Review: Shimano MT60 SPD Touring Shoes

Summary: Acceptable shoes for touring, reasonable to walk in, but Gore-Tex is not a great fabric for shoes, as they fill up with water in heavy rain.

Details:

The “Shimano MT60 Gore-Tex Bike Shoe” was sold as a commuting/touring/mountain biking SPD-compatible shoe. They are less obviously “cycling” shoes than some others on the market. When new they look like this:

After many years of use, they look more like this:

Well-worn shoes, holding up OK

As the name suggests, they are made with Gore-Tex waterproof fabric. They have a fairly stiff sole, but with enough flexibility to walk. They are SPD-compatible. You can leave the sole plates in place, and use them without SPDs if preferred.

Earlier models had a velcro strap that held the laces down. These ones have a simple elastic band for tucking spare laces into.

Fit: Shimano runs a little small with their sizing. I normally wear a US 11.5, but in this case went with the EU 47.

Usage:

Long-term readers will know that I have favored SPD-compatible sandals for long-distance touring. Horrifically ugly:

Dirty and dusty, ugly but comfortable sandals

With matching tan/dirt lines:

Horrific tan lines from long days in Shimano sandals

I wore Shimano SPD sandals for long periods on the road. Later I got some Exustar SPD sandals. Just as ugly.

But when I was touring in Patagonia, I knew the weather would be mostly cool and wet, so wanted to just take shoes. These were the only shoes I took on this trip, for both cycling and walking. Here they are in action on the side of the road:

Shoes in action in Patagonia

Note the wet weather gear – that was the sort of conditions these were designed for.

When not touring, these were my only SPD shoes. If I was going mountain biking, or riding my touring bike in cool/wet conditions, I would wear these. They’ve had plenty of on- and off-road usage.

Likes:

  • Styling was (for the time) low-key. There are much better options today for shoes that don’t scream I’M A CYCLING NERD, but in 2009 there were not as many options. They looked like typical “Westerner traveling abroad” shoes.
  • Pretty good for walking around. Obviously some scraping of the cleats, and the soles are stiffer than regular shoes, but they are fine for walking.

Dislikes:

  • The waterproof fabric seems like a good idea. And if you step in small puddles, it seems great. But on very wet days, you will get water splashing up from your bike and cars, and the shoes will tend to fill up with water. They don’t drain. Better to wear Sealskinz waterproof socks instead.
  • Laces are too long, and the elastic holder stretches over time, so the laces are not held in, and are prone to tangling with your chain ring.
  • The sole is not well-suited for pushing your bike up muddy MTB trails. I wore mine mountain biking because that’s what I had, but if you’re looking for a dedicated MTB SPD shoe, consider other designs.

Verdict:

Would not buy again. Nothing against Shimano shoes, the price/quality was fair, but I would not buy Gore-Tex cycling shoes again.

Review: Gore Windstopper Element Jacket

Summary: Highly recommended, a much-loved jacket, perfect for dry, cool conditions. Packed small, nice against the skin, and kept me warm in cold winds. Quality gear from Gore.

Gore Windstopper Element Jacket

The Gore Windstopper Element jacket is a lightweight convertible jacket, made of Gore-Tex Windstopper fabric. Gore makes a range of cycling and running clothing, all of it high quality. Not cheap, but fits well, and is well-made.

I purchased this jacket while touring across Europe and Asia. I found that regular Gore-Tex fabrics were not good in the cold wind, and that was more of a problem for me than rain. I needed a lightweight jacket that blocked wind, and gave some lightweight rain protection.

Here’s the jacket in use, somewhere in China:

Not my best look: jacket, socks & sandals. Warmth with minimal bulk

Later it became my go-to jacket for mountain biking. I could put it on in the morning, wear it until I warmed up, and then either remove the sleeves, or just unzip the arm holes a bit for breathability. Here’s a shot riding in Taupo – note the frost on the ground. That’s at 4pm – it was a cold day, but I’m warm and comfortable.

Cold, frosty day – perfect conditions

The sleeves could be completely removed and put in the rear pocket, and the jacket itself could be stuffed into its own pocket.

Likes

Warm on cold mornings, but then can easily unzip the sleeves as you warm up, or remove them or the entire jacket, and stuff it in your Camelbak/pannier.

Blocks cold winds, yet remains breathable. Feels very nice against the skin. Not clammy, not prone to overheating. This, plus an insulating merino layer, along with a Buff and maybe a skull cap, keeps you comfortable even below freezing.

I like having the ability to convert it to a vest by removing the sleeves, even though I don’t often use it that way. It’s good to have it there.

Dislikes

No major quibbles here. The main issue is rain proofing: it’s not designed to keep you dry all day. When it was newer, the water would tend to bead and run off. As it got more worn, it would tend to soak in the water. It won’t keep you dry in all-day rain, but that’s not its goal. It will keep you dry in light showers, and you should be warmed up by the time it starts raining harder.

Verdict

This has been a great jacket. Highly recommended, particularly for cool, dry conditions. Not great if you often ride in the rain, but good for most of us.

Quality gear from a company that consistently makes nice riding gear.

The Replacement

After many years of use, the main zip started failing. I investigated alternatives, but Gore was always going to be my first choice. I ended up with the current version of the Element jacket. This is basically an updated version: it’s still Windstopper fabric, with removable sleeves.

We also purchased one for Anna:

Tweedledum & Tweedledee, matching jackets

Note that mine is black, with yellow back & sides:

Side view – note the yellow back

I much prefer the color of Anna’s jacket, or perhaps the blue. But the only color I could get was black/yellow.

The new model is good, but not quite as good as the older model. No hand pockets, but it does have a chest pocket suitable for storing your phone.

The inside of the jacket lacks any mesh, so it’s not quite as nice against the skin. It’s not far off though. Definitely not like other fabrics that can be clammy. Feels smaller & lighter, but still completely blocks out the wind. In those photos above, temperatures were near freezing, with strong cold winds, but we were happy in our jackets.

Hopefully another ten years of wear from these?

Review: Ortlieb 5 Plus Handlebar Bag

My Ortlieb Ultimate 5 Plus Handlebar Bag lasted 50,000km and 11 years, but it’s time for retirement. Here’s a review showing how it held up, what I liked & didn’t, and the replacement.

I’ve had this bag since August 2007. I use it when touring for putting most of my valuables in. I can quickly take it off the bike, and use the shoulder strap for walking around. My snacks for the day would usually be in the bag, for easy access. If I’m just going for a day ride I would often take it. Good place for wallet, tools, keys, phone.

Here’s its first outing, leaving Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan:

First day of use, in front of Lenin

And here it is 11 years later, looking somewhat battered and faded:

Barbag mounted on T-Bar below handlebars

Note the mounting: I mounted it on a T-Bar beneath my handlebars.This was because I used to have carbon handlebars, and the Ortlieb mounting system does not work with carbon bars. It also frees up some handlebar space putting it out lower.

It uses a Klickfix-compatible clip that is super-easy to clip/un-clip. Push forward on the lock barrel, push the bag up from underneath, easy. Putting it back on is faster – line it up, drop down and it clips in place. Very secure on the bike though – the clip never even came close to coming loose.

Prior to using butterfly handlebars, this lower position was good for stretching out and resting my arms on, when riding long distances on good roads, into the wind.

The map case attachment was sold as a separate add-on. This was “guaranteed not to yellow,” but don’t believe it: everything is affected by the sun. This is the second map case, as my first one was much more yellowed, and developed a crack.

Map case – somewhat yellowed

Check the fading here, in the areas that were not covered by the map case. No issues with any leaks, rips or tears. The fabric stayed strong, and everything stayed dry.

Top view – note fading where more exposed to sun

Note the dome clips used for the map case. Two similar clips were used to close the lid. These were awkward to open when riding, and very difficult to close. You had to stop to do it. I’m sure this makes sense to people in a factory considering safety first, but the reality is that on the road, sometimes you don’t want to stop to grab a snack, but want to just keep on rolling. Or maybe you need to grab your camera in a hurry.

You can also see in the above shot that the lid has a tendency to fall in on itself. Technically this doesn’t matter – if there was anything in there it would push back against it. But it always annoyed me when it looked like that.

There were two small exterior mesh pockets, one on each side. I would put a snack bar in one side, my multitool in the other. Eventually the pockets came off, as you can see here:

Side pockets *were* here

The interior had a zip pocket + key clip – useful for keys + phone, and an interior divider. This divider seemed like a good idea, but in practice it was just a pain in the ass. It was not fixed in place, and would move around, and everything would end up underneath it. More trouble than it was worth.

Internal divider

Verdict

I never loved this bag. But you know what? I kept using it for over ten years, and it did what it said it would. It kept my gear dry and secure, along good roads, rough roads, dirt roads. It was was easy to take on or off, it was just a bit of a pain to open & close. It’s only in the last couple of years that bits started breaking, and it started looking pretty old. If it were not for a good deal on a replacement at REI, I would have kept using it for a while yet.

Summary: Not great, but did the job. The Ortlieb price premium was worth it for something that lasted a long time.

The Replacement

I have replaced it with the Ultimate6 S Plus.

This is a smaller, updated model. Similar shape, but smaller, and no side pockets. It addresses several issues with the original: the map case is integrated, and is designed for a smartphone (you can use a touch screen through the plastic).The catch is magnetic, making it easier to open with one hand.

Here’s to another 10+ years and 50,000km?

Finding Coffee in the US: A Spotters Guide

New Zealanders and Australians have grown accustomed to a certain style of coffee. They hear about great coffee places in the USA, and assume they will have no trouble finding good coffee in America. They are wrong. Americans have grown accustomed to a different style of coffee. There is good coffee in America, but it can be hard to find. Here’s a guide for New Zealanders and Australians: How to find decent coffee in the US.

The Rules:

  • Assume nothing. Their expectations are different.
  • Food and coffee do not go together.
  • Yelp reviews: read with caution.
  • A mocha is not what you expect.
  • Chain stores: in general, avoid.

Let’s look at those in more detail:

Assume Nothing

New Zealanders and Australians have been spoiled over the last 20+ years with the quality of the average cafe. You can walk into almost any cafe in Melbourne, or any town in New Zealand, and there is a high likelihood you will get a decent espresso coffee.

It does not work this way in the US, even in places like San Francisco. You can find decent coffee, but it is not everywhere. Many places that describe themselves as “cafes” only have a pot of filter coffee. In major centers you need to do research to find good places. Outside major centers it gets much harder.

Here’s an example: a year ago we were driving through rural Louisiana. I knew that coffee would be hard to come by. Sadly the best option looked to be a McDonalds “McCafe.” We knew that when McCafes were introduced to New Zealand they had made a real effort on the coffee front.

The conversation went like this:

I’ll have a cappuccino please.

A cappa-what?

A cappuccino.

Dianne, get over here! These people say they want a – what was it – a capp – u – cheeno. You ever hear of such a crazy thing? What in the hell is that?

Yes, a place with “Cafe” featuring in the name had never heard of a cappuccino. Americans have different expectations about what food & drink a cafe should provide. Many Americans are quite happy to pay for a cheap cup of filter coffee and Half and half. They don’t all want to pay $4-$5 for a hand-crafted beverage. You might think “Why not make it yourself at home?” They don’t think that way. You can’t change this.

There are people that *like* this shit

Once you get your head around this, you won’t be sucked in by a sign promising “Coffee!” It could well mean a glass beaker of coffee brewed 4 hours ago. No-one cares about the taste, that’s why there’s 8 different types of packets of sweeteners.

Fear not. All is not lost. There are places that know what they’re doing. You need to know what to look for.

These people know what they’re doing

Good Food Does NOT Mean Good Coffee

In NZ/Aus, there is a high likelihood that great food places will serve great coffee. Planning a lunch meeting with friends? If a good food place doesn’t do great coffee, it’s probably a bar.

In the US, there is an INVERSE relationship. Great coffee places in the US focus on coffee. They will offer nice pastries and muffins, but not proper meals. Places that serve good breakfast/lunch meals only have basic coffee. If you see lots of people eating, don’t expect to get good coffee.

They are queuing for food. Do not be fooled.

Many of the best cafes here focus on coffee. Coffee is their main revenue source, with a small amount of cakes & pastries (usually good). If you see people drinking coffee, working on laptops, and not much food: it will be good.

Yelp Reviews: Treat with Caution

Everyone uses Yelp in the US. Most places have many reviews, making it far more useful than in other countries. It’s very tempting to read the reviews, look for a well-rated place, and head there.

But.

When reading the reviews, you need to treat them with caution. The reviewers are American, and as above, their tastes are different. So you have to interpret the reviews.

Here’s an example of a review I was reading:

OMG the regular coffee was only 12oz (355mL)! The smallest size should be at least 16oz (473mL)! Plus the coffee was way too strong and I couldn’t understand the French accent!

Bingo! This sounds like exactly the sort of place I want to visit. Small, strong coffee made by a European.

It is time-consuming to read & interpret reviews for lots of places. I have found a few shortcuts with Yelp: search for the phrases “Flat White,” “Cortado” and “Hipster.” Something in that list will usually turn up. The first two are always positive triggers, the last one needs to be read for context.

Hollow: So Hipster it Hurts

Also look for “Coffee Roasters” in Yelp, rather than Cafes. This is a separate category. Coffee Roasters with retail outlets are usually very good.

Mocha: Not What You Expect

In New Zealand a “mocha” (pronounced: mock-a) is short for mochaccino. This is a cappuccino with chocolate added. Very tasty.

In the US a “mocha” (pronounced: moak-a) is regular coffee with a spoonful of cocoa powder stirred in. Not tasty. Note: you will come across a tremendous variety in mocha flavors in the US. Peppermint, White Chocolate, Raspberry, etc. Avoid.

Note the laptops, and not much food

Chain Stores: In General, Avoid

Americans love franchises, and every strip mall has the same set of shops. It would make life far simpler if one of the nationwide cafe chains did decent coffee, but they are all rubbish. Locals will rave about Peets, Philz, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, etc. but as above: they have different expectations to you. Those chains are all crap. Their popularity remains a mystery.

Most definitely not a chain

There are some smaller chains with groups of stores in certain regions. Some of these are very, very good. Examples in the Bay Area include: Ritual, Blue Bottle, and Sightglass. If you find a chain you like in your area, consider yourself lucky.

Cafe Spotting

If you can’t find any conclusive Yelp reviews, and you’re wandering about looking for coffee, here’s a few more tips on spotting good places:

  • Queues. This may just be a San Francisco thing, but people love to queue. Be warned: they may be queuing for food. If so, the coffee is probably bad. Check that it is just a coffee place.
  • Espresso machine: it pains me to say this, but many ‘cafes’ do not have espresso machines. At least with these you can spot them from the window. Bonus marks if you also spot an array of coffee-making apparatus (Chemex, pour over, Bunsen burners, distilling units).
  • Cup sizes. If you see people walking out clutching dairy confections measured in quarts, run. Quality places will have small cups by default. I knew that I would like Red Rock when I saw that their Cappuccino had a single small size listed on the menu.
  • Hipster score. Sometimes a place looks “so hipster it hurts.” Say what you like about them, hipsters do know how to make good coffee (Photo of Hollow).

Looks promising

If all the above fail, find someone with gauged ears, and follow them to work.

Well Done BA

I am somewhat of an airline snob, holding top-tier status with Air New Zealand, and generally avoiding non-Star Alliance carriers. Recently we had to fly British Airways, and had a problem with damaged luggage. But to their credit, even though I have no status with them, they dealt with the situation promptly, and turned around a bad experience. Well done British Airways.

Airline Snobbery

I have been Air New Zealand Gold or Elite for the last 5 years or so. This provides certain benefits when I travel with Air New Zealand – some free upgrades, discounted upgrades, extra baggage, free seat selection, priority boarding, etc. The most important things I get are priority check-in, priority baggage, lounge access, and often fast track security and immigration.

This means I am also Star Alliance Gold, so I get some benefits when flying on any other airline in the Star Alliance group. None of the on-board benefits like upgrades, but priority check-in, security, lounge access, etc still apply.

If you only take one flight a year, none of this really matters. If you fly a lot, this makes a big difference, and you get grumpy when you can’t get it. My company policy is economy class for the ‘little people’ like me. It makes shitty US airlines just a little bit more bearable when you get a few extra benefits.

As a result, I always look for Star Alliance options when flying, and will pay a moderate premium to do so. If there’s an Air New Zealand-operated direct flight, I probably won’t even look at other options.

What if There’s No Star Alliance Option?

Star Alliance is a big network, but they don’t fly everywhere. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, and have to fly with one of the other networks. That’s what happened recently when I needed to find a flight from Edinburgh to London. The only options were British Airways, or the discount carriers like EasyJet and RyanAir.

This always makes me a bit uncomfortable. You start looking at weird routing options, to see if there’s any way around it. You dread the idea of getting stuck in monster queues at check-in or security. You wonder what the airport Wi-Fi will be like, and how much is it going to cost to get something to eat & drink when you’re stuck in the hell-hole that is the typical post-security ‘shopping and dining experience.’

Eventually you give in, accept that it’s just a short flight, and you’ll cope. So you book the flight, in this case with BA. BA has been getting some bad press recently, related to some of their cost-cutting measures. I wasn’t too worried about that: you don’t expect a full meal on a 1-hour flight.

In-Flight Experience: No Problems

Check-in was straightforward, with no delays. Security was fine, it was slow for everyone going through Edinburgh. I was a little bit lost when I got through security. Normally I head to the lounge, for some peace and quiet, but instead I had to hang around the gate. But it wasn’t too bad, and we got on the plane.

Flight was fine, no problems. Only annoyance was at Gatwick end where we had to take a bus from the plane to the terminal. This always adds annoying delays, but it’s not BA’s fault: It’s Gatwick’s design.

Luggage Damage

The problems occurred when we picked up our luggage. Anna couldn’t extend the handle on her suitcase. Makes it a bit difficult to wheel it along, and we had a fair bit of walking and changing modes of transport to get to our destination.

There were some marks on the outside of the bag, but it wasn’t until we unpacked it we saw what had happened:

The bag had taken a heavy blow, bending the handle and the tubes it slides in. Not the sort of thing that you could easily repair either. The tubing was crushed, making the bag a write-off.

You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

I was wondering what we should do about it. Make a claim on travel insurance? Complain to BA, and get sympathy but not much else? Or just write it off: It wasn’t a super-expensive suitcase.

On a whim, I thought I’d check out BA’s policies. Turns out they have an online form for making a claim about problems with a flight, including damaged luggage. We filled it in, not expecting much.

Surprise! They got back to us very promptly, and said “That sucks. How about we send you this Samsonite bag as a replacement?”

It’s not the top of the line bag, but it’s a more than reasonable replacement for our damaged bag. It was sent to us in San Francisco quickly, and is now in the closet, ready for our next trip.

Summary

I’m very pleased with this quick turnaround. It took something that could have been a bad experience, and turned it into a positive one. That’s a text-book example of how to treat your customers well.

In the short-term, I will probably still continue to fly Star Alliance flights, because United is my company’s ‘preferred’ airline, and Air New Zealand is my best option for flights back to New Zealand. But it’s good to see that you don’t have to be flying business, or hold top-tier status in order to get good treatment. I will be happy to fly them again in future for intra-Europe flights. Sadly US domestic options will continue to be mostly rubbish.

10 years later

Ten years ago, a slightly naïve, skinny white guy with an overloaded bicycle set off from his house in London, aiming for New Zealand.

Look how shiny those panniers are! Back then they didn’t even leak!

I had been living in London, but wanted to go back to New Zealand. I’d travelled around Europe and the Middle East by bus, boat, train, but I’d had enough of that style of travel. I wanted to be able to go where I wanted, stop where I wanted, and see the world in a different way. So I went by bicycle.

I was at a stage in my life where I could do it. I was single, I had the money, and I had the time.

So I set off, thinking how hard could it be?

Yeah, well, there were a few tough times along the way, but it’s not as hard as you might think. In aggregate it seems a lot, but on a day to day basis it’s mostly about dealing with simple challenges: Where will I get food? Where will I sleep? Should I turn left or right at the intersection?

I’d done a lot of reading, I’d spent time getting my gear sorted out, I had maps for Central Asia and China…but once I actually got on the road in Europe I realized I still had a lot to learn. I had to figure out how to look at a map and identify good cycling routes, loading/unloading the bike, what sort of food I needed through the day, etc.

As much as anything, I needed to figure out my routines on the road. But the good thing is that I had plenty of chances to practice. You figure out your routines, and they become default. Next thing you’re taking it easy, eating your morning pastry beside yet another river-side bike path, and life is good:

I made it to Turkey, growing a nice beard along the way:

From Turkey I headed through Iran, this time with some company. I’d been alone across Europe, but now I would bump into other touring cyclists regularly.

On the advice of locals, I shaved my beard off in Iran:

Central Asia meant cheap vodka & beer, sometimes with rough consequences. But then THERE WAS A SUPERMARKET! You know your perspective on life has changed when you’re marveling at shopping trolleys, aisles, and air-conditioning.

Kyrgyzstan presented a new sort of challenge, having to replace my passport & visas. But I had time, I had money, I could work through the logistics. It was a little frustrating at time, but I kept calm about it.

I think that’s one of the things I learnt about myself along the way. I can just roll with the punches, dealing with situations as they arise, and not getting all worked up. When I was stuck between Iran & Turkmenistan, I sat down and went to sleep, rather than ranting and raving. A lot of patience is required when applying visas too.

My legs are my best feature??

Some of my best riding was in China, from the deserts in the West, to the crowded cities in the East. It felt like China was where I really hit my rhythm on the bike. I figured out how the cities worked, navigation was simple (follow the G312!), food was an adventure…it was a good time. Even when I did look like an extra from The Walking Dead:

…and my feet looked decidedly odd:

That’s what comes from only wearing sandals for 6+ months.

I spent four months riding across China, before heading south through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. I had some great company along the way, including my sister and her husband.


Remarkably, in Malaysia I caught up with my old drinking buddy Jan, having last seen him months before in Uzbekistan.

I put the bike on a plane from Singapore to Darwin, Australia, and rode through the center of Australia. The support crew for the first half made all the difference:

It was hard going for the last few weeks, knowing I’d come a long way, but still had a tough slog to go. I’d gotten used to the bustle of Asian cities, and the typical Australian roadhouse doesn’t offer quite the same level of excitement.

After months of cycling, I’ve realized that I’m not the fittest cyclist, and definitely not the fastest. There are many other cyclists who are much faster than me. But I can persevere, and just keep plodding along all day. Then the next day I get up and do it again, and again.

Anyone can ride 100km in a day. The difference is in whether you can get up the next day and do it again.

Finally, some 25,000km after starting, I made it home:

2008: Home…for a While

I tried to settle back down in New Zealand, working a regular job. But the first few months were hard. There’s a sense of dislocation, of not belonging. Even getting used to regularly sleeping in a soft bed was difficult. But I stuck with it, and settled down for a while…but I still had some unfinished business.

2009-2010: Closing the Loop

About 18 months after getting back to New Zealand, I went on the road again, this time to Patagonia. I spent several months in Southern Chile & Argentina, battling rough roads, wind, rain and snow…but with some amazing landscapes.

And then I closed the loop: I went back to the UK, on a sort of pub crawl from London to Scotland. All the countries I’ve visited, and the UK is one of my top destinations. It might not seem ‘adventurous’, but who cares? A great network of bike paths takes you along country lanes, through small villages, there’s always a pub that doubles as bed & breakfast, and English language media is always available.

Too early, couldn’t get photo over the prime meridian

Lancaster Canal – typical English bike path

Entering Scotland

From there it was back to New Zealand, with one more encounter with bedbugs in Singapore along the way

2011-2015: Now Biking for Two

Life changed in 2011. I got married to Anna, and now our lives are a joint affair. It’s not just about me any more. We do things together: This started with the honeymoon, where we could have stayed in a resort for a week, or gone cycling for a month: Anna chose wisely

About to set off

Who buys this stuff?

Eating pho

Vietnamese Children

We were settled in Auckland, New Zealand for the next few years, going on a few bike trips around New Zealand. Not fully loaded touring – instead we’d go mountain biking, or checking out the new New Zealand Cycle Trails.

2016: USA, Land of the Free?

Six months ago we moved to San Francisco, where I’m working. We’re getting settled in here, and starting to explore the country (LINK NEEDED). There’s a lot more to learn about this place yet. I don’t know how long we will stay in the United States, given the upheaval at my current employer, and the current political climate. For now, we’re staying here, and we hope to stay longer.

What will the next 10 years hold?

I don’t know.  There will almost certainly be at least one more international move, and hopefully a TransAmerica bike ride. Maybe a chance to walk the length of New Zealand too?

Denver, Colorado

I don’t want you to think that we spend all our time hanging out in liberal enclaves in California, or hipster gin bars in Polk St. Sometimes we venture further afield. Earlier this month we got away to Denver, Colorado for a weekend.

Arriving late at night, the drive to the hotel was pretty dull…flat lands, freeways, and monstrous stores…Anna was not impressed. But then the sun came up to a clear but bloody cold day, we went out to explore, and pretty soon we said: “You know, this looks like the sort of place we could live.”

Interesting neighborhoods, nice old homes, the city feeling busy but not overwhelming. Plenty of options for physical activity too. Bike paths everywhere, trails along the river, and the mountains nearby, offering plenty of options for mountain biking, snowboarding, etc.

Cold though:

We didn’t plan it, but the annual Denver Parade of Lights was on while we were in town. So we stuck around to watch it:

You can’t see it all that well, but these are “lowrider” cars. Hilarious to watch, but maybe not the most practical. Note the angles some are on:

On Sunday morning we went out mountain biking with Nick from Front Range Ride Guides. This turned out to be a fantastic choice. We could have just hired bikes, but going with a local guide made it a much better experience.

We met Nick just outside Denver, and then travelled with him to the trailhead. He provided top-quality full-suspension bikes. No crappy rental fleet, these were good bikes, like I would like to own.

It was still clear and cold, starting off below freezing, warming up to maybe 45°F/7°C. The rivers were half-frozen, and you can see a little snow lying on the ground. We were super-lucky with the weather – a couple of days later and the temperature dropped a further 20°. We were able to have a great day out biking:

Nick was great company, easy to ride with, super-knowledgable about the area. He was clearly a very experienced rider, but he had the ability to work with different levels of riders, and make you feel at ease. We needed it too – you can see from these shots that we were up in the mountains. Something like 7,000 feet, and we’d only just arrived in the area.

Riding along flat to gentle inclines was fine, but as soon as we started climbing the lungs started burning. Later we’d stop, and my legs would be jelly-like, as if we’d climbed much further.

The ride was nicely paced, with great opportunities to stop and check the view, with a nice long downhill trail followed by a gentle ride back down the dirt road to the trailhead. Well-balanced, and perfectly finished with a couple of beers back at the parking lot, enjoying what was really a superb day, considering it was 3 weeks from Christmas.

We could have hired bikes ourselves, and spent time researching trails, consulting maps, getting lost, etc. I’ve done that sort of thing plenty of times in the past. But I’m glad we did it this way. No hassle, just turn up and bikes are ready to go, you don’t have to worry about navigation, someone can advise on trail choices, etc.

The best thing about this particular setup was that it was totally customised to us. No large group tour thing. This was set at our pace and ability, with no pressure to keep up, or waiting for slower riders. We got to do exactly the sort of riding we wanted to do, with someone who knew exactly what they were up to. Highly recommended, and we’ll catch up with Nick again when we return to Denver.

Goodbye Rain, Hello Fog

Anna and I have had enough of the high property prices in Auckland, and the frequent rain. So we’ve moved to a place with even more expensive real estate, and fog…but little or no rain.

That’s right, we’ve moved to San Francisco. My company has relocated me to the Bay Area, to work at HQ. Anna has worked very hard over the last few months to make it happen. Packing, selling stuff, giving it away, closing accounts, etc. Lots and lots of administrative work.

But now we’re here. We’re staying in an AirBnb for another week, then we’re moving to a furnished apartment in the SoMa district of San Francisco. We’ll stay there for a couple of months while we figure out where we want to live. We’re undecided if this will be in San Francisco, or maybe down the peninsula, closer to where I work.

It’s a new adventure for us. You’re all welcome to visit us, as long as you don’t mind sleeping on the couch or floor!

Flashpacking the Timber Trail

Let’s cut to the chase: Our weekend riding the Timber Trail & staying at Flashpackers Ongarue was the best experience we’ve had so far on the New Zealand Cycle Trails. The whole combination of riding, accommodation, transfer and meals was just fantastic.

The Timber Trail is a newish track through the Central North Island in New Zealand. It starts in Pureora and passes through 88km of native bush, regenerating forests, and a former bush tramway line, finishing in Ongarue.

Rem @ Flashpackers in Ongarue offers a range of services, from accommodation, meals, car transfers to bike rentals. You can put together whatever combination suits you. Our plans were:

  • Arrive Saturday night, after dinner
  • Have breakfast on Sunday, and get vehicle transfer to the starting point at Pureora
  • Ride to Piropiro Camp (about halfway along the track), pick up the car, and head back to Ongarue for dinner
  • Monday morning have breakfast, get dropped off at Piropiro, and ride back to Ongarue
  • Drive back to Auckland (about 3 hours).

That was no problem to organise. Even better, there’s no checkout time on the last day, so you can have a shower when you get back, before the drive home.

The Accommodation

Ongarue is only a shadow of its former self. It once had 3,000 people, but with the mill gone, there’s only a few people left. There’s still a few houses left, and Rem has renovated one of them, next to the old General Store. It is a beautiful old 3-bedroom house, with full kitchen, and spa pool. Anna immediately declared:

I’m in love with this house! This is the greatest place you’ve ever taken me!

This was about 2 minutes after arriving, long before we’d even looked around properly, or done any riding.

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The house is rented out on a per-room basis, but we were lucky enough to be on our own. So we had our choice of rooms, and the pianola all to ourselves!

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The spa pool’s just the ticket for after a day’s riding too:

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No need to light the coal range though. The 3 heat pumps kept the house warm & toasty:

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Day 1: Pureora to Piropiro

Strong riders can complete the whole trail in one long day, but it’s better split over two days. The problem is that it’s a point to point ride, and there’s not many entry/exit points along the way. You’ve got a few options:

  • Ride out partway, then turnaround and ride back over the same trail to the start
  • Ride to Piropiro Camp at the halfway point, and arrange a shuttle/pickup
  • Ride all the way through to Ongarue (and organise transport to the start or finish)

There are a few shuttle services available to drop you off, and pick you up, but Rem does something a little different. Using our car, we drive to the start, with Rem and his bike. He drops us off, then drives the car to the halfway point. He leaves the car there, and rides his bike home to Ongarue. We then have as long as we like to reach the halfway point, pick up the car, then drive ourselves back to Ongarue. The advantage of this approach is that we don’t have to get to Piropiro by a specific time – we just need to get there before dark!

The first section of the trail goes straight into native bush that wasn’t logged. Apparently they started by logging the sections further away from town, working their way back in. So then when the logging was stopped, they were left with a native bush section near town.

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From there it goes through some areas that have been logged more recently, before starting a climb into higher altitudes. The bike trail itself goes to around 1,000m. You can see a clear change in the trees. Look at the mosses that grow on them:

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The bike trail goes around Mt Pureora, but doesn’t go to the top. There are two marked walking tracks that divert off the main trail to the summit at 1165m. The second one is shorter, but the trail is rough going:

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It took at least half an hour to get to the top, but it was worth it. From here you can see all the surrounding countryside, and across to Lake Taupo:

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We had lunch at the top, then headed back down and picked up the bikes again. Not long after this we came across Bill, a DOC contractor working on the trails. Even though it was a Sunday he was out working on the tracks, grading a section. The weather was good, so he was out while he good. As he put it, he doesn’t like getting wet, so if it rains he stays home.

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We stopped to have a chat, and found out that he was the one that had put up the small signs on the track showing where some mobile phone coverage was available. Most of the track had no coverage. He’d also put up a small sign pointing out a view of Lake Taupo through the trees. It would have been easy to miss the small gap.

 

The day was getting on by this stage – it was around 2:30pm, and we’d done less than 20km of the 45km we had to cover. The good news was that things opened out from here. More gravel roads, less single track. More importantly, we were generally going downhill, a welcome break after the long steady climbing. So we made good progress over the last section. Much faster than the first.

We did have to stop and take a few photos of the first of the eight suspension bridges on the trail. Very cool, but be warned that these things to wobble about. Keep riding, don’t look down 🙂

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The last part of the trail dips in and out of a few gravel roads, finally winding up at Piropiro camp. Light was fading by the time we got there – I would not want to be any later. We spent about 7 hours on the trail, including the diversion up the walking track. Most people will be a little faster than us, and if you didn’t do the walk you’d have plenty of time.

As promised the car was there waiting for us. From the camp it’s a drive down a gravel road, back the main road. It’s a bit weird to drive the car out from a section you didn’t drive into. The signs weren’t obvious, so we just had to hope we were going down the ‘main’ gravel road. Eventually we hit the tarseal, and we knew we were on the right track.

We jumped in the spa at Ongarue, while Rem sorted out dinner. Long day on the trail, a beer in the spa, and a great dinner. What else could you want?

Day 2: Piropiro to Ongarue

This time Rem goes with us to Piropiro, drops us off, then drives our car back to Ongarue. He gets the day off riding.

I haven’t been out on the bike much recently, so hopping back on for the second day in a row is alway a little tender. We get back into the swing of it, but I spend more time then usual standing up, out of the saddle.

The trail is quite different today. Again, it starts with a climb, followed by mostly downhill. But this time the climb is only for around half an hour. We cross the longest suspension bridge on the trail, separating the two large forestry blocks:

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From there it’s uphill in the bush until we hit the bush tramway. In the early 20th century the timber company built a tramway from Ongarue up into the bush. It took years, and they had to spend vast sums of money before they were able to actually start logging.

The tramway was used until 1958 when flooding knocked out sections of it. Diesel trucks were then becoming viable, so it became a road, before being abandoned to the bush when logging finished.

It has now been cleared out, perfect for mountain biking. The cuttings through the countryside are very clear, making for a mostly level line. Steeper gradients than a regular railway, but better than going up & down every single hill.

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There are many deep cuttings, and fabulous views out over the valley:

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There’s also a few remnants of the old camps. Some camps had quite a few houses, but these have all gone now:

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The original track had a spiral section, where they needed to gain a large amount of elevation in a small space. The spiral was closed when the tramway was converted to road, but has been re-constructed:

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Huge long downhill sections are lots of fun. Kilometres fly by, but sadly the downhill doesn’t go all the way to the end. The trail levels out a few kilometres from the end, and follows a track alongside a small river. Very pleasant, but if you’re tired after a couple of days, it’s just a little bit more effort than you’d like.

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The trail itself ends about 2km from Ongarue. The last 2km is a mostly flat, quiet tarsealed road. We rolled into Ongarue, and took advantage of the late checkout to get cleaned up before heading home. Tired, but very satisfied.

Special Mention: The Food

You might think that if you’re doing a couple of days of mountain biking, you can eat whatever you like. No chance of gaining weight, right? Yeah, well…Rem feeds you well. Very well. You will not go hungry here. Rem cooked us breakfast both days, and provided a packed lunch for the trail. He also cooked a fabulous dinner. Ask for the recipe for the kumara & butternut recipe.

You’ll need the food on the trail, this is a long way from the Otago Rail Trail. There are no cafes here. We only saw one other person on the track in two days. Plan on taking all your food. You can drink from the streams if you’re low on water.

The kitchen at the house is fully equipped, and you could easily cook your own meals if you preferred.

Do It

Overall: Highly recommended. Both the ride, and staying at Flashpackers. If you can, get a group of 6 together and take over the whole house. I also recommend doing the vehicle transfers the way we did it. Much better than a shuttle.

Parihaka Mountain Bike Park

In the early days of mountain biking, when I was growing up in Whangarei, some trails were built on Parahaki, a 241m hill/mountain that overlooks the city. This is very close to town, making it viable to ride out to the trailhead. So much better than packing up the car to go biking.

Times have changed. I moved away from Whangarei, the trails were lost to logging, and now we call it Parihaka.

We were visiting over summer 2015-2016, and I’m pleased to see that the trails are being rebuilt – see this page, and the maps here.

The trails are the typical logging forest setup – a network of single-track built around a gravel road spine. We started from the Abbey Caves Rd entrance, and rode up some trails, before getting on the main road for the last leg up to the top.

From the top of the trails, you can head across the sealed carpark, and up the steps to the main lookout. You won’t want to do this every time you come up here, but it’s worth doing at least once.

I’ve walked up Parihaka many times, and I’ve ridden my bike up the road a few times, but it was the first time I’ve come up to the lookout via that angle.

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From there we went back down the trails, looping around a few times to cover almost all of the trails. Lots of fun, mostly good trails. Thankfully it was dry, so the clay soils were good riding. Probably a bit sticky in the wet.

Be warned: These trails do have some tricky bits: See the damage that Anna suffered:
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Note the bruises on one leg, and the bandage on the other ankle. To really rub salt into the wound, after the crash that caused this, the only way out along the trail was via a side track that was almost completely closed in with gorse. When you’re bruised and bleeding, the last thing you need is to get smacked in the face with a gorse bush.

Better hope that the husband has some sugary sweeties in the car to cheer you up when you finally reach the bottom, or things could go bad for both you and him…