Saturday, September 22, 2012

Alps (and L'Avenir)

Had a wonderful trip to French Alps, August 26-September 6, 2012. I wanted to recount for fun and to share, so others can enjoy. My mission was tagged to watch Nathan compete in the Tour de L'Avenir, a prestigious race for under-23 cyclists, the 'baby' Tour de France. The race was great, and drove my exploration of places I wouldn't have seen. But my focus was to enjoy and relax, and that I did. This part of the world is among the most stunning I've seen.

Flew overnight from Washington Dulles to Geneva via Amsterdam on KLM. On arriving Monday, drove a back way to my lodging in Valloire. My path took me 26 Km up the Col de la Madeleine, a famous stretch for the Tour de France. On Monday, the hills were green, gold and granite. Several days later, on Friday, August 31, the pass was coated with snow (below), and the Tour de L'Avenir stage over the Col had to be re-routed. Nasty for August!

The bike race week was mostly rain (or snow), but for me it was mellow. I lodged at a ski hotel in the smallish village of Valloire (about 12 restaurants). Slept in a lot, ate breakfast at patisseries, hiked or biked 3 or more hours every day, soaked in incredible scenery, and caught-up with my son and his teammates as I could.

The mountains and hills in the Alps are gorgeous, special light, verdant, awesome ... many adjectives fit. I liked several hikes I took in or after light rains, like a 12 Km trek about Lac des Cerces, the Col, and other features (top pic, below). Or the crags above Col de la Colombiere, another TdF landmark (middle pic). It was all great and sublime, stretching the lungs and, for me, soothing the soul. After the hike or bike (bottom pic), I'd settle into a nap, a great meal, and wine or beer. Surprising thing, except for the airfare, it wasn't too expensive ... my lodging was usually under 100 Euros, and meals weren't too pricey ... particularly in the rural areas.

After the bike race first week, I saw my son and his teammates off to Belgium (with a shopping bag of homemade cookies and ice cream), shifted gears and headed to Chamonix for a few days. Chamonix is at the base of Mont Blanc, and a hiker's / extreme sport aficionado's paradise. Everyone is rightly decked out for an Eddie Bauer or Yves Sant Laurent ad, it seems. I enjoyed my time immensely. Comfortable hotel, off the main square, hiked 3 to 7 hours each day (did some major pain, 5,000' descending off the massif). Hiked main routes, bookended by cafes and cold drinks, high altitude sun (up to 12,500') ... astounding views. I could spend a month in Chamonix and be half finished.

That said, my favorite place was an extraordinarily comfortable and nicely appointed country chalet, in Les Plens, above Le Grand Bornand (which, itself, is a bit east of Annecy). I was only here two nights / three days, but this was so comfortable, I could have spent my entire trip here (and drove to the race locales, Mont Blanc, etc.). I slept 11-12 hours, took long baths, and mountain biked or hiked to great satisfaction ... ate big meals (pizza like you've never had, local beer, and Genepi digestif), tuned in bike race stages ... repeat ... repeat ... repeat ... When things move to stress back in good old DC, I look over pics of these mountains, and the chalet, and settle back to what is, what will be ... so nice.

Resources listed below. Allez!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Elk River

Time to go off-grid, about literally. Earlier this week, drove down to Slatyfork, West Virginia, for a few days rest, mountain biking, reading, photography, the like. My job's been intense, with a few 24x7 pinches.

My wife and I are pretty active, support bike racing with our boys. Care will do one trip -- Nationals in Georgia ... Cascade in Oregon, -- and I'll do another -- Battenkill in New York ... New Mexico's Gila (and many more ...) ... We flip dog-sitting with soigneur duty ... sometimes we do joint ventures, like Vermont's Green Mountain, which is fun, the best ...

But, it can be haphazard and tiring. This brief getaway exceeds expectations. Lodging and dining at Elk River Inn is great. A comfy room, lounges, porches, farm fields, hot tub, in the midst of killer (road and mountain) bike rides, scenery and nature ... only $65 a night, private room and bath ... sumptuous dinner, fine wine extra ... $50 if you sleep in the farm house (shared bath, just fine ...) ... or your can camp along the Williams River or Tea Creek Campground, $5 or $10 / night ...

This sojourn I've bootstrapped some fitness work, bike riding each day 3+ hours. Since new job, I haven't been able to ride as much. I've thickened. I also delight in the opportunity to read freely, take pictures, and sleep. I found great beauty at the Cranberry Wilderness Botanical Area.

As to 'off-grid', this is real: because the area is near the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, we're in a 13,000 square mile National Radio Quiet Zone. To better hear the aliens, and catch the detail of distant exploding nebulae ... no cell phone towers in southeastern WV ... I carry my Spot emergency tracker, should the unforeseen root catapult my mountain bike towards infinity, deep in wilderness ...

Here are a few photo and resource links ... Gil and Mary Willis have a great program, only four hours from DC ... this is an easy, enjoyable escape.

Cranberry Wilderness, large arena of this adventure

Elk River 2012 photo gallery ... Wilson shots with pocket cam and a few SLR ...

Elk River Inn and Restaurant ... Gil and Mary Willis proprietors; also fly fishing, mountain biking, cross country skiing guides and support

West Virginia Mountain Bike Trails ... Trails marked Slatyfork, Richwood, Cranberry, Snowshoe ... are in the zone ... there are hundreds of rides in this area ... I only scratched the surface (using my mediocre riding skills ...) ...

There are many great road rides, also, which you can find using MapMyRide ...

While I only rode part of it, I like this beast ride from Elk River Inn, to the Scenic Byway (Rt 150), and back across Williams River Road through the fish hatchery to Edray ... lots of meaningful climbs, up to 4,500', down to 2,500' and back up again, all within 40 miles ... and great scenery ...

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Simple Photos

I like taking pictures because they capture things that are dramatic and meaningful in life. I've read a lot about photography -- I had my first darkroom when I was 10 in DC, about 42 years ago; a geeky high-school photo-clubber stinky with Dektol; went to the Nikon school with my father George when I was 12; and spent a lot of time thinking about F-stop, lens depth of field, bokeh, shutter speed, film granularity, camera/lens image quality, composition, background, and lighting. Sometimes this works nicely, as planned, other times it's just dumb luck. The shot above I saw and composed, kneeling in the mud in Addis Ababa. I got about 20 very good shots that day. The shot below I mostly hit it, applied a formula, and a guy rode into it.

Shooting bicycle criteriums for me is pretty formulaic. I don't use the pro-standard 70-200 F2.8L zoom sports lens, instead I use a high-end portrait lens, my 135 F2L (fixed focal length). It doesn't have the reach of the zoom, but it does a great job capturing faces and people's emotions. And it's a lot lighter. In a crit, you basically know the pattern and flow of the race, where the riders will be. I get as close as possible to the riders and then let them ride into the frame. (I sometimes get grazed by racers, but I haven't been hit or in a crash -- yet.)

I shoot at 1/1250 shutter speed for pros (and 1/800 or 1/1000 for slower categories and uphills), about F8 if the light will have it, and ISO 400 (sometimes 800 if it's darker). I use manual focus. Typically, I'll pick a mark on the pavement like a traffic stripe or a tar blob and focus on it very carefully. Then as a rider is about to ride through the mark, I'll hit the shutter and hopefully I'll capture a sharp image. While I have a good camera with lots of automated composition and focusing gizmos (e.g., sports mode), I generally don't use that.

That's the capture phase. Most of the work comes afterwards, post-processing on the computer. I spend a lot of time examining picture detail, sharpness, contrast and the like. I'll think about the shape of the picture (i.e., what rectangle) and work to crop the picture. For cycling, I like to have a sense of movement, so I often crop to 16x9 HDTV long-horizontal format, with action flowing one side to the other. Something along the lines of the rule of thirds for the center of attention.

There you have it.