Yearly Archives: 2013

Moon, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, and the ISS

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After a week of cycling, I am back again at the Mercator telescope, supervising a group of Belgian and Dutch master students while they are working on their observational projects. This is our second night, and we already saw a quite rare celestial conjunction. The picture above was taken with a FUJIFILM X100S camera set at f/2.8, at ISO 400, using an exposure time of 30 seconds. It shows the Moon and Venus towards the top left, the track of the International Space Station in the centre, and slightly hidden among the hundreds of stars, also Saturn and Mercury towards the lower right, just above the horizon. Use the finder chart here to identify them!

A crazy finish for this cycling season

I do not even know where to start… You might remember, that I crashed this year already two times on the racing bike (first almost breaking a newly purchased aero front wheel, then breaking a helmet and a special GPS mount) before we went to the USA. Soon after we came back, I participated in a very nice organised ride (accompanied by police motorcycles, so we did not have to stop at red lights, etc.), which ended abruptly after 100 kilometres, when my rear tire exploded. But it was not just a flat. The outer tire fell off the rim, so I had to brake scratching the edge of the rim, and when I came to a full stop I had to realise that the inner tube is stuck in and around – in truly unimaginable ways – the cassette and that the aforementioned outer tire has a 15 cm long opening in the middle… It did not take much time to realised that the situation was hopeless (since no person carries a spare outer tire with him), so I was already about to call Clio and ask her to come and pick me up, when a random Flandrien came to me from over the other side of the street. He told me, mostly in Dutch, that he has a tire, and I can take it. Then – while I was still in disbelief – he invited me inside, and it turned out that he had a fully equipped garage with all the possible bike parts and even a proper bike stand, just like the one I have. He gave me everything I needed to repair my wheel (a file to smoothen the horribly scratched, sharp edges of my rim, and the exact same brand and type of tire I just destroyed), which still took more than a half hour to accomplish. Since I had no cash on me, I asked him to give me the number of his bank account and reimbursed him for all the things he gave me.

But my misfortune was not over. Two weeks later while Clio was in Antwerp meeting up with a girlfriend for shopping, I went for a nice and easy afternoon ride. Just a day earlier, I did a big maintenance on the bike: cleaned it, rewired some brakes, changed the bottom bracket (for the first time in my life), installed new bar tape, trued my aero wheels (and even removed the decal stickers to make them look even slicker), etc. So there I was the next day, enjoying the silent (except for the sweet sound of the aero wheels slicing through the air) and smooth ride of my reborn bike the next day, when out of nowhere, I got a flat. Since recently I had gotten quite some experience in changing tubes, even before I came to a full stop I was already thinking: “ok, a 5 min break and we will back on track, no biggie”… But then when I started inspecting the front wheel to check if the flat did some damage to the outer tire too, I immediately noticed, that something was not right. And the shocking recognition came almost instantaneously: one side of the edge of the rim (which holds the outer tire in place normally) was completely broken, as if some previously hidden internal pressure or stress would have torn it away from the main body of the rim. It was probably some invisible damage from the crash earlier this year. It was unrepairable. Also, since Clio was not at home, I could not call her to come and pick me up, so accepting the situation, I started walking towards Leuven. I was in the middle of nowhere, with no buses or trains nearby, so there was not really another option. I was more or less 3 hours of walking from home… Luckily it was sunny, and relatively warm (for late September), so I did not have to worry about that, but it was still a long walk, especially in cycling shoes… After two hours, while I was already walking along the small channel which ends at the northern gates of Leuven, a guy picked me up and drove me home, saving me another hour of the cyclists’ walk of shame.

You might think this was the end of bad things, and now I will write about the nice rides I have been doing afterwards. But nope. On the next weekend, I was on my usual Sunday morning group ride, and everything went fine until the last 500 metres, where I managed to not concentrate enough for two seconds on a downhill (I took my eyes off the road for a jiffy), which was just enough to miss noticing a car coming to a full stop 50 metres in front of me… I guess it is needless to say, that I crashed into the rear of the car (travelling with around 30 km/h). Luckily (or because I had gathered quite some experience in crashing too recently) I managed to fall along the right hand side of the car while my bike bounced to the side, and land in a way that I got nothing worse than a few scratches… My bike was a bit less lucky: I immediately noticed that the replacement mount I had just installed a week ago broke into pieces, and that my front wheel got a bit untrue (this was the front wheel of the wheel-set from which the rear wheel got damaged in the “tire explosion incident” you might still remember from a few lines earlier).

Since I lost my trust in this wheel-set and I needed something trustworthy in a very short notice as I was about to leave to La Palma two days later, I decided to put on the wheels from Clio’s bike. But of course for that I had to change the cassette, the tires, and then fine tune the position of the brake pads again… Then I noticed that my nice carbon pedals also broke, so I had to put back the old (but still pretty good) ones. Now bear with me, we are on Monday afternoon, just two hours before I had to leave for my Dutch course, when I finally thought everything was ok, and I was about to start packing my suitcases. This is the point when shit happened again. And not the small kind of shit, but the big one. While doing a really last check on the bike, I found out that the chainrings (on the front) were seriously out of true (meaning: bent). I did not notice it while riding home after the accident because while riding using gears where the chain is near the middle of the cassette at the back, it did not result in anything noticeable. But as soon as you shifted towards the largest or smallest cogs, the chain started rubbing against the front derailleur. Since climbing on the Canary Islands means using the easiest gear, this was a huge problem, not to mention that riding a bent chainring will only bend it further… So, I guess I do not really need to stress that at this point I was on the edge of mental breakdown. A quick phone call with Clio made me feel a tiny bit better, but I was really about to just leave the bike as it was, and fly the next day without it (especially that I knew that the part I needed to replace is basically the most expensive part on the bike after the frame). But since this would have left me with nothing to do on La Palma for a week, I looked for a solution. I knew that there is only one bike shop near Leuven which is open on Mondays – of course the one which is furthest from us -, so I rode there. Unluckily the shop was just under renovation, but luckily the owners were there doing the works themselves, so at the end, they managed to get the crankset I needed from some other storage unit in the very back… After this, I still had to go to my Dutch course, which was really good for my nerves to calm down a bit. Then I arrived home at 10 on the evening, and after having something to eat (pizza!!!), I still had to pack all my stuff, then to make things even better, install the new crankset. It is not the easiest thing to do on a bike, and I had to set up my bike stand for it, so to cut it short, by the time I was done with everything it was 2 on the morning. And my taxi came at 3:30, so I had nothing more than an hour to sleep…

Surprisingly enough, I managed to get out of bed in time (although I remember vaguely Clio saying something about not try to sleep again after I killed the alarm), and everything went fine at the airport too. The flight was uneventful (and I managed to sleep another 2 hour pushing the total up to 3! – nope, not factorial tree, unluckily), and I also got to my hotel very quickly. My original plan was already a bigger ride for the afternoon, but thanks to the low amount of sleep I managed to accumulate, I had to opt for a quick and short training (after lunch in my favourite pizzeria). Even though I went for the most flat route possible, I had to overcome 750 metres of elevation gain over the course of only 42 kilometres. And finally it seemed like everything was working fine on my bike…

This miraculous state lasted till the next morning. I was in the middle of preparing for the first proper, long, epic ride, had my breakfast, put together all the energy bars and gels, started filling my bottles, etc. As one of the last action items, since I remembered from the previous day that my seat felt a bit too low, I wanted to raise the seat post a bit. While tightening back the seat post clamp, the threading broke in the clamp. I really could not believe this was happening… Probably all the fine-tuning of my seat height during the past years was too much for the thread, and it decided to finally give up… I really thought this was the end. I am always travelling with all the spare parts, spokes, tires, tubes, brakes, wires, everything, but who has a spare seat post clamp with him? But then again, I really had nothing to do, so I started sending around emails to all the bike shops I managed to find online, and also to the staff of the Mercator telescope asking if they could help me somehow (in driving me around, or in trying to ask around in Spanish)… After a few hours, I had a couple replies from shops on the other side of the island (so I already started looking up the bus schedules while preparing myself for another adventure), but also one of our engineers told that he could take me to a more nearby shop on the afternoon. At the end, this turned out to be the solution, and I managed to get a new seat post clamp for 3.5 (!) euros. Compared to the crankset which costed me 220 euros a few days earlier, it was really nothing, but no matter how inexpensive this part was, I still could not go cycling without it. At the end, the new seat post clamp did fit my bike, and this incident was – finally – really the last mishappening…

Of course with this half the day was lost again, so I could not do anything but go for a short ride similar to the day before. Although it was almost the same route, I had some excitement when a dog started to chase me while I was going up on a slight climb… Luckily, I was still faster uphills ;) Then things really turned around, and on Thursday and Saturday, I managed to do two really nice, hard and epic rides. On Thursday I did a circle through the northeast of the island, climbed the Roque de los Muchachos from the North, and finished the day after 121.8 kilometres and 3621 metres of elevation gain. It was great.

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Then two days later I did a circle into the heart of the island, climbing the Roque de los Muchachos from the East, and on the end of the day, the second highest pass of the island from the West too (which I have never fully done before, especially not in good weather). This was my second hardest ride ever: 147.9 km and 4363 m of elevation gain, and even though I was a bit on the slow side, I am proud of the accomplishment.

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And with this ride, this year’s cycling season is more or less over (and it was my best season so far), I will probably join a few more Sunday group rides if there are any left before winter kicks in, but then I will take some time off the bike, and do some running just like I did the previous winter. Hopefully without any misfortune happening to me, since I think I had enough of that recently :)

New York – Day 4 and flying home

Our last day in NYC started without our more or less usual Starbucks breakfast, as we took the PATH train towards Christopher Street without spending any unnecessary time in Jersey. Upon our arrival in Manhattan, we walked into Greenwich Village, an area where houses are only a couple of stories high, and they are surrounded by quiet and green streets – something you might not expect to see in New York as un unprepared tourist (which we were not). We had breakfast here on one of the corners at Doma na rohu, “featuring the homiest foods and most delicious beer and wine of the old Austro-Hungarian empire”.

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I had a really nice Bavarian breakfast with white sausages, pretzel and mustard accompanied by a glass of white beer. It was a great start for the day! Then walking around, we passed by, e.g., the house used in the TV series Friends.

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We were lucky to have the trees on the streets, because it was very hot and sunny again. We continued through East Village, which was not so memorable (except for the clear presence of a large Ukrainian immigrant minority, and a cube-shaped statue which was mounted on one of its corners, and it was supposed to be possible to rotate it around, but it did not really work that way…). Also, while walking around, we were looking for a new bag to replace the one which broke on the day of our arrival, since we decided that was just garbage. Anyway, we crossed towards Lower East Side via Roosevelt Park, then turned in the direction of Chinatown and Little Italy. These were not my favourite places, but I have to admit they felt authentic. Chinatown is – surprise, surprise – full of Chinese immigrants, and everything is Chinese (TV channels, goods, written and spoken word).

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Of course this means that an average European tourist will always have a nice view over the heads ;) Little Italy is packed with restaurants serving pizza and pasta, but we did not spend much time here, but headed up into SoHo and TriBeCa instead. This was more our style, with typical cast-iron facades and fancy boutiques.

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We had lunch at the Pain Quotidien to feel Belgian a little bit. Their watermelon juice was really refreshing! As a dessert, Clio bought a small box of mini cupcakes at Baked by Melissa (hmmm, cupcakes!!!), then we bought the mentioned replacement bag (North Face Wayfinder, completeing my North Face bag collection :D) too. Before leaving Manhattan we still spent some time resting on a bench in Washington Square Park, listening to live jazz and looking at the squirrels, and some crazy man covered in pigeons… Then we walked back to the PATH train through Greenwich Village and took it to the other side of the river, where we spent at least an hour on the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, watching the Manhattan skyline turning golden yellow, sparkling in the light of the late afternoon Sun.

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There were also some fisherman out, but the fish seemed to be on holiday. We had dinner – a nice burger with fries for me, seafood for Clio – at the same place as the day before. Back at the apartment we still did some packing before going to sleep.

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The next morning started with rain, and not just some light drizzle, but some heavy showers, so going out for breakfast was not as easy as planned. At the end we did not manage to get pancakes :( as the place we had picked online was packed with people (with several families waiting to get seated), so we ended up in a French-styled bakery, which was ok. It seems we have no luck with walking on the streets of Jersey City with luggage, since now we had to struggle through heavy rain (with one umbrella for the two of us), but at least our new bag did its job (rolling) well. Then from the PATH station the journey to the airport went very smooth (PATH, subway, AirTrain to JFK), except for the unbearable heat in the subway tunnel (in contrast with the ice cold air-co inside the subway cars). Check-in was also uneventful (except for the French family who just realised next to us that they left their passports in the taxi…), then after going through security, we still had some nice wok for lunch, then spent our leftover cash on sweets :) The flight was again uneventful (watching movies instead of sleeping), leaving at sunset, and arriving right after sunrise in Brussels. We were home very quickly, but then struggled with the jet lag all weekend… I went cycling with my group on Sunday morning after two hours of sleep, which was pretty painful :D To sum it up, we were very happy with our holiday!

New York – Day 3

The weather on Tuesday morning was beautiful, finally the Sun was out, the sky was blue, but unluckily the temperature also climbed upwards quickly. By the time we arrived to Brooklyn where our day started, it was already too hot to stay in direct sunlight, so we tried to go from shade to shade. After a quick breakfast sandwich for Clio (which was quite nice) and a burrito for me (which was way too hot and heavy, so I barely touched it at the end…), we headed towards the Brooklyn Bridge. Walking down on Washington Street towards to waterfront you first get to see the metal structure of the Manhattan Bridge, which is already very impressive, and I get Clio’s point, who claims it is even the prettier of the two bridges.

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From here we followed the walkway along the East River, until we got the perfect view of Brooklyn Bridge. Here we (I) spent some time taking pictures, then we crossed under the bridge and walked back up to the start of the pedestrian path which runs along the upper level of the bridge.

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The view on Downtown Manhattan is great from here, and the suspension structure along with the stone arches of the bridge are truly spectacular, but we were very happy to finally arrive at the other end and sit down on a bench in the shade (and have a nice Belgian waffle with strawberries) of the City Hall Park. From here we walked down on Fulton Street to the South Street Seaport.

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Since I did not have much breakfast I had a huge banana split here (it was 3 huge bowls of ice cream and two bananas, plus some crazy amount of whipped cream and various dense sauces) after we had a quick walk inside the building and the souvenir shops of Pier 17. Then we continued down to and then back up Wall Street.

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We passed by the highly secured Stock Exchange, then arrived to Trinity Church. This is a really nice and pretty church surrounded by a small and quiet, green park/cemetery.

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After a short rest, we turned southwards on Broadway, bought me a new pair of flashy fluo yellow Nikes, and walked down to the ferry towards Staten Island. We took the ferry just for the view, and it was worth it (especially given the fact that the ferry is a free service). On the way towards Staten Island we had a great spot sitting on the rear deck overlooking the skyline of Downtown Manhattan.

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We made two observations from here: first, the enormous height of the new WTC tower is only clear from the distance (since from the street level, every skyscraper looks the same), second, the Statue of Liberty is way smaller than we imagined. It is kind of tiny :D After taking the first ferry back to Manhattan, we took the subway to the north to visit the High Line Park.

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It is one of my favourite sights of New York, a preserved and transformed elevated railway track. Narrow but long, it crosses many blocks as it is heading northwards across Chelsea.

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With its modern, green design, with each ingredient nicely put in place, it is a perfect place to stroll along, sit down here and there, and watch the city.

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After walking through the park, we walked all the way up to the Rockefeller Center and went up to the Top of the Rock Observation Deck after less than 15 minutes of waiting in line. The view was very nice from the top, although the air could have been a bit more clear, but there is nothing we could have done about that.

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As sunset was just upon us, and – as usual – we were already dead tired, we headed back to Jersey, and after a nice dinner (pasta and pizza) just outside the PATH station overlooking the main square, we went home and Zzzzz…

New York – Day 2

After a not so busy – but already quite paced – Sunday, our plans for Monday were much busier, so we left our apartment a bit earlier and after our usual short visit to the Starbucks, we hit the road in Manhattan at the Flatiron Building, the first real skyscraper.

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Already from the LEGO I bought back in Denver it is probably not a surprise that I am bit of an architecture-lover, so when it comes to city trips with such amazing buildings, I am always having a lot of fun. This day was definitely satisfying from this point of view.

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We walked around the small park here, passed by (and went into the gift shop) the Museum of Mathematics, then walked up towards the Empire State Building.

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It is really huge, thus when you get too close to it the view is not so nice anymore. We did not go up to the observatory on the top here, since we did not want to spend hours queueing in line, but you will see that we still managed to get nice views of the city from high above on the next day. Our next stop was Bryant Park, a nice small green island of peace in the centre of Midtown, with open air movie screenings and free sports to play, and many small tables and chairs to sit down and enjoy a quick bite or drink.

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We could already see some buildings of the Rockefeller Center from here, and of course at the end of the park, the backside of the New York Public Library. We walked inside this iconic building, visited a few reading rooms and sat at the entrance hall staring at the architectural beauty all around us.

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From here we walked across to the Grand Central Terminal, another building with an amazing interior (and a well placed Apple Store). After spending some time taking pictures, we went outside again, walked around the Chrysler Building, and went for a quick lunch at a Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

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The burgers were very good, and surprisingly, the fries were just as delicious. We did not rest much, before heading back across the Grand Central Terminal and continuing our journey towards the Uptown along 5th Avenue. As we arrived to the Rockefeller Center we first visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which was hidden behind a massive amount of scaffolding, so we did not see much of its beauty… Then we had a look into the LEGO Store (:D) and walked around the buildings of the Rockefeller Center.

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Here we made a mental note that the next day we have to come back before sunset and go up to the Top of the Rock Observation Deck. The next stop (with already aching backs and legs) was Times Square with all the neon lights and crowds of tourists…

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The smell of pee and sweat mixing on a warm summer day in the concrete and glass forest. For Clio, we also walked around inside the Disney Store. Then we still had a look at a few shops along or very near the 5th Avenue (Nike, FAO Schwarz – a massive toy store), before heading to Columbus Circle where we got some sushi for dinner from the Whole Foods Market which we ate while resting on a bench in Central Park. Since we were both dead tired at this point, we went home and probably fell asleep practically immediately :)