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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  6/1/2020

Virtual Touring

Have you been feeling a little cooped up lately? Feeling a little hemmed in and hedged about by the shelter-in-place mandates? Are you missing all the big spring classics and stage races on TV or streaming video? Perhaps your frustration extends to having had to cancel some big cycling plans you had in the pipeline for this summer. (I’ve had to cancel two cycle-touring vacations I had on tap and in my case it’s not just a matter of letting some tour caterer know I won’t be coming: I am the caterer. I did all the planning and grunt work to get the tours organized. Now I’ve had to let the 40 or so people who signed up for each tour know they’re not going to get to enjoy those weeks of exploring new roads through new country, and all they have to look forward to is a refund of their tour fee.)

Well, so be it. This is our world right now and it will probably be our world until we have a viable vaccine up to scale, all over the country, if not all over the world. In spite of the clueless fools thronging the beaches and brewpubs—those mosh pits we see on the evening news—an overwhelming majority of Americans are still committed to at least some version of social distancing and staying close to home. That being the case, how do we stay occupied and happy?

Cyclists at least can still practice their favorite activity (while many other sporting folks have had to forego whatever pastime they normally enjoy). We can still hit the road and log a few miles. I’m certainly doing that and I expect you are too. But it’s along the same old roads I’ve ridden hundreds of times before. Even in a cycling paradise the same stuff starts to seem stale eventually, and that’s when we think about booking a week or three in Provence or Tuscany or even just a couple of states over from where we normally hang out and ride. But not now. Not for a while yet.

I certainly don’t have a cure for the pandemic nor even any suggestions for how to end up climbing Mount Ventoux this summer…not really, truly, in person. But I do have one itty bitty tip that might help you pass the time while you’re sequestered at home, and pass it in a cycling state of mind.

Now that I’ve dangled that teaser in front of you, I have to back up and say this: most of what follows here is a mystery to me. I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. But out of that swamp of ignorance I can pull one little suggestion that might be useful for you.

The mysterious realm into which I’m venturing is the world of indoor trainers. I think I may have climbed on a stationary bike once or twice and cranked a few strokes, just to see what the pedaling action was like. But that exhausts my understanding of the equipment and the experience. I see the ads on TV for Peloton. These are obviously expensive and sophisticated contraptions. And they no doubt do what they’re supposed to do, which is good, assuming you want to be doing that. Okay.

I understand the better trainers have a monitor upon which you can watch videos and pretend you’re riding the road on the screen…and with the best of them, some Strava-syle data can flow from the video to the bike to replicate the conditions on the video: more effort on the climbs, etc. I know so little about this that when I thought to write this column, I asked some friends who do use such trainers how the whole thing works. I gathered a good deal of information but the answers became quite technical and, frankly, I quickly grew bored with the whole topic. Not my thing.

However…what got me even remotely interested in this subculture of trainers and GoPro handlebar videos had nothing to do with actually riding a trainer and getting a workout. What caught my interest was a website called FulGaz. What you find at the site is a library of hundreds of those handlebar videos of back road rides on road bikes. All of them can be viewed easily and for free. If I understand their business model correctly, if you sign up and pay a fee, you can download higher-rez versions of the videos that also include all that Strava data (or similar) that can be programmed into your indoor trainer to provide the real feel of the ride on view. How all this works is what my friends tried to explain to me…until my eyes glazed over.

If you’re already into this, you know way more about it than I do. But the one little tidbit I want to note here is the fact that the many videos can be watched simply as eye candy, the same way we might sit back and watch one of those pretty Great Railway Journeys shows on TV: let the landscape unfold in front of us and just enjoy the scene…the new scene in a new place, far from home. No need to get all sweaty and trashed on the trainer; just kick back in your comfy, ergonomically correct desk chair, in front of your big computer monitor, and watch the show. (This wouldn’t be any fun viewed on a small screen…a phone or pad or possibly even a small laptop. You want a nice big screen for the full effect. If you have your TV hooked up to your computer, as many people do these days, you can probably watch the FulGaz clips on a really big screen while laid out in couch-potato heaven.)

We all know about GoPro videos at this point. They’ve been around a few years now and are only getting better. What an amazing little bit of technology. Drop into YouTube just about anywhere and start poking around and you can watch a mind-bending marathon of crazy stuff, from extreme skiing to auto racing to sailing to…to cycling. While my wife is hogging the TV remote and watching one more remodeling show on HGTV or yet another rerun of Downtown Abbey, I retire to my desk (in another room) and surf through a zillion possible GoPro options that are almost always entertaining. Mindless? Yeah, mostly. But who cares? 

What I like about FulGaz, as opposed to the big supermarket of YouTube, is that all the videos are about cycling…all filmed on bikes at bike speed and all on roads that make sense for cycling. The videos can be searched by country. Quite a few countries are represented although the bulk of the videos come from the countries we think of as cycling institutions: France, Itally, Spain, England, the US. Their inventory does not include every really famous climb but more videos are being added all the time. As it stands now, even being quite selective, there is enough content here to keep you glued to your screen until your eyes cross.

When I stumbled on the site, the first thing I did was find and click on some of the big climbs I have done while touring in Europe. Do the videos match up pretty well with my memories of those roads and hills? Absent the pain and suffering, they do. I see all sorts of little details I remember. So that’s dandy. But I have to say, the big climbs can eventually become kind of boring, just sitting and watching them. Things happen slowly on climbs. No doubt if you’re on your Peloton trainer and busting your butt to keep pace with the guy who had the GoPro on his handlebar, you will stay focused and in the moment. Just watching it as a visual entertainment, not so much. There is an urge to keep clicking forward along the progress bar to get to something more exciting, like the summit. 

However, there are many other videos—often along roads I’ve never heard of—that include substantial sections of downhill and fast rollers. Places where the rider was really kickin’ it. Those can be exciting. I’ll give you a link here to one I found in that category: Blea Tarn & Red Bank to Grasmere. This hilly little run (44 minutes) is in the English Lake District. (I have toured there but in a car, not on a bike.) I don’t want to overhype the video but… Just watch it and see if you don’t end up with at least a slightly elevated heart rate. It had me squirming in my chair, leaning into the corners and reaching for brake levers I didn’t have.

So that can be fun. But it can also be informative and expand our horizons. I have a wish list of places I’d like to ride before I get too old to manage them, off in different countries. But I confess the Lake District and the Cumbrian Dales would not have been one of them. Not because it’s not a lovely area with cool bike roads but simply…so many roads, so little time. Even if the pandemic was not keeping me at home, there is no way I will ever be able to cycle along anything more than a tiny fraction of all the available roads out there. Watching these videos is an easy way to explore new areas we might otherwise overlook or never have the time (or money) (or fitness) to tackle in the real world. Perhaps watching the video will be an end in itself: the only time we do that road. Or it might be a form of research and planning for a future trip, when the real world opens up to us again.

As I said at the top, this is an itty bitty tip. Not going to change the world or solve all our problems. But I have found it to be a pleasant—and occasionally heart-pounding—little adventure, browsing through these videos in far-flung corners of the biking world. Our stay-at-home, semi-sequestered way of life is not going to end soon. We have a lot of time at our disposal and only limited opportunities to get out and about. The best thing we can do is get out there on the nice roads near home…the real roads, on a real bike. But if you rode hard yesterday and are recovering today, of if it’s rainy or cold or dark out, here’s one little way to still have some bike fun.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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