Sunday, October 19, 2014

Cycling in Basel, Switzerland: slowUp Basel-Dreiland

Crossing the Rhine on a bike-pedestrian bridge

We were delighted to participate in slowUp Basel-Dreiland, a closed-road mass cycling event in the Basel area. 40 km of road closure through Basel and the surrounding area. The Route goes through Switzerland, France and Germany and crosses the Rhine river 5 times, and it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to see the area by bike and participate in a community event.

Yogurt feed by Roche campus in Basel

There are 14 slowUp event in different Swiss communities. Here is some information on the series: (english, with links to the main site info which is in german/french/italian).

Huningue, France
We hopped onto the route near our lodging in Basel. The route has three loops and we planned to do the whole thing, unless the forecasted rain was too heavy. Route map is here:
milk can stacking/climbing dexterity contest at the central festival
The route was incredibly varied: city riding in Basel, a festival area in the park (which included kids activities, food, sponsor tents, etc), riding in parks, farmland, small roads, large roads and bike paths and cobbled village roads, multiple Rhine river crossings (including once across the top of an interesting hydroelectric dam), riding through multiple villages in Swizerland, Germany and France, and also some less-interesting segments through industrial areas. The ride is extremely well-supported, with a rest station stocked with food samples, water, apple juice and a bike mechanic about every 5 km. Traffic-control and signage was impressive-- there were police or volunteers at every intersection with traffic, including traffic circles, and almost every turn was well-marked.
Despite the on-and-off rain, the ride was incredibly well attended, including tons of families with little kids on bikes, in trailers, trail-a-bikes, you name it. When the rain started, rain jackets and rain covers (for trailers) came out, and everyone just pedaled on. Impressive! The pace of the event is rather leisurely, with limited opportunities to ride hard due to the frequent rest-stops (where traffic slowed to a crawl) and choke-points like narrow bike paths or sharp turns. It took us about 5 1/2 hours for 45k of riding (with several stops at points of interest and rest areas). The route is fairly flat (by Strava, I got 650 feet of climbing over 45k), which is by design to make the route beginner and family friendly.
We felt very fortunate to participate in this event, which took us to area roads and communities that we wouldn't have otherwise discovered during our 6-week Basel trip. I loved going in and out of countries (Basel is at the border with France and Germany), and the different appearance of the different towns and areas along the route. Well done slowUp!
Some photos and impressions follow (due to the rain, my camera was out only intermittently, and I missed some shots due to riding bliss :) ie, didn't want to stop to take a photo). Photos are not in order.
The route went through farmland (in Germany at this point)
Cobbles coming over the Rhine river (between Rheinfelden, Germany, and Rheinfelden (Switzerland)
On the Rhine
Dan in Rheinfelden (Switzerland). The route loops through the town on cobbled roads, including a climb up through an old part of the city. Wet cobbles, baby!
Canal crossing. Bridges wait in a lock to get up to the lake above. The route later wound around the lake over a hydroelectric dam.

View of Basel from upriver
Heavy rain did not deter the riders (or as Dan said, whereby the Swiss demonstrate that they do not fear the weather).



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Cycling in Paris on velib

Ah Paris by bike
Dan and I spent the weekend in Paris a few weeks back, taking advantage of the spectacular TGV express trains to commute to Paris from our base in Basel. We spent Saturday walking around Paris, and I was itching to try out the Velib bikes.
Velib is Paris's public bike sharing system, which costs a remarkable Euro 1.70 for a one-day pass (some details below on how to use the system). With the pass, you can use any bike for free for 30 minutes. Additional fees apply if you keep the bike for longer than 30 minutes.
We started just outside our hotel, pictured above (mmm yummy bakery. we ate there every day). There was a large rack of velib bikes and after a little trial-and-error, we figured out how to enter our pin and select a bike. We were off!
First stop was the Arc de Triomph. I'd been there as a kid, but Dan was eager to see the finish of the Tour de France. We plotted a route from our hotel to the Arc on smaller streets. There wasn't very much traffic since it was Sunday and we had fun bumping up the cobbled streets towards the Arc. I was impressed with the bicycle infrastructure, which included bike lanes, turn lanes signed for bikes and separated bike lanes. Oh, and clever counterflow bike lanes on one-way streets.
We'd fantasized about sprinting on our Velibs at the Tour finish, but instead, I located a Velib dock with space for two bikes using the Velib app and we docked the bikes and walked around a bit. The app was incredibly useful to locate station with either bikes or spaces for docking bikes instead of trying to find one on our own.
Next, we headed across town to the Eiffel Tower. We'd been by the night before, but wanted to walk up the steps in the Tower. The ride over was fine, but we almost missed the 30 minute deadline because the closet station was full of bikes. Fortunately, the Velib system has a ton of stations, and using the app, we found another station with space just three blocks away.
We had fun climbing the stairs to the Tower, and bonus, there is no line for the stairs! It was a bit of a foggy day, but we still had a reasonable view.
Next stop: Centre Pompidou, to go to the contemporary art museum. This connection was a bit longer and included a segment along the Seine in the dedicated bus lane, which was signed as a bike lane. Surprisingly, this wasn't bad-- there was plenty of room for the busses to get by and the separated lane afforded some protection from the rest of the traffic. Not sure what this is like on a weekday when there is presumably heavier bike and bus traffic, but it was fine on Sunday.
We docked the bikes a few blocks from the Centre because we were running out of time on our free 30 minute window. Rather than pick up another bike, we just walked over to the museum. I'd been here during a family visit long ago, and I had vivid memories of the crazy Renzo Piano building.
After we got our fill of the museum, we plotted a course to the Jardin Luxembourg, via the Ile de Cite and the left bank area (more memories from the visit when I was a kid, where we stayed in the area). Dan had plotted a course through the maze of one-way streets, and as we got closer to the Jardin, we noticed bike route signs directing us to the Jardin. We dropped off the bikes and headed into the Jardin to look around and get a snack.
Our final leg took us back to our hotel via the Seine and the Eiffel Tower. We didn't make the 30 minute limit, but the charge for an additional 30 minutes is only 1 Euro, so we didn't sweat the overtime!

What an amazing day! We ended up with about 18 miles of riding on 7 different bikes. We made 5 stops during the day, and made most of our connections in 30 minutes. What a super way to spend a day in a wonderful city, going from activity to activity. I really can't recommend this enough for the cycling oriented tourist. The system was pretty easy to use, and the density of Velib stations made this a very practical way to get around and see the city.

I look forward to the day when the San Francisco bay area bike share (aka "BABS") system has sufficient density to make it a practical option for me. At the moment, I live and spend most of my time outside of the rather limited service areas. See Dan's blog for some comments on the density of Velib verse BABS:

A few remarks on using the system: the velib website has compehensive information in english ( You can purchase 1 or 7 day passes on the website, which I recommend for US tourist who do not have chipcards, as chipcards are required to purchase passes at the ticket machines at the Velib stations. (Most US credit cards do not have chips at the moment.) Write down your account number and PIN, as you will need it to remove the bikes from the station (annual pass holders have a card that they can swipe at the station, but you will need to enter your account number and PIN each time you remove a bike--see picture of the kiosk below). The instructions on the kiosk are straightforward for removing the bikes. Despite this, it took about 5 tries for me to get it to work the first time. Typing slowly on the keypad seemed to help. Returning the bikes is also straightforward, and it is easy to tell if you've docked the bikes properly - you do not need to check this at the kiosk to confirm that the bike is securely docket.

The velib app can be downloaded from itunes. It was useful for locating the stations, which tended to be hidden away on side streets. It also indicated how many empty docks or available bikes at each station. 

A comment on the condition of the bikes: the system is heavily used and some of the bikes were in need of maintenance. I had one bike with an almost flat tire, Dan had a bike that wouldn't shift and another bike where the seat post was slipping. We learned to inspect the bikes and try and pick out bikes that were in better condition.