Biking in Bulgaria: Bansko and Pirin

Biking in Bulgaria

In my previous posting I discussed (very briefly) the surprising lack of bicycles in Sofia.  Now lets continue with something more uplifting and interesting – going to Southwest Bulgaria – the town of Bansko, and the Pirin National Park.  Why go there – well in only a few words – beautiful scenery (as you will be able to tell from the photos below), great hiking, and of course the opportunity to actually do mountain biking.

Bansko is located approximately two and a half hour drive from the Sofia international airport.  You also have the option of taking a bus as well as a shuttle which could be organized by many of the hotels in town.  Here is a map of the region in Bulgaria – Sofia and Bansko – to give you a relative idea

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I will skip all the intricacies of driving in Bulgaria – if you have not done it or do not want to gain that experience, your safe bet is the bus or shuttle services offered.   Not a bad idea overall…

Now, about the mountain biking in Bansko.   For that you have many options and things to consider.

  • Equipment:
    • Option 1: check with your hotel – do they offer bikes as part of the package and/or do they rent bikes.   In either way, you will need to find out also the options for helmets.   I have to assume you have planned ahead and brought your biking shorts :-), gloves, water bottle…
    • Yes !  Water bottle is important!  Why?   The climate in Bulgaria in the summer is hot and dry.   You will be in the mountains and having the water bottle will be very much essential – or you may have issues…
    • Option 2:  Rent the bike(s) from a local shop – there are plenty in the town.  I did not use that option — Option 1 above was our solution – so cannot recommend a rental place but I am sure your hotel can do that for you.
  • Places for biking:
    • There are certainly a lot of them in the area.  As a matter of fact – one option for those of you who may want to take it easy – is just to jump on the bike and explore Bansko – the town.  I will post on that in a separate article later.
    • Another simple option to consider is to use the gondola lift from the edge of town (southern tip of the town) to the area called Banderishki Poliani – that is the end of the Gondola Lift line and proceed from there on the asphalt road all the way back into Bansko.   A great and exhilarating trip!   All downhill, all at pretty fast speed…!
    • The one other option to consider is the trail from Banderishki Poliani to Banderica Challet.  Here is a collage of a map and some photos from that trail:

Mountain-Biking-Bulgaria-Pirin

This is the trail we took and enjoyed.  Here are some more photos, the beauty of the place is a driver enough to consider exploring – no matter whether on foot or on a bike.   Enjoy!

Bulgaria-Biking-Hiking-Pirin

Pirin Mountain, Bulgaria

Bulgaria-Pirin-Trail

Pirin Mountain, Bulgaria

Biking in Bulgaria: Sofia

Bulgaria-SofiaMy family and I traveled to Bulgaria recently.   I will be publishing additional piece on our experience in the Pirin mountain separately later over the weekend, but in the mean time wanted to share my views on cycling in the capital – Sofia as this is something that has been bothering me for several years.

Bulgaria is a member of the EU.  Having said that, your visions of a glitzy European capital, with posh boutique stores etc. is…well, misplaced.  The country and its capital is still very much in a stage of development, and the standard of living is not high at all.  Here are some stats on the country’s economic indicators and recent assessment.

That economic picture is then combined with some additional factors – like price of gasoline and/or diesel fuel, and you have a situation that should drive huge demand for bicycle usage.

Well, not so fast!  While the incomes and disposable funds across the population of the country and/or Sofia is not high, the usage of bicycles is abysmally low.

From the moment you get out of the airport and get on a taxi, metro, bus….you are thrown in the mess of cars and especially in rush hour – you start wondering – how come?

Given that congestion and overall general aggressiveness of drivers, I would strongly discourage you take on biking in the city.  At the same time, I wish there was a way to start a petition across the people living in the city – to drive the usage of bikes much higher….

I have been in many European cities and in most of them you see tons of bicycle usage and as a result incredible number of benefits – including MUCH safer streets from standpoint of overall pedestrian, bicycle, and overall traffic.

Let me know with your feedback and recommendations on how to address this big issue for this small country…!

Apple Watch – Incredible Postings Out on the Web

Exercising with Apple WatchOver the last month or so I have been paying attention to the various Web sites and postings related to the recently release Apple Watch.  It is interesting to observe, read and listen to the incredible level of noise out there – especially the large number of very loud voices thrashing the product.

I am surprised to notice that even the biking community – which I thought has traditionally been a whole lot more progressive and receptive of new ideas and technologies – is extremely polarized on the topic of the usefulness of the Apple Watch.  The opinions range from extremely negative to very positive….which really highlights several things:

  • Too many people – even those considering themselves progressive and innovative really resist change!  How else but by experimenting with new products will any new technology, product concept or idea, will survive and develop….?
  • For those of you who do not agree with the bullet above – think of the Apple Newton… It was 1992 (approximately) when the product came out and failed shortly after that.  Yes, it failed badly – but 10 years later the Palm Pilot was all the rage, and another 10- years later various smart connected devices rule the product space and have caused the demise of the PC industry…..
  • Back to the Apple Watch – if you are on your bike and exploring a new area of town or you are in a new place all together, turn on the Apple iPhone maps on and your Watch becomes a VERY handy navigation device – you have to experience to believe what I am saying – the Watch provides very intuitive navigation hints and turn by turn directions.   It is one of the best use cases so far !!! (in my opinion)

    

In a few words – we have to fail often in order to succeed !!!

Apple Watch and Biking

Apple Watch on an ExerciseApple Watch – why am I writing about it on a biking blog?  Well, very simple – it is a nifty gadget that actually, I believe, can be a useful addition to the gear for your bike rides.

Why?  OK, not a bad and a very valid question.  What are the key features of this watch that can make it useful to the biking community…?

 

So let’s go ahead and review how the Apple Watch behaved and performed on a mixed road and mountain bike tracks:

  • First of all – the watch is highly intuitive – I promise you, you will not need to mess with its setup or do much to get it going – just put it on your wrist (once it is all charged up and paired with your phone)
  • With regards to biking, it comes preconfigured with the “Workout” application – native to the package of OS and actually an easy to use application.
  • There are only some minor issues with the watch and the “Workout” application
    1. It does not have the ability to distinguish between road and mountain bike
    2. When I read the calories – both in the middle of a hour long ride and towards the end – the count was about 1/2 of that of the application running on my iPhone – it looked like the Workout application is calibrated for a road ride – with a road bike.
    3. There was no way to show more than one screen to the front face of the watch – so in order for you to see calories, time, distance – you had to move between screens manually – no way to see an aggregate screen of information

Apple-Watch- Test-Ride

Apple-Watch-ExercisingExercising with Apple WatchI do not recommend you move between screens while you bike especially if you are on the single track…you will most likely have trouble doing both.  Just let the watch do its tracking and look at the summary stats at the end of your ride or if you stop for a short break.

In summary, the application is not bad – it allows you to ride with the watch and get basic stats and as long as your ride is not going overboard time wise – i.e. you stay within a reasonable couple of hours on your bike, your watch battery will be good as well…

Overall, I would recommend the Apple Watch – and not only because I have one :-) but because I see the useful side of it – and guess what !!! This Fall new OS is coming with some additional features.  Apple has started hinting about those on their Web site…

Bold Cycles : Innovative Mountain Bike Company

Bold-CyclesBold Cycles

Just when you thought that the world of mountain bike designers, manufacturers and brands is getting saturated – here comes another, brand new, actually startup company – Bold Cycles.

The company offers a very innovative approach to building a fully suspended mountain bikes with frames that allow us to use both 29-inch and 27.5-inch wheels.  The main innovation though is that the rear shock has been entirely integrated in the frame / seat post tube.  I have rarely ridden on a bike with rear suspension – why?  I prefer the hardtail bikes as they provide a whole lot more control and less fish tailing on a trail.  The rear suspension in my opinion adds to the soft feel / mushy feel and less feel of control on most trails.  Now with the integrated rear shock and the more precise timing of how forces are distributed in the rear part of the bike – the company promises a better experience.

Bold-CyclesBold Cycles promises both stiffness and 5-inch / 130mm travel suspension which certainly should add to our comfort of going over obstacles.

Additionally, the enclosure of the shock should provide for protection against dirt and stones – with only one question from me — NOT SURE HOW YOU WOULD GET ACCESS TO THE SHOCK FOR MAINTENANCE AND CLEAN-UP.

Another aspect to highlight is that shift cables and the rear brake line are internally routed – a nice touch overall.

Bold-Cycles

 

 

Bicycles and City Living

I have been paying attention to bicycle infrastructure in cities ever since I started using a bike in Phoenix, AZ.  In reality I became convinced that bikes have a future in big and small cities alike in the late 1980s while living in Beijing and Shanghai, China.  The bicycles were indispensable and actually provided for a much faster mode of transportation than cars or buses during the day due to the sheer number of people on the streets and the resulting congestion.

Naturally, I was very curious when I saw the recent survey and rankings of the best / bicycle friendliest cities in the world, and was even more surprised to find for a first time a US city in the top 20!!!  Minneapolis is ranked #18 in the 2015 list, which is shown below – leveraging the link provided Copenhagenize Design

Bike Friendly Cities1. [2] COPENHAGEN
2. [1] AMSTERDAM
3. [3] UTRECHT
4. [NEW] STRASBOURG
5. [8] EINDHOVEN
6. [9] MALMÖ
7. [6] NANTES
8. [5] BORDEAUX
9. [7] ANTWERP: follow this link for more information…
10. [4] SEVILLE
11. [17] BARCELONA
12. [10] BERLIN: We have our own write ups for the new Berlin…
13. [NEW] LJUBLJANA
14. [NEW] BUENOS AIRES
15. [11] DUBLIN
16. [NEW] VIENNA
17. [19] PARIS
18. [NEW] MINNEAPOLIS
19. [20] HAMBURG
20. [14] MONTRÉAL

The ranking for 2015 and several previous years is here

Now, I am sure you can observe this in the list above – but isn’t it strikingly surprising that a large number of the best cities for bikes are also cities located in very cold climates. And “yes” -have observed in Finland, in Denmark, people continuing riding their bikes even in the cold months of the snow covered roads

Antwerp Bicycle

Mountain Bike Innovations That Matter

Lately, I have been wondering – when would some of the problems we as mountain bikers discover, make it into production units of the various manufacturers.  So, I decided to add some ideas and also identify what are the items that turns out have been developed as new capabilities on mountain bikes.  Here we go:

Mountain-Bike-Front-ShockShock Absorber and Bike Frame Stiffness: (image courtesy of REI.com)

  • The front fork and shock absorber can be actually too responsive and make climbing up a hill less efficient as some of the force the rider generates – especially if you stand up on the pedals, gets dampened by the front shock.
  • The solution:CUSTOM BRAIN FORKS (as labeled by Specialized) – the fork senses the difference between actual bumps and pedaling force, using an inertia valve and oil flow to regulate suspension. When you stand to accelerate, the fork immediately stiffens up, eliminating “bob” motion. But, when taking a hit from a rock or a root, the fork is allowed to compress accordingly

29-er-mountain-bike29er – Big Wheels and Great Performance on the Trail and on the Cross-Country Road:

  • Those 29-inch wheels just eat up the trails and the road.  You get a great performance, increase in comfort and stability and a very good way to go over those obstacles as you ride.  Additional benefit (at least per what I have observed) – you can use a hardtail bike with 29-inch wheels with similar comfort to fully suspended 26-inch one….I welcome your feedback on that one…

Tools-Support-Mountain-BikeStorage and Tools:

  • SWAT: An acronym for Storage, Water, Air and Tools – Specialized came up with the approach for getting all of us well prepared for all those eventualities – integrating a storage space on the mountain bike frame.  Simple but cool and very helpful!

 

Aluminum-FrameFrame Alloys:

  • I know that Carbon is all the rage as a way to make the frames stiff and the bike ride even more controlled – BUT the $$$ cost of those carbon frames is pretty high as well as you get the luxury of changing the frame once you hit that big boulder on the trail…
  • Enters the friendly and nice on the wallet Aluminum alloy – what a great option!  The Aluminum alloy frames have been around for a while but they continue to be important aspect of a great mountain bike.  Designers in all top gear mountain bike companies have figured out the precise approach to eliminating excess material from the points in the frames that do not contribute to stiffness and strength and applying new techniques to welding to increase the strength of the overall frames.  I have seen that described in the frame designs of most leading designs.
  • All that allows us the users to buy the bikes with Aluminum frames and expect a great performance overall.

Father’s Day Gifts for the Biking Crowd

Well folks – that is it – I have succumbed to commercial influence too :-)  But on a more serious and practical side of things, if you are a Dad and your loved ones are planning to surprise you with a gift this Father’s Day — you may want to suggest to them some ideas to consider:

  • In the spirit of saving the environment, you may go buy a bottle of beer while riding you bike right?  Then there are the fancy new breweries that provide refills in your growler… So here is a gift that will provide you with that and more

    

  • Sunglasses:  Especially for those that live in the sunny Southwest – sunglasses can be very useful on your bike rides

    

  • Sports watch – I am partial to the Apple iWatch but of course there are others – e.g. the FitBit Surge

   
Here is a review of the FitBit Surge on-line

  • Waterproof under the seat bag:  This is something I find really useful on most of my bike rides.  The bag could be a nice protective space for electronics also if the big rain comes while you are on the trail.  Can carry also your wallet

  

Hopefully these ideas will be helpful for a good choice of a gift for your friend or Dad.

Drivetrain Options and Selection for a Mountain Bike

Drivetrain: Which one is for you…

Over the last couple of years I have been seeing more and more mountain bikes come with a range of options when it comes to the drivetrain.  As mountain biking has become more and more popular, innovation associated with the equipment has started to increase.

This posting is hopefully going to help you distinguish between the overwhelming options and guide you in the process of drivetrain selection.

OK, so what are the options?

  • Three chain rings crankset:  This is probably the configuration that has been the most widely used until a couple of years ago. It allows you the widest selection of gears and the ability to attack (successfully I may add) pretty much any terrain out there.  What are its benefits:
    1. You have the ability to reach great speeds when you leverage the outermost 3rd ring on the crank assembly and the smallest (right most) cog wheels on the cassette;   Riding my X-Caliber Gary Fisher G2 29er in the highest possible gear and of course downhill on asphalt road,  I have been able to reach speed of 43-miles/per hour !
    2. With the same equipment, you can leverage the low gears: small front cogwheel and large cog wheels of the cassette, you can now climb a steep road or mountain trail and be able to stay on the bike;

High-range-of-gears

 

 

For the cassette – I think the 10-speed Shimano HG62 offers close ratio gearing allowing for a more efficient use of energy through finer cadence control

 

  • Double Crankset also noted as 2×10 in the bike specs:  these are the cranksets that are based on two chain rings.  In the last 2 years I see increasing number of bikes with this configuration.  The claim from the manufacturers is that the 2×10 speed drivetrain offers noticeably reduced weight, simpler front shifting, and a small compromise on overall gear range.  Now that there are options at most price levels, a 2x drivetrain would be a great choice for anyone looking to shed some weight from their bike without giving up much in terms of versatility
  • Finally, enters the Single:  Also referred to as the 1×11:  This is supposed to give you super light-weight and shifting simplicity.  That combined still with a full range of gears.   That I am not so sure – how is it being accomplished – given the wheel… Initially the 1×11 had a problem with the ability to retain control over the chain.  That however changed recently with the higher precision machined chain ring teeth – which allow for better chain control (AND OF COURSE COST A WHOLE LOT MORE)

SRAM-XX1-1x11

 

I am able to give a view of this option as well as my spouse’s bike (which we purchased last summer came with a 2×10 drivetrain and was heavily advertised by the specialist who was helping us select the bike.  On a recent ride I swapped bikes with my wife and experienced riding hers with the 2×10 configuation – long story short – the three chain ring options is a hands down winner. Why?  Because of the wide range of gears it enables.   I am able to reach much higher speeds when using the largest of the three rings and climb much more efficiently and steeper inclines – when using the small chain ring.

Both of our bikes have a cassette with 10-speed 11-36 gearing.  Hence the difference is in the crankset.

My overall recommendation – if you can find the bike with the three chain rings on the crankset – go with it.  It will give you the widest range of control in your speed and biking.

Biking With iPhone 6 Plus In The Rain

Well folks I have yet one more update on biking with your iPhone 6 Plus in the rain.  This time around my setup survived a fairly heavy rain part of the rainiest May in the history of Austin.  I knew as I started the bike ride – in a very muddy and muggy weather — that I will most likely be caught in a rain at some point during the ride.

Nevertheless, I was determined to test the capability of my case.   In summary, I must report, the TigraSport did well — the phone survived just fine both the rain and the sputtering of mud from the trail and the tires of my mountain bike.

Here are photos from the aftermath – as I pulled into my driveway after the bike ride

Biking with iPhone 6 Plus

iPhone 6 Plus

 

 

 

 

 

iPhone 6 Plus Case

 

 

 

 

 

 

Right now the weather outside is fine – rain coming later this afternoon – so time for my next ride….

 

Here are links to earlier postings on this topic