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07 February 2013

Bike navigation in Athens

Still biking on, times are getting better

So I've been biking to and from the office for one and a half weeks now. Not every day, last week I made the trip 3 times, this week not even as many yet. Still I already got totally used to it. I developed a bit of a routine procedure. I check the route before I leave on the computer (in detail in the beginning, more loosely now), sometimes making adjustments or trying out new routes. I then transfer the route to my phone (manually, the version of navigation software on my phone doesn't sync).

Neither the Nokia navigation nor google's maps navigation have a "bike mode" in Athens. So the routes that these two suggest always take the biggest roads they can find. I counter by setting strategic waypoints that force the route to more bike friendly small roads. It works ok mostly, but it's not yet totally bike friendly. For one thing the notion of uphill is totally lost on the software. Due to Athens being a maze of one way streets, the both halves of my ride take different routes, and in the one direction I end up with some lousy steep uphills to climb. I guess with time I will map around them as good as I can.

I also skip navigation for the last bit of my trip to the office, where both navigation systems insist on putting me on a big and extra aggressive piece of road. So I end the navigation route early, because at that point I know my way myself anyway. For the most part of the ride, I place the phone with voice navigation turned on to almost full volume in a sweater pocket. I don't see the display, but I get the voice instructions (and I guess it must be funny for bystanders to see this guy drive by with a voice blaring to "turn left after 200 meters"). I've been used to using the nokia maps navigation like that for driving a car too and I consider it much safer than trying to look at the display while driving. I expect that over time I'll get to know my route better, so I won't need the GPS any more for navigation.

The other thing I use the GPS phone is to track my ride and my times. I'm using a sports tracker software that shows me afterwards on the computer my times and where I rode on a map. It's interesting. It also makes me want to ride faster, which isn't necessarily a good thing. I have this tendency to wanting to ride fast on a bicycle anyway and arriving tired and sweaty isn't always the best thing. In any case, my fastest times have come down to 46 minutes, which makes it about half the time of the average that I plan for when I take the public transport. Not bad at all.

Posted by betabug at 23:29 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)
13 February 2013

Bike in Rain and Metro

Come rain or shine, another bicycle post, hope you won't get bored
The bike in the Metro

This morning, after doing some work at home, I decided it would be a good day to ride the bicycle to go to the office. Sure it looked dark and cloudy outside, sure the weather report talked about rain, sure it had already rained, but... it was only some sprinkling. The bike has fenders, good brakes, lights, what could possibly go wrong? I started well enough, at first driving very carefully, until I noticed that the tires have a bit of profile and work really well in the rain. Then I pressed on some more. When I was about the distance away that makes you not wanting to turn around any more, the heavy rain started.

I went on. It started to pour more and more. I was starting to get totally soaked, except where my upper body was covered by the nylon windbreaker. I decided that I would put the bike into the Metro, to avoid a part of the trip that would take me either on big roads with cars (which will be more stuck than usual in the rain) or through small streets with multiple steap uphills. Good plan, but even up to the Metro, it was pouring on, and what's worse, large parts of the road turned into rivers. My feet were soaked by the water splashing up when I was crossing deeper ravines. It was slightly less agreeable than my previous bike rides.

Now in Athens it used to be that bikes weren't allowed in the Metro lines 2 and 3 (and there were some restrictions on line 1 too). Now you can take your bike into the Metro and put it into the first or last coach, in the outermost door. Up to two bikes per coach. No other bikes were riding with me today. A few days ago I had seen a guy with the bicycle in the Metro, taking it slowly, and I had thought: Since you gain on a big part of your trip using the Metro, this guy does it right. So I followed his example and took it easy to get in and out of the station and train. Relax.

When I came out of the station I had hoped that the rain would have let up a bit, but no such luck. I thought about waiting a bit, but then decided that I couldn't get any more soaked, so might as well go for it. When I arrived at the office, I changed into dry (and clean clothes) and warmed myself up. It wasn't the most clever idea to drive off into the rain, but having a change of clothes and a warm place at the end helps to amend things.

Posted by betabug at 22:12 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)
14 February 2013

Sleeping in the Snow

A soft, white blanket
Waking up in the snow

Last weekend I was out hiking with the folks from the Krystallis Mountain club. The plan was to go to the peak of Mount Taygettus, but that didn't happen. There was way too much snow, and since there was a layer of iced over snow two weeks old underneath the fresh snow, the risk of avalanches was too high. In fact, on the way up to the hut, while safe inside the woods, we heard the rumble of what I presume must have been an avalanche.

It snowed all the way up, small, hard flakes. Powder snow that was easy to tread, and not yet so deep as to be tiresome. All in all a good time. Arriving at the hut, we were welcomed by the people from the Spartan mountain club. We had a nice evening there, with some simple food and lots of laughter and stories. When I started to feel tired, I packed up my things and... went outside into the snow to sleep.

I had brought my norwegian sleeping bag, a goretex biwi bag (which the salesman told me would last two years or so and that was more than 20 years ago), and a borrowed hiking mattress. I stomped through the fresh snow to a nearby tree and lay out my bed. I also had a nylon rain poncho, which I tied to the tree, to fend off a bit of the snow that was still falling thick. That didn't work out so well, since I had nowhere to tie it to at the other end, so it would more annoy me from flapping around in the occasional wind gusts. In the end I rolled it around the bag with my shoes and give them a bit more protection. Dry feet in the morning are a good thing too. After unfolding the mattress, the biwi bag, stuffing in the sleeping bag, taking off my shoes without stepping into the snow with socks only and finally getting into bed and taking off my jacket, laying it under my head as a cushion, I had turned from tired and sleepy to wide awake again. So I was lying there, contemplating how I would sleep in the cold. I would guess the temperature to have been about -3C. The first result was that my feet who were quite frozen from the cold floor in the hut started to warm up and feel cozy again. Good start.

More of a problem was the snow that kept blowing into the opening of the biwi bag over my face. As I had given up on the ponche "roof", I decided to close the biwi's zip. That's always a bit claustrophobic, but I'd done it before and it was ok. Turns out either something had changed in all those years with the goretex, or else I hadn't had it closed for so long. After a while I was getting short of breath. I kept waking up breathing rapidly and having to open the zip. Each time I got in a good portion of snow. In the end I opened a tiny "hole" in the zip, to the side that was most away from the blowing snow. (Update: after further thinking I now guess that the problem was that the pores of the goretex were closed by frozen water, so the air wasn't getting through any more.)

I heard the hard snow "clicking" on the biwi bag all night. When it stopped snowing for some time, the snow from my tree would start to fall down. I liked that sound. Then the wind would pick up again, throwing the nylon poncho around and blowing more snow over me.

The snow was also much softer to sleep on than the hard ground when it's dry. The problem was that the snow got inbetween the biwi bag and the mattress, and the mattress froze over. It started to got cold from below me. My feet and the top side of me were perfectly warm. Even my head was warm, despite the sleeping bag around the opening being all wet from the snow that had blown in. The sleeping bag held up very well, none of that humitidy reached me. That's one point for synthetic sleeping bags (you carry that in extra weight compared to a down sleeping bag though). The cold from below had me worried a bit, but then I knew that the night wouldn't be that long. I guess the next time I'll try to put the mattress inside the biwi bag.

Despite those troubles, I had a good rest. I woke up a lot, but I also had long stretches of relaxed sleep. I did feel refreshed and not tired at all in the morning. I had a good time with my little adventure. Obviously in the morning I praised the comfort of being next to the hut. I could just get out and drag the whole mess of sleeping bag, biwi, and mattress to the hut, to let it thaw and dry out a bit in the entrance room, while I had some breakfast myself. Not the same thing if you're on a hike and have to do an emergency bivouac and having to pack up while in the midst of fresh snow and more snow falling on you. I guess it's a good idea to give this kind of thing a try at a place and time when you can bang on the door of the hut and get inside if anything goes wrong.

So, the next day, instead of going to the peak, we went on a small excursion on the E4 hiking path near the hut, well in the protective forest. Plenty of snow, with the sun coming through the clouds again. Took some pictures too, this was a cool weekend hike.

Picture by Rika Krithara

Posted by betabug at 20:26 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)
22 February 2013

Impressive Thunderstorm

Dust too

Woke up this morning to pouring rain and a thunderstorm. As I stayed in bed for a while to listen to it, I noticed a constant rumbling. The rolling of the thunder didn't stop. It's been like that for hours now, which is quite impressive. Obviously the streets have turned into rivers around here and the neighbor's garden patch behind the house has turned into a flood area. Sometimes we see lightning close to the house, sometimes it's further off. Maybe the storm is "stuck" in the Ymittos mountains.

What's more, apparently there is Sahara dust in the air again, the sky looks yellowish. I tried to take a picture with the digicam, but the stupid automatic "balances" the yellow tint out and gives me a white sky.

Posted by betabug at 09:55 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)
23 February 2013

Critical Mass

Freeday Ride to Keratsini

Now that I have a bicycle, obviously it's time to finally take part in the Critical Mass ride here in Athens (where it's called "Freeday" and is held every Friday night, with the exception of August). People assemble outside the Thisio subway station at 21:30, where the route is going is announced on the evening before (on f*book, which I totally disagree with, and on the site). I was there the first time, didn't know anybody and had a great time. The ride was taking us to Keratsini, an industrial area near Piraeus.

It had rained a lot on this Friday, but the weather report had claimed that after noon the rain should stop. Ha! When I rode to the center, the rain started again, just as I had decided not to take the metro. It wasn't the full on assault as in the morning, but it made the evening's ride look suspect to me. Thing is, I don't have proper rain gear since, wtf, I live in a place where we are supposed to get more than 300 days of sunshine a year! So I was at home and expecting not to go, when the sky cleared totally around 8 in the evening. Off I was, at 9:30 in Thisio and... waiting. We left a while later and I had almost gotten cold, but it was well worth it.

We went on Piraeus Street to Omonia, rounded the square once and then drove off back in direction to Pireaus. Being in a group of about a 100 bicycles (my totally uneducated guess), going around Omonia, up Agiou Konstantinou and in the Process blocking all traffic there, it was wonderful. The streets got quiet around us. Lots of bicycle bells to be heard. I was riding about in the center of the mass, occasionally looking back just to enjoy the view of the riders. I guess this is where the name "Critical Mass" comes from. When I'm alone in traffic, it's always me stepping back. Car drivers tend to look out for me, but much more I have to look out for myself. But put 100 riders or more on the road, and the thing turns. Not only does it give us an open road for the night, but it puts up a signal too: there are cyclists even in this city.

We kept on riding at a very slow and easy pace (my gps said we had an average speed of 11.7 km/h). I felt like I was coasting all of the time, with only an occasional push on the pedal. It actually felt as if I was coasting even on the few uphills. (Upon returning home, my legs were far from being tired, but my back told me that a bicycle with a more upright position would be nice for rides like these.) Around me a lot of people knew each other well and/or were there in small groups. Lots of talking and laughing. I didn't mind riding by myself, enjoying the quiet and easy ride, leaving the route and coping with traffic to the others. It was like a sightseeing tour on bicycle. In fact I knew a lot of places from old times down there, so often I played the "guess the place" game with myself.

We made a tour of the Piraeus harbor (saying hello to the big ferry boats that I will be hopefully soon be a passenger on again), then entered even more industrial areas till we stopped for a break in a small park in Keratsini, with a view on some industrial harbor installations, oil tanks, all that nice stuff. This is still Athens, so on the back of the park there were apartment buildings with people living there. After the break we rode back, on a different route. The end point is again Thissio, but I broke off a little bit earlier to take a directer route to my place. I had ridden 3 hours (not counting the break and the ride to get to Thisio). This really was an enjoyable experience, I would suggest it to anybody who wants to see more of Athens on bicycle, without having to slalom through traffic.

Posted by betabug at 11:50 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)