at the top of the rise you’d be rewarded with a long view of the river meandering off into the distance, with a castle brooding from some crag or other and maybe another of those decorative villages to lend the scene a human touch character.
In all, it was a pleasant little world, the Donau Radveg, and well catered to as well. Whenever you came into a village there was almost always a bulletin-board by the trailside with advertisements for whatever inns, eateries, bakeries, bike shops there might be in town, as well as the addresses and telephone numbers of the families in town who ran private and usually cheap bed-and-breakfasts: houses with the little sign “Zimmer Frei” in a front window.
These bulletin boards and the telephone numbers on them gave considerable competitive advantage to those cyclists who carried a mobile phone and spoke German when it came to finding a place to bunker up for the night, as I discovered late that first afternoon while standing in the rainy chill on the outskirts of Donauworth.
A clutch of cyclists were gathered around the trailside bulletin board, scrutinising its bed-for-the-night offerings, punching numbers into their mobile phones as swiftly as they could and nattering to whoever picked up the line at the other end. The Donau Radveg was a popular trail and I gathered from their frowning demeanours, and multiple phone calls, that rooms in town were going to be hard to come by that night; other cyclists had shrewdly called it a day earlier and were already comfortably settled in.
Watching all this futile phoning up made me uneasy. If German-speaking cyclists with mobile phones were having trouble securing a place to stay, what chance did I stand of finding one? This had been a pleasant afternoon so far, despite the rain, and I wanted it to keep on being pleasant.
Happily a German couple whom I had nodded and said hello to a couple of times that afternoon smiled their recognition and, grasping my predicament and called over to me in English to say they’d just booked themselves into an inn, still had the innkeeper on the line, and had asked on my behalf if he had a room. He did indeed, just the one. Did I want it? I most certainly did. We rode over there together, me flooded with relief and effusive with thanks.
It was a pleasant little place, an old-fashioned hotel down a sidestreet, not unlike the old coaching inn I’d stayed at in Blaubeuren: small and attractive, with a stonework façade and a mediaeval crest on its sign.
The hotelier was a big, gruff-looking man in his mid-sixties who was surprisingly phlegmatic about his bedraggled clientele that evening. He handed me my room key, and another to open the garage where bikes were parked, and half an hour later I was up in my room, freshly showered and sprawling on my bed, listening to that old monsoon rain hammering down outside and wondering if there were any cyclists just now pulling up to the sign on the outskirts of town, hoping to find a place to stay.
The long day in the cold and wet must have taken more out of me than I thought, or I was more tired than I knew, for instead of hauling myself up out of bed and going on the prowl for something to eat, as I’d intended to do, I fell dead asleep.
Breakfast was at eight and I was striding into the dining room brisk as you like before the long case clock in the corner could finish striking the hour. I was mighty sharp set by then, having had nothing to eat since devouring a bratwurst at one of those hot dog stands along the riverside in Ulm. I’d been awake since four-thirty, lying in bed, listening to the chimes at Our Lady of Perpetual Insomnia, just down the street, counting down the quarter-hours until the dining room would open its doors.
As the first guest in that morning I had the pick of tables. I chose one near the window so I could monitor the lowery skies while I ate, then waded into cold cuts and cheeses on the breakfast buffet like a camel coming into an oasis after a particularly hard desert crossing.
The inn’s profit margin couldn’t have been very high that morning. By the look of things most of the other guests were cyclists too, and while I might have been the first to hoe into the breakfast spread, the others weren’t far behind, and could be seen spearing their slices of salami and Swiss cheese and piling up the morning rolls with the same ravenous intent.
A pleasant line of banter sprang up around the room – shared experiences, the weather, our respective destinations. One couple was cycling to Regensburg on holiday; a group of four at another table were planning to follow the Danube as far as Passau, on the Austrian border; another couple were headed upstream to the Black Forest, a middle-aged woman cycling from Berlin to visit her daughter in Munich.
This breezy exchange of travellers tales and the mood of jaunty expectancy that goes with the start of another day on the road made me think of Chaucer’s Tabard Inn. Unlike the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, we all scattered and went our separate ways after breakfast. The sense of camaraderie remained, however, and when a cloudburst overtook me on a hilltop overlooking the river about fourteen miles down the road I found myself waxing philosophical about the run of foul weather, feeling more like the narrator of a story now and less like a sad-sack who gets rained on all the time.
I took shelter beneath a stand of hardwoods beside the road and waited it out, sitting on a big rock beneath the boughs, knees drawn up, taking in restful views over the lichen-covered rooftops of an old Bavarian village below and the silvery-green ribbon of the Danube flowing into the distance, a mile or so away. This was what I had come for.
I see that the Tour Down Under is taking place this week in South Australia, with tomorrow’s stage meandering through the Adelaide Hills and finishing in Tanunda, in the Barossa Valley. This is very near to where I used to live – in fact the course runs right up Murray Street in the small, quiet pretty little town of Angaston, in the heart of the valley, where years ago I used to share a house with a couple of local artists and where my kids from an earlier marriage used to come and stay with me.
Before that I owned a century-old cottage out in Seppeltsfield, along the iconic avenue of date palms that has been a much photographed feature of the race in the past (but doesn’t seem to be part of the course this year) The peloton used to spin right past my rose garden; I could – and did – watch it from my veranda.
It was a beautiful old house, with the original Wunderlich pressed metal ceilings and walls, eleven-foot ceilings, polished wood floors and ornamental fretwork on the eaves. In style it wasn’t unlike some of the pretty ‘Queenslander’ houses you see in the tropics. Tourists used to stop and take photos of the place.
I bought it for a song not long after I finished my cycle trip around Australia and was so happy for a while to think that this lovely little cottage was mine. And to think that I had earned the money for the deposit by means of my bicycle and my journey. But while I was outwardly upbeat, and thrilled by the opportunities my cycling success had brought me, those were also deeply troubled times as well, with lots of unhappy, conflicting and highly stressful happening going on in the background and in what I can only characterise now as an act of self-destructive renunciation I sold my pretty little cottage only eighteen months after I bought it.
I have bitterly, bitterly, bitterly regretted it ever since – and have done practically from the moment the ink was dry on the contract.
I always swore that someday I would buy the place back, and for years I maintained a watching brief on the place, waiting for the For Sale sign to come up. Eventually it did, a year or two ago, but while my desire to reclaim my cottage and rectify a mistake of the past remained as keen as ever, it wasn’t to be. The market had been booming all these years but my income had not. Between the skyrocketing real estate prices and the strong Australian dollar, I was well and truly shut out.
Maybe someday I will be able to buy back the old place. I still want to; if I had the money, or won the lottery, I would in a heartbeat. But for now I can never follow the coverage of the Tour Down Under without pangs of wistfulness and regret, and memories of riding along that sun-drenched avenue of palms, delighted that the pretty little cottage on the corner was mine.
What with snow and ice making the roads all slippery and the tonnes of drivetrain-destroying salt and grit that has been scattered by the council to try to remedy the effects of the latest big freeze, this has not been a great week for cycling, especially if, like me, you prefer to go for your ride in the darkness before dawn. And so I have sat out these past few days, not wanting to risk damaging my bicycle or myself for the sake of meaningless continuity and a few foregone rides.
Instead I have risen at my usual hour, made myself a pot of rich black Ethiopian coffee, and done my riding vicariously in the company of the (very) late Thomas Stevens who cycled the world on a pennyfarthing back in the 1880s.
Setting out from San Francisco in April of 1884, aboard a Columbia 50” high-wheeler, Stevens spent the next two and a bit years circling the globe – across America to Boston, by ship to England, and from there across the Continent to Constantinople and on into Persia, where he spent the winter of 1885-86 as a guest of the Shah. The following spring he pressed on into Afghanistan, where he was turned around by the authorities and deported. After making his way back to Constantinople, he took a ship to India, where he cycled the Grand Trunk Road to Calcutta, took another steamer to Hong Kong, and cycled through China and Japan.
By the time he returned to San Francisco, in December of 1886, he had become the first person ever to ride a bicycle around the world – although his total miles ridden, about 13,500, wouldn’t qualify as an official circumnavigation under the rules laid out by the editors of the Guinness Book of World Records today. All the same, it was a rollicking adventure, done at a time when the world was wide and exotic, and the American west had barely been tamed.
He rode the covered wagon route over the Rockies, and followed the lines of the trans-continental railroad. In Britain villagers who saw him riding by in his military pith helmet, worn as protection against taking a header off his high wheeled bicycle, believed he was part of an expedition being gathered together to retake Khartoum and avenge the recent death of General Gordon. In Paris he rode the Champs Elysees by night, delighting in the concerts playing in the garden and the brilliant lights festooned along the promenade. In Vienna he was greeted by the wheelmen of the Viennese Wanderers Bicycle Club who offer to accompany him en masse as far as Pressburg, (Bratislava). On the roads to Teheran he was playfully chased by fiery hard-riding Persian cavalrymen, who waved their Martini-Henry rifles and gave him a colourful escort as he rode towards the capital. And so it went.
Through it all he sent letters back to Harpers Magazine which formed the basis of a series of magazine articles and later (in 1887) a 1000-page two-volume travelogue of his adventures called, appropriately enough, Around the World on A Bicycle. It didn’t used to be an easy thing to find, even though it was reprinted as a single volume as recently as 2001 by Stackpole Press – the version I have. I see now though it has been reprinted again (available on Amazon) and there is a free Kindle edition of the first volume of his adventure – San Francisco to Tehran (which, I have to say, is the best bit, in my opinion)
I love the trip across the Old West, the harrowing crossings of high railroad bridges from which he occasionally had to dangle, holding his bicycle and gear, while a train roared by; the pedalling along quiet country lanes through the settled and familiar American east; his time in Britain and riding across the Continent. He is a good writer, with a sharp eye and a dry wit, and with the wintry weather making coffee and a book such an appealing option in the morning, you could do a lot worse go for a vicarious ride with him.
Tubingen is a mediaeval university town on the eastern fringes of the Black Forest, with lots of quaint storybook architecture and the Neckar River flowing through the heart of the old quarter. The river was broader here than it had been at Horb, but it still had a pleasing rustic quality to it that went well with the rest of the town. I found my way to the youth hostel, a sprawling place along the river bank and with the usual run of student bars nearby offering happy hours and cut-rate margaritas.
A group of young, fit, sun-kissed cyclists – in sleekness not unlike the pair on the cover of my now-detested map – were unfastening their Ortlieb panniers from expensive-looking tourers when I pulled up in front of the hostel in a squeal of muddy brakes. They glanced up, gave me a look of amused disdain, then resumed their fiddling with straps and hooks and joshing amongst themselves. It was clear they’d had a far pleasanter day than mine.
While they were chatting I propped my bike against a post and trotted inside to see about a bunk for the night. I was lucky to land one. Some kind of first-year orientation was going on at the University that week and all of the newbies needed a cheap place to stay. Between the incoming tide of college students and several bus loads full of school kids on a group holiday and the general high-dseason influx of backpackers and cyclists, the hostel was bursting at the seams. Having scored what I was told was one of the last bunks, I found myself rather churlishly hoping the smug-looking lot outside the hostel, who were still busy horsing around, might have missed out.
I soon found my assigned room. There I hung my damp cycling clothes up to dry, then trundled off to the showers where I spent a luxurious half-hour steam-cleaning the mud off my legs and trying to poultice out the day’s harvest of thorns and festering bee stings. Afterwards I changed into a fresh shirt and dry trousers and made my way back to my room against a boisterous adolescent tide – another busload of newly arrived teenagers releasing pent-up energy after a too-long bus ride. From all the shouting, squealing and charging down the corridors, I sensed this wasn’t going to be a restful night.
Back in my room I met my new bunk mates: and by golly it was the same sleek young things I’d noticed unpacking their bicycles out front when I pulled up. They had already made themselves quite at home, thank you, shifting my things around ad hoc to make better use of the furnishings for drying their own damp clothes, plus two tents and a tarp, and filling any space left over with their personalities and loud brassy voices.
Over the next few minutes, while I diplomatically reclaimed some drying space for my clothes, I learned they were all good buddies from Berlin, down here on a two-week cycling tour of the Black Forest. From the sounds of things they were girding themselves for a big night out, starting with Happy Hour at the such-and-such student bar up the street. I left them to it, and slipped away from the increasingly rowdy hostel in search of quiet, a place to pick up some groceries and a bookstore where I could buy myself a sensible road map.
I found all three in Tubingen’s picturesque market square. I spent a pleasurable couple of hours idling beside a fountain, basking in the hazy evening sunshine, writing in my journal, and nibbling the comfort food I’d bought as a reward for my harrowing day in the saddle. At a bookstore nearby I bought a Michelin road map which I hoped and expected would make the morrow’s journey a breeze. No more muddy cyclo-cross, no orienteering, no peppery bees in lonely clearings – just a sweet smooth ribbon of bitumen from Tubingen to Ulm where I would join the Danube on its stately journey to the East.
I wandered back to the hostel at peace with the world, only to find my things once again had been shifted and bunched up to accommodate the rather extravagant draping of their tents and tarps. I adjusted what I felt was an unfair imbalance, then read a little Spillane and clicked off the light, to bed, but not to sleep. The place was like a frat house the first night of a new school year: loud music, beery voices, slamming doors, running down in the corridors, giggling girls and shrieks and peals of idiotic adolescent laughter.
I tossed and turned, hugged the pillow over my face and had finally, sometime after midnight, drifted off into a fitful doze when the door nearly burst off its hinges and my roomies stumbled in, awash with happy hour margaritas and half-price beer, smelling like breweries and clutching bottles of Heineken. With bluff good cheer and voices forty or so decibels louder than they needed to be, they apologized for the disturbance, then proceeded to come in and a few more times to get things they’d forgotten, flicking on all the lights each time they entered, apologizing yet again then going out again, not forgetting to bang the door firmly shut as they left. They didn’t go far but held a long and amiable bull session just outside in the hallway, haw-hawing and joking in booze-raised voices until well into the small hours.
They must have retired at some point, but I had mercifully fallen asleep by then. Next thing I knew it was later than I had intended to lie in and the room was filled with a dawn chorus of deep, slobbering snores and a heavy, cloying stale beer smell.
I crawled out of bed, wishing I had a stereo and some obnoxious music I could play loud for the benefit of my hungover roomies – Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go being high on my desirable list. Alas I had nothing of the sort, just a wearisome middle class politeness that probably wouldn’t have allowed me to do such a thing anyway. I lumbered off to the showers and let steamy water pour over my head for half an hour by way of an eye opener.
As it happened, they didn’t sleep in much later than I had. When I returned, they were all up, sitting on the edges of their bunks, alert and cheerful, and looking as fresh as peeled eggs. The tide of booze they’d consumed had had no more impact on their youthful constitutions than so much water through the Suez Canal. The resiliency of youth: one more thing I for which I could hate and envy them.
But sometimes the worm can turn, and age and craftiness can score some points.
As I was packing my saddlebag my eye fell on yesterday’s cycling map of the Black Forest and an inspiration popped into my head which for sheer sweet simplicity and idle viciousness warmed me down to my ankles. I remembered from our brief conversation the previous afternoon that these boys were heading west, deeper into the Black Forest. Freudenstadt had been mentioned.
“Say, I don’t suppose you guys would like to have this map?” I enquired, and launched into my sell. “It’s really good. It shows all the cycling paths in the Schwarzwald and, well, I won’t be needing it any more. Would you guys like it?”
Ah, they would indeed. All they had were run-of-the-mill Michelin road maps. How boring is that? They gathered round, pleased and interested.
I spread it open, generosity oozing from every pore as I enthusiastically pointed out the best route to take to Freudenstadt, extolling its virtues, praising its scenery and emphasising in particular the delightful woodsy path that traipsed between Schopfloch and Dornstetton.
“Hey, this looks great!” enthused a great lump of lad whose name was Jens.
“Oh, it’s a honey,” I said, thinking of the bees.
“Thanks a lot,” he chirped. “This is really kind of you.”
“Not at all. Happy trails.”
I left them to their breakfast and their plans which they were happily forming around their new map. I packed my gear, mounted up and set off for the east. I followed the railway tracks east out of town and five miles later was threading my way through the streets of Reutlingen with the aid of some reasonably good signage on a fairly decent bicycle path. What a lovely change this made from romping about the dripping thorny woods with that mischievous rendering of Wurttemberg’s cycle paths in hand. I’d suffered an awful lot for the sake of that twelve marks eighty. Now someone else could have the benefit of it, people I felt were far more deserving than I.
My own new map guided me cleanly through Reutlingen’s bustle and onto a rustic minor road that wound its way upwards into the Swabian Alb, a landform that is not so much a chain of mountains as a massive limestone plateau. By the time I was climbing into the Swabian countryside the morning’s cool grey skies had given way to a soft pattering rain. It was pleasant rather than otherwise, the dampness freshening the summer greens in the leaves and bringing out russet notes in the wood of an old weathered barn that crowded the roadside. It was very quiet up here, and curiously remote. No houses or cars or people, just this ribbon of bitumen winding up this wooded valley, through an apple orchard and a meadow dotted with wildflowers, towards the base of a steep escarpment hundreds of feet high.
As the road climbed higher and the escarpment closed in, I began to fear I might have strayed off course after all, wandered up a farm road that was somebody’s private drive. Those heavy ridges up ahead were as sheer as cliffs. There was nowhere for the road to go around and I couldn’t imagine anybody pounding a tunnel through them for the sake of this dinky little lane.
I saw a pile of cordwood mouldering in the dimness at the fringe of the forest a few hundred yards ahead and decided that I’d make that my turn-around point. That was probably the end of the line anyway, the gate to whatever secluded farmhouse there was up here. I’d pedal up to it, satisfy my curiosity and then coast back down to Reutlingen to try to pick up the trail. But when I reached the woodpile there was neither farmhouse nor gate, just a gentle curve where the road continued into the woods.
Intrigued, I pressed on into this tunnel of leaves. The forest was tall and deep and solemn, smelling of moist earth and last autumn’s leaves. Not a leaf stirred. I pedalled on past several more stacks of decaying cordwood, all mossy and covered with lichens and toadstools, then rounded an elbow bend and coasted to a stop, gawping in disbelief. This wasn’t a dead end after all. I hadn’t missed a turn. This was the right road. Some bull-headed never-say-die civil engineer had gone ahead and switchbacked it right up the flank of the escarpment, gradient be damned. In the stillness of that damp Swabian wood I heard my voice blurt out: “You’ve got to be kidding!”
Seventeen percent. That was the gradient, according to the road sign at the top, the one warning the few motorists who ever came this way to find themselves a nice low gear before tackling the descent. And that seventeen per cent was only an average. Some of those pitches were considerably steeper.
My legs were like jelly by the time I summited, but at least the view from the top was pretty. It was all there, spread out in captivating miniature: the meadow I’d passed through on my way up the valley, the slender thread of bitumen and that picturesque old barn. Farther out, beyond the foot of the valley, lay Reutlingen, a greyish smudge of office blocks and red-tiled suburbia, and in the distances beyond that a swathe of flat indistinct landscape that stretched away to the northwest, shimmering gold and silver in the sunshine that was warming that part of the country.
A gentle rain was falling up here. The clouds were low and moist, the forest cool and green and immediate. It was like being in another world, a mountain fastness where all was quiet and aloof and rustic. One of the nice things about this place from a cycling point of view was that once you made the climb up and onto the plateau, your hard work was done. From the lip of this escarpment the massive beds of Jura limestone – from which Jurassic derives its name – tilt gently downwards, a long coast through rolling pastoral landscapes, eastward, toward Ulm and the banks of the Danube.
The road ahead meandered seductively into the countryside, smooth and level now, shaded by ancient hardwoods and as sedate as an English country lane. After a pause to admire the view, I set off along it, pedalling through a soft summer drizzle and following a sequence of quaint wrought iron signposts to Sankt Johann.
It turned into the pleasantest of days, ambling from village to village, in an unhurried sort of way and mostly on backroads that didn’t see much traffic. The sun sifted through the clouds, illuminating a countryside that was storybook pretty. The hills were tufted with forest, the meadows a hard summer green and the crags along the ridge tops often as not had broody old Germanic castles on them. Even the bigger busier places, like Munsingen, were pleasant and easy to pedal through now that I had an honest map and was no longer trying to chase will-o-the-wisp bicycle paths through snarls of wet stinging nettles.
The one rural bicycle path I did follow – a recommendation from a local family who were having a picnic in small town park – was beautiful, exactly the kind of thing I’d hoped to find earlier on in the Black Forest. It coursed through the woods beside an abandoned railroad track, smooth and level and charmingly picturesque. Pedalling opulently along it I felt like one of those sleek models on the cover of my now discarded cycling map.
To be sure, there were nettles along here too, but these were of an altogether nicer variety: wild raspberries and blackberries. They were rioting everywhere, loaded with warm ripe fruit – a welcome distraction. I found myself stopping often, sometimes every few yards, in places where the berries were simply too thick and rich and luscious to pass up, laying my bicycle down or leaning it against a convenient tree then wading into the brambles and grazing like a contented bear.
I was in no hurry. What with the late start and the lack of sleep, and the slow progress grinding up that escarpment, I’d long given up any thought of this being a high-mileage day. Instead I’d spotted a place named Blaubeuren on the map, not too far away, and decided to make that my goal for the day and just enjoy the miles in between. It was a small town at the headwaters of the Blau River, one of the Danube’s minor tributaries. In the morning it would be just a matter of following it downstream and joining the big river near Ulm.
In the mean time I was having a high old time filling my face with plump sun-ripened berries and entertaining myself with idle, malicious imaginings of how Jens and his buddies might be faring at that moment. I pictured them lost in the Schwarzwald, thrashing their way through those stinging nettles I remembered so well, chased by clouds of peppery bees, covered in mud and bites and nettle rashes, weary with frustration and heartily repenting their evil selfish ways. So transported was I by thoughts of sweet vengeance and their richly deserved comeuppance that I failed to notice the dark clouds gathering on my own horizon.
I was standing shoulder-deep in a snarl of blackberry brambles, poised on tip-toe, straining to reach a particularly luscious cluster of berries, when a deep growl of thunder interrupted my reverie and dragged me back to the present imperfect. The light around me was fading with alarming speed, as though somebody was turning down a dimmer switch. The birds had ceased their chirping and in the stillness the leaves had curled over that peculiar way they do sometimes just before a really big storm. As awareness came over me I cast a soulful glance skyward at the deep purple mass of cloud, which had settled over the landscape and which looked low enough to poke a hole in. I had just time enough for a plaintive “oh shit” before the heavens opened up.
It was a cold and wet and bedraggled cyclist that pedalled slowly up the main street of Blaubeuren half an hour later, with the rain still roaring down around his ears and the thunder boom-boom-booming overhead, feeling more than ready to call it a day. I spied what looked like an old coaching inn in the upper part of town and put in there. No youth hostels for me tonight; I wanted quiet, privacy, a room to myself; no running down the corridors, no yobbish laughter, nothing that sounded like a mediaeval sacking. And I got it: this was just the sort of quaint Black Forest inn you like to imagine yourself arriving at when you’re back home, daydreaming at your desk and romancing the idea of a picaresque cycling jaunt through Wurttemberg.
So much did the place resemble my whimsical imaginings that after I settled in, had a shower and hung up my cycling togs to dry, I trundled back down the narrow staircase and into their rustic nook of a dining room figuring to push the boat out and treat myself to a celebratory made-it-this-far meal. Wiener Schnitzel was the only thing I recognized on the menu so I ordered one of those. It was damned good, golden brown, piping hot and so big it was sprawling over the edges of the plate I wolfed it down, and all the fixings that came with it, and hoed into the side basket of bread, smearing each piece with a savoury spread that I was bemused to discover was pure whipped pork fat. Not kind of thing I’d go for as a rule, after a momentary pause to digest this information, all I could do was crave more. Hot dinners hadn’t exactly been a feature of this journey so far and after so many miles and hills, so much cold and rain, my body wanted every calorie it could get. So I ordered up more bread and griebenschmalz and attacked it with gusto, listening to the rain drumming down outside.
It was still drumming down the next morning when I went in to breakfast. It was like the monsoon arrived. I loitered over hot chocolate and black bread in the fading hope that it might soon taper off. But as seven o’clock became eight o’clock and the hour hand advanced towards nine, and still without any sign of a let up, I went upstairs to collect my things and make ready to seize the day, wet and slippery though it be.
I wasn’t the only hotel guest not eager to go outside. A couple of elderly women huddled in the doorway, grimacing at the rainwater sluicing off the eaves and clucking to each other over the weather. A silver-haired gentleman, a prosperous son or nephew, perhaps, in a tan trench coat stepped gallantly between them and, holding a folded newspaper over his head, hustled down the sidewalk to an older model Mercedes. He started the engine and brought the car up in front of the inn, headlights on and wipers thumping madly. The old ladies popped open their umbrellas, hastened down the steps and slid into dry warmth of the old Merc, collapsing their umbrellas behind them. A moment later the big car drew away, and down the street in a watery glow. I envied them.
Then it was my turn. I drew up my riding cape and strode out across the street, splashing in its overflowing gutters, to the big barn doors of a garage where my bicycle had spent the night. There was no need to hustle like the gent in the trench coat and his two aunts (I’d decided they were his aunts); I was going to be out in this all day. The tall and heavy wooden door creaked open. I found my bike amongst the gardening implements, fastened on the saddlebags and a moment later was on my way, down the street, splashing through the gutter in a hard pelting rain, my taillight blinking feebly through the mist.
A while ago I heard from a man named Dan Marsh, who represents a clothing firm called Howies. They are based in Cardigan, South Wales. I had not heard of them before, but it turns out they produce a range of organic merino wool clothing, including a line of merino base layers. Having noticed my earlier interest and reviews of base layers (previous review here) he asked me if I would be interested in trying and reviewing one of theirs. I said yes and given a choice of their various styles I opted for one of the lightweight long sleeve classic ones, burgundy in colour. It duly arrived and over the past month or so I have been giving it a try. I am very glad to have done so.
I am quite a fan of base layers in general, as anyone would be who rides much in the cool damp conditions we have so much of here in England. Of the three I have been using regularly – Icebreaker, Rapha and Endura – two are fairly heavy weight (the Icebreaker and the Endura Baa Baa) and best used in very cold conditions. I tend not to suffer from the cold so much so I was keen to try out a lighter weight model.
Testing the Howies gave me a chance to make a useful comparison with the fairly expensive (£65) and luxurious feeling Rapha one that I bought a few years ago. I must say it compares very favourably. It should be noted that at £55, the Howies is not exactly a cheap option either (although I see on their site they are having a sale at the moment, with my version being offered at £29) At this price, as you would expect, the garment, like the Rapha one, is well made with flatlocked seams and with a soft finish so that it feels ‘invisible’ when you put it on. It is quite seductive, actually, so much so that I have been using it off the bike quite a bit as well, which is something I’ve not done with other base layers.
On the bike, as you’d expect from fine merino, it does a superb job of wicking away moisture and not becoming ‘stinky’, even after several long rides. It is cut to be comfortable while you are positioned on the bike. There is no hitching up of sleeves or misshapenness about it at all; it fits. I have worm the Howies lightweight classic on long rides in minus-1C temperatures, with a merino jersey and older-model Rapha softshell and been quite comfortable – perhaps a teensy bit chilly to start off with but then warming up after a mile or so to that elusive Goldilocks setting: my inner core not too cold and not too hot, but just right.
A final note about me – the tester. I am a little over six feet tall and tip the scales at a rather too comfortable 13 stone, or maybe a little more than that seeing as how we’ve just had Christmas and all; say 185 pounds or so if you think in pounds With the Howies I have an XL and it fits me the way I like things to fit – comfortably. As for my inner thermostat, as noted above, I am not unusually sensitive to cold.