Category Archives: Canada

Five and a half years

Well, my bike is packed up in its bag again, most of my possessions were collected yesterday for shipping back to New Zealand and, really, I’m a bit bored of packing. I leave London for NZ – five and a half years to the week after I left to see a little bit of the world – curious if I can settle back in a beautiful country far at the bottom of the globe. At the least, I should get a good summer of riding in. Over dinner with Trish at our favourite local Italian pizzeria the other night, there was plenty to reflect on – many excellent things, only two or three not so great happenings, all memorable.

So excuse me while I try to remember most of them and jot them down for posterity. Naturally I’ll start with the highlights in no particular order, as there are many.

As I delve into the archives, this is proving more difficult to narrow it down than I expected, …

My first port of call was the States – little did I know that would be the first of four visits and about six months in total in the country, it turns out the west is fantastic for scenery and mountain-biking.

A west-USA road-trip with plenty of mountain-biking was always a pipe-dream for when I was in my forties or fifties – thanks to living in Canada & the company of my aunt, Valerie, it became a reality much earlier.

The best biking holiday was my return to Moab last year – fantastic trails, great company & beautiful scenery – click on the photo above to watch the video Megan put together.

I also never intended to visit Africa four times, but somehow that happened. Each of the four safaris were quite different, but all excellent.

But the first one in the Masai Mara was the best.

Seeing the Pyramids on Christmas day was excellent – not very crowded either.

I only briefly went to Asia, on a visit to Turkey:


Gliding over the spectacular landscape of Cappadocia in a hot air balloon is indelibly in my memory.

Five weeks’ vacation almost five years ago in the Canadian Rockies saw me learn to ski, a bit, and then all of a sudden, living in Bow Valley for a year of mountain-biking in the summer and skiing in the winter.


Returning to the UK, I managed to settle into a job that I quite liked – that was, until the rather horrible drawn-out experience of plant closure & many redundancies. It was a good base for travels near & far while it lasted – the long, dry & hot summer of 2013 was especially good with many mountain-biking trips around the south-west. Always good to visit Taunton & also ride with my Somerset riding buddies, the Combe Raiders – whatever the weather.

That summer saw me enter a few biking events too – a six-hour solo (nice trail, but boring riding round & round the same thing for six hours), a couple of marathon events, & culminating in my first multi-day stage event.

That event, as you can probably tell from this photo taken while riding along, was in Africa.

Apart from the redundancy experience already mentioned, only two other notable low-points are worth bringing up. The mugging incident in San Diego the day after I left NZ is still the best if I ever have to tell one story from my travels. The ongoing shoulder dislocation saga was painful in a different way – but after four dislocations I had surgery and it’s been fine ever since.

With all the trips to North America & Africa, I perhaps didn’t see as much of Europe as I originally hoped. But I managed a fair few trips – with Italy being the most visited country, five times now I think. I also loved the time spent living in London wandering around all parts of the city & delving into the history. Due to the demise of work, my bikepacking tour of western Europe was brought forward to this year & shortened (& then shortened even more when I got sick of travelling alone in the August rain & mud).

Straddling the German-Belgian border somewhere.

One of the most pleasing & proud parts of the trip was crossing the Alps over Great Saint Bernard Pass – because my grandfather did the same on a bike sixty-five years ago.

Somehow I ended up spending four weeks living & working on a small vineyard in the north-west of Italy – eating a lot, hiking a bit, making new friends & thoroughly enjoying myself. Learning a second-language, Italian – thanks to work, was something I never thought I’d do – but it turned out I really enjoyed it.

Hiking near Monto Bianco.

Oh, almost forgot the whirlwind two-week trip back to NZ (the only one) for some friends’ wedding, and coincidentally my thirtieth birthday & many celebrations with friends & family all over the country. Hectic, but most enjoyable.

The visit also coincided with my shoulder being declared fit – so after six months of no biking, it was great to be active again – here skiing near Wanaka.

I’ll be back with these fine folks next week – hard to believe we’ll have our first Christmas all together since 2006.

That’ll do for unashamed self-indulgence – thanks to all the family & friends that made all this possible in many different ways (usually providing somewhere to sleep & plenty to eat). Biggest thanks goes to cousin Trish in London for repeatedly opening up her home to this often-vagabond – all this would not have been possible or lasted nearly as long otherwise.

2013 – a lot more biking than the previous year

After reading last year’s Christmas letter, I can see just how different 2013 has ended up being.  The main driver for that is that my shoulder is completely normal after last year’s surgery & rehab (so much so that when people occasionally ask after it, I’m always slightly taken aback).  That has meant that excessive travelling fell by the wayside as I spent much time biking.  Before much biking, there was last winter to get through – I escaped to Egypt for sun at Christmas last; Christmas morning at the pyramids was certainly unusual. A country still in a state of upheaval & flux, it was a fascinating trip.

I moved into a new role at work about a year ago, which meant quite a few months of learning plenty while still trying to tidy up things in my previous position.  Along with my car comprehensively failing its annual inspection & many problems with the replacement, what turned out to be some of the best concentrated biking I’ve had was a welcome change.

After a couple of days having a look around Chicago, I met Megan, Alex & their son, Finn, in Utah.  We went to mountain-bike mecca Moab and did little except camp, ride bikes (a lot) and eat. As on my last visit, the scenery was stunning and the riding exceptional. STOP PRESS – Megan has just made a rather fun video that makes me yearn for sun, rocky trails, & great riding – much more interesting than me prattling on about Moab.

The summer was bookended by two big trips biking – Moab being the first.  That meant that I travelled very little during the summer – but that worked out well as we actually had a cracking summer of weather in the UK & the riding was plentiful.  Preparing for a three-day stage race in September I entered a number of longer-distance events around the south-west UK & Wales.  This being about the only photo of I have me “racing” – on a strangely scorching Shropshire day:

The other bookend event for the summer was the three-day Rift Valley Odyssey in Kenya.  Partly an excuse to get back to Africa & visit Adrian and partly a nice big riding adventure to train for & achieve, I was pleased to return to Africa – it’s a fascinating place after all.  The summer of preparation did me well & the only real difficulty in the 5500 metres of climbing over three days and 260 kilometres was a bit of digestive trouble at the top of a huge, hot & humid climb halfway through Day Two – not sure if it was the heat, too much food or the anti-malarial tablets; anyway, I survived the remainder of the day on next to no food and recovered enough that the last day (eighty-odd kilometres) was easy.

I was too busy riding to get many photos, but I quite like these two taken while riding along:

The second week of the trip was spent in Tanzania with Adrian, Carmen & their two children.  As they’d only just moved there, it was a relaxed week as they settled in a bit more and I recovered from the big bike ride.  Adrian & I did grab the chance for an overnight trip to a relatively close national park – there were many more elephants around than I saw on my last safari four years ago; an excellent end to another fantastic trip visiting Adrian & Carm.

Many months before, it seemed a good idea to book a trip to New England in the fall – after a particularly busy return to work, it wasn’t seeming so smart.  Nonetheless, I was pretty sure that I’d enjoy a short road trip around the north-east of North America.  With little biking, beautiful autumnal colours, nice cities (Montreal & Boston particular favourites) and absolutely fabulous food it turned out to be a very relaxing trip which was well worth it.  Although the photos don’t really compare to Utah and Africa – here’s one of Ottawa:

Shortly after my return from Canada, all medium-term plans got thrown to the wind as it was revealed that the plant where I work would close next year.  It was a sudden, but not altogether surprising announcement; things are becoming clearer now & I’m looking forward to a 2014 that will be very different to what I was expecting.  As far as I can tell, I’ll have work for about half the year – during which I will frantically save & prepare for extensive time biking in places yet to be decided.  Mum, & probably Adele, plan on visiting for a cousin’s wedding in May – so I’m well looking forward to that.

Merry Christmas & may the new year be a great one for you.

A province & five states

I could have easily driven from Montreal to Boston in a day, but where’s the fun in sitting on the freeway all day when there hills & different New England states to explore?

I watched the sun rise across fields of wheat as I left Quebec & then wished I’d cleaned the lens.

Getting off the Interstate to cross the border makes it all very easy & quick – in no time & six dollars later I was in New York.  My stay was short lived as I quickly moved into the north-west of Vermont driving down a series of islands that sit in Lake Champlain.  Vermont has the second smallest population of any of the states (only Wyoming has less than its 625000 people) and I was fast approaching the largest city in the state – Burlington, booming with just over forty thousand people.  So there wasn’t a lot of traffic around and the morning drive continued in its pleasantness.


There was, an odd round church:

A capitol building in Montpelier, a town not really much bigger than the one I grew up in in New Zealand.  At less than eight thousand people its claim to fame is being the smallest state capital & the only one without a McDonald’s.

Big old houses:

Covered bridges galore:

Whitewashed churches:

A little covered bridge:

I was at my airbnb stay before lunch – my hosts were lovely & had a big old house & an almost-bigger attached barn.  Even though I was only paying for the bed & possibly breakfast, somehow I ended up being fed lunch, dinner & breakfast.  Jim was quite the chef, so the food & local amber ale was excellent for sharing many travel stories over.  Generally I find that those that host airbnb have travelled quite a bit themselves and always enjoy talking about far off places – this trip in the north-east USA consolidated that thought.

After a bit of a nap to sleep off the early start & large lunch, it was time to wander around the village.  In the next village I found the oldest military college, Norwich, in the country – which seemed a little out of the way.  But as they have a lot of winter training, it made sense as one could tell as fall progressed the whole area was preparing for another huge winter of snowfall.  I walked up a big hill on walking & biking trails that the college had built – the whole time views were promised by sneaking glances of an extraordinary vista; but as the light faded, they never really eventuated.  Apparently I had a few more miles to go back into the hills before reaching the fire tower.


All rather serene looking to be a military college

Within an hour of driving the next morning I was in New Hampshire.  A state whose motto is Live Free or Die they are all for minimal interference from government.  As such there is no state sales or income tax & incredibly, if you are over eighteen years old, there is no legal requirement to wear a seatbelt.  That just seems a bit nuts, but I suppose it helps natural selection.

I continued to take poor photos while driving slowly through villages

My rather loose route of day was to avoid major highways again & aim towards an interesting-looking group of lakes in central New Hampshire.  The largest of which is Lake Winnipesaukee – I got out to stretch my legs & walked up & back down a hill for the best part of an hour.  I’m getting a tired of saying everything was pretty, even in the gloom, but it was and a good break from the rather easy driving.

Maine wasn’t far away – so why not? Although I definitely got the feeling pretty much everything on the south coast had closed for the season. Shock, horror I stopped & bought some new clothes because I had the spare time & they were much needed – after a summer of riding, having to remove my belt for security screening now brings with it a much increased risk of finding jeans at my ankles. Soon I was following plenty of Massachusetts number plates & the spelling of the state was ingrained in my head.

Montreal

Montreal had never really been much of a blip on my radar of places to visit one day.  But the little I read about the city after deciding to include it on this little drive led me to believe that I would quite enjoy it – at the least, there would be good poutine (which was on my quite long list of “things I must eat while in Canada & the States”).  A city of neighbourhoods, with excellent food it sounded good fun to explore for a couple of days.

We easily found our way on to the island (curiously, Montreal is an island in the St Lawrence River – I did not know that beforehand) and then to the apartment.  Apparently, our neighbourhood was good for food so we just wandered out the door to the end of the block to peruse the local haunts – Jane spied a good looking cupcake shop that was noted for a later date.  What followed at a rather too-hip-for-me cafe was the best meal I’ve had in ages – scallops on a barley risotto with vegetables done to perfection.

It turned out that one of the biggest & best markets in the city was only a few blocks away, so we headed down there after breakfast Saturday.  That probably wasn’t the best idea as I was immediately hungry again – I shouldn’t go into detail of the huge range of produce & meat that was on display.  I managed to cross a bagel off the list; Montreal bagels are supposed to be a little sweeter than most – either way, it was better than I used to bake.  I think we managed to sample half as many plums as we ended up buying – delicious & many varieties.

Jane was aware of the Bixi public bicycle sharing scheme in Montreal from a previous visit.  I was familiar with the concept from London & other European cities – a bit of research shows that the London system is a Bixi system (the largest, with Montreal second) – Bixi being a company set up by the city of Montreal.  Basically, there are over five thousand bicycles at four-hundred docking stations all around the city – for the measly sum of seven dollars for twenty-four hours, one can have have as many half-hour rides as desired (if you take a bike for more than thirty minutes, you get charged extra).  As it turns out, it’s an absolutely fantastic way to see the city.  The bikes are very solid (tough, but pretty heavy), easy to ride, comfortable, internally geared (the range of three is plenty) & with a handy basket on the front.  That is pretty much how we saw a lot of Montreal on the Saturday – interspersed by a fair bit of walking & eating too.

The local church

Not the kind of picture I usually snap while riding bikes, c.f. this

We ditched the bikes for a stroll, rather – a brisk steep walk, to the top of Parc du Mont-Royal – through plenty of leaves to kick around and brilliant colours.

It got a little cloudier

Looking over McGill University to downtown

We spent a fair bit of time riding near water – either along canals or over the river.  Montreal was the biggest industrial centre in the country until surpassed by Toronto in the second half of the twenty-century – strangely, I always find old silos & other industrial relics fascinating. As I write that, I realise that is a little weird – but think of the hundreds of people that used to work there making all sorts of things.



We went downtown for a little while, but I wasn’t overly impressed as it was sort of European, but not properly so.  The neighbourhoods were much more fun – so we walked back to where Jane stayed last time & found a great hot chocolate & more cakes.  We returned to the same cafe for dinner – I got to have my poutine & it lived up to all expectations; I eat more meals without meat that I ever used to.  I’m not sure this one really counted as it was probably so full of fat & such artery-clogging ingredients.

We worked out we’d biked & walked over forty kilometres the day before (just as well with all the food), so it was a little slower start on Sunday.  With still some of our twenty-hours left on the Bixi bikes, we headed off to the botanical gardens in the autumn crispness.  There were some cool lanterns in the Chinese Garden – although I suspect they are better at night.  I narrowly avoided being eaten by a tiger.

There were a few bugs too

Up much too early, the Montreal stay was over as I dropped Jane off at the airport for her to depart to her new life as an optometrist (that bit’s not new) in small town Nova Scotia. It’s not really far to the border & I was gone from Canada again by eight o’clock.

I had no idea that I’d enjoy Montreal so much – but I fear if stayed longer I’d eat well too much and put back on all the weight I lost over summer, plus some more. The whole time I was in Montreal however I did find something very disconcerting about it. It’s so obviously North American with American cars, big wide streets laid out on a grid, Canadian brands and so on – but all the signs & speech is in French, everyone’s better dressed & the food so good, it feels continental. It’s very difficult trying to reconcile all this – will people get upset if I just assume they speak English (most seem to be bilingual)? Annoyingly, the rest of Canada seems to make an effort at being bilingual with their signs, but you get to Quebec & there is next to English on the major signs – that seems a little rude, so I suppose that fits in well.

Anyway, Montreal – well worth a visit for a few days at least, if not more.