Tag Archives: cycling

The spring months of 2018

It has been a while again, so it is time for another diary-style entry. My new job at TML is going well, I spent the first days reading course texts to get a bit of basic background knowledge (Traffic demand modelling, Transportation systems, Basics of transport economycs, etc.), but soon after I already started working on actual tasks. I am involved in the ClairCity project, by doing fleet models (basically mileage and emission predictions for different propulsion-type vehicle groups in cities), and mode-choice models (trying to tell what kind of transport mode a person will choose based on some input parameters, e.g., what is the chance that a young adult who has an average income and no car chooses to take the bike when she needs to take a 2 kilometer long commuting trip in the morning hours of the working week). This involves a lot of work with pretty cool statistical data bases, which I always liked. I presented some of my results already on one of our team meetings, and got to discuss with other people outside of TML on the annual ClairCity meeting in Sosnowiec (Poland) in April. I totally forgot to mention it the last time, but my brother (who is a flight attendant at Emirates) had visited me here in Leuven just a few days before I started my new job, and we had a nice burger and chat together :)

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Thanks to a colleague I got involved in LeuvenAir, which is a citizen science project built on measuring fine dust concentrations using low-cost sensors in Leuven. I will write about this in more detail in a separate post, because having an air quality sensor quickly escalated into me buying a couple of more sensors, some wireless chips, and a small Raspberry Pi computer to make a complete weather and air-quality monitoring network around our apartment…

I had a pretty average early season on the bike, but average in this context is actually very positive, because the past years I always had a strong cycling spring. My “old” road bike surpassed the total mileage of my first road bike towards the end of April, becoming my highest mileage bike so far (32365 km and counting), and after waiting for almost two months for proper dry weather and clean roads, I finally got to ride my new bike during the annual Tornado Club-weekend in the Ardennes (and for already a total of 2252 km since then). The second ride during that long weekend in the Ardennes was actually my highest elevation gain ride within the borders of Belgium ever.

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Other memorable rides from the past months were: a sunny roller-coaster in the Dutch Limburg with Hao, the first 200 km+ ride with the new bike for a slice of cake (I switched back to the Arione saddle for this already, the Aliante was not such a good fit for me), my first visit to the Oostkantons with some Instagram/Strava celebrities (where finally I was not the only one in a fancy outfit :D), my longest solo ride ever: 306 km over the highest points of Belgium and the Netherlands, two gravel rides: one short one just outside of Leuven through beautiful forests and fields, and a longer one around the top of Belgium in great company, and my first visit to the Eifel region with a group of TML colleagues.

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It is a shame that the Instagram photos taken during rides are not visible anymore on Strava (only when added manually afterwards, which I do now), because I really enjoyed that I can just look back at these there :(

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On top of all of this, in the beginning of May we had a week of cycling between the Ardèche and the Cévennes regions in France, which was pretty nice. Those without the bike could enjoy the sunshine at our private pool, and an excursion to Nîmes on the afternoon of the rest day. In six days I biked 665 km with almost 11000 meters of elevation gain, most of the time on small, practically traffic-free roads in great weather. (The week after it was snowing there, so we were definitely a bit lucky.) All rides were great (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), but the most memorable moments are from the second day and the rest day.

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On the second day just after reaching the top of the climb leading up to the Plateau de Montselgues we got into a thunderstorm. I thought the best is to keep on biking, because otherwise we would just get cold and wet (since there was not much shelter around), but things got much worse really soon. The storm quickly grew into a torrential downpour containing centimeter-sized hail, water was coming from everywhere (from above, from the road, and from the side blown by strong gusts of wind), and the temperature dropped to 8 degrees Celsius. I tried to descend towards the warmer altitudes as fast as I could, but it turns out that this way I basically kept going along with the core of the storm (because the people behind me who either took the descent slower or were still on the climb on the other side of the mountain got much less extreme weather, some even made it without encountering any ice). It took me more than a half hour to get down the mountain, of which at least 20 minutes was in hail (which was not only painful but also left impact cracks on the top layer of my helmet at multiple spots). At the bottom I was shaking from the cold, so I stepped into the first open pub I saw, ordered two hot chocolates (when I actually managed to form words from shaking), and got hugged by a large middle-aged French lady while trying to warm up (which was a bit more intimacy than what I would be normally comfortable with from a stranger, but she was so warm!). It took me 20 minutes to get into a state that we could continue… Luckily as soon as I got back on the bike I managed to warm up quickly, and since it was not raining anymore, things got back to normal very fast.

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For the rest day I included the climb to the Mont Bouquet (also known as the local wall) in the route, and if you think 4.6 km at an average 9% simply would not be enough for a recovery ride, then you might be one of the lucky few who would have honestly appreciated the 500 meters at 16-18% in the middle :D (The rest was also typically in the double digits, and only a few short flat/downhill sections pulled the average below ten percent.) That was an epic climb, but I am sure nobody will let me plan rest-day rides anymore. Besides the biking, I got a short initiation into fly-fishing from Willem, and we had a nice campfire on the last evening. Driving back was a bit less fun after a week of cycling, but there is nothing I can not handle with a liter of coffee I guess…

Since we came back Filou (our adopted cat) is much more cuddly and affectionate than he was before, he comes to sit with me in the couch every evening (he used to always lie in one of his spots before, now he chooses me most of the time), and he follows me around the apartment quite often. He also became more vocal after being almost completely silent in the first few months, so now every day after work he runs to the door when one of us arrives home and probably tells us never dare to leave his side ever again. Or that he needs more attention. He is the cutest ball of fluff ever. My parents also had their annual visit, this time we went to the Durbuy, Dinant, and Gent. They also liked Filou :)

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And last but not least, a few words about Liverpool FC. This season was again a very good one for us, and I managed to watch almost every game. While Coutinho was sold in the winter transfer window, with the arrival of Virgil van Dijk (and with the better and better performance of our young wing-backs) our defensive line got a serious upgrade, which resulted in a significantly less conceded goals in the second half of the season. Our front three (Mane, Firmino, and Salah) played wonderful football, and Mohamed Salah (the Egyptian king, running down the wing) broke most Premier League and Liverpool goal-scoring records during his first year in a red shirt.

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We finished comfortably in fourth position in the league, and the glorious European nights have also returned to Anfield (a.k.a. Champions League football). After going through from the group, in the quarter- and semi-finals Liverpool played exhilarating football in front of the Kop (3-0 against Manchester City, 5-2 against Roma – We’ve conquered all of Europe, We’re never gonna stop…). As a result we played our second European Cup final in three years, which really says a lot about how good Jürgen Klopp’s team really is. Unluckily Mo Salah got injured early in the game, and our goalkeeper (Karius) made two huge mistakes, so we lost against Real Madrid, but reaching the final was already an amazing achievement. I liked this season’s team and jersey so much, that I even bought a special 125th anniversary double shirt boxed set including a replica of Liverpool’s first ever jersey from 1892, a 2017-18 home shirt, and a book of 25 historical photos. It is a really nice memorabilia. I am looking forward to the next season!

From saying goodbye to astronomy to finding a new job (and everything in between)

My postdoctoral contract came to an end last year at the end of September, and I had made the decision already quite a long time ago that I would not apply for an extension. I have been doing more or less the same in astronomy (namely asteroseismology) for the past ten years, and I wanted to move to a new field, where I can deal with more practical issues, and contribute to more burning problems of our society. I never regretted choosing astronomy as a profession, it was my childhood dream, and I got nice achievements in the field, but I have no regrets stopping and starting in a completely different topic. Change can be a good thing.

I had a very nice goodbye reception with more than a kilogram of M&Ms, three cakes and a lot of other snacks, so everybody was happy (with the food, not with me leaving), and I even got some presents from my colleagues (among others two Star Wars themed LEGO sets). Since I am still co-supervising a PhD student (and that is something I still really enjoy, so I don’t want to stop with it) I have kept my affiliation (and staff card) as a voluntary (unpaid) research fellow at the university (for which I am grateful to my old boss), but that changed nothing in the fact that I became unemployed in October.

Thanks to the very generous Belgian social security system (we pay those high taxes for a reason after all) I did not have to rush into a new position, so I had time to look for jobs that would really match both my skill set and my interest (and the fact that I really did not want to commute to a job outside of Leuven).

I definitely took my time. I used October to just relax and – as already mentioned before – just bike as much as possible. Luckily the weather was still great, so I could really make the most out of the month this way. By the end of October I had satisfied my biking needs to the full extent, so I started browsing the job market more actively. I got myself a job coach who helped me organise my thoughts about what kind of job I would like to do, and who also gave some useful tips on how to organise my job search and how to prepare for an interview. I set up some very specific keywords on the website of the VDAB (the Belgian unemployment office), so I would receive only relevant job offers, and of course I refined my linkedin profile too. I also attended a job fair aimed especially at people with a PhD, but that was more of a networking practice than anything else.

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In the beginning of November we went to the Ardennes for a few days where we had the nicest Belgian hike so far (around the branches of the river Ourthe), and surprisingly we still got enough warmth from the sunshine to eat pancakes on a terrace.

Besides the job search, I still had quite some time do do other things. Of course while I was unemployed I did all the groceries, cooking (with my speciality being a delicious Pad Thai), and cleaning around the house. Whenever the weather allowed I also went cycling (for example for a nice 100 kilometre loop between Namur and Huy), and on the late evenings I played either FIFA (my biggest achievement this year is the treble with Liverpool on World Class difficulty), The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (a really great game on the Nintendo Switch), or Cities: Skylines (a city building game). Hoping to get more group rides next year I joined the Vlierbeekriders cycling club (because with Squadra Tornado people are way more racing oriented, so during the good weather months everybody is off to races on the weekends and there is nobody left to do long rides with).

I have to say that by December I started to get a bit bored at home sometimes, so I got really excited when one day I found a very exciting job opening in my mailbox. It was a junior researcher position at Transport & Mobility Leuven to contribute to both national and international research projects within the area of transport research (e.g., work out adequate solutions for critical mobility issues, making use of state-of-the-art transportation models, evaluation techniques, statistical analysis and data collection). Not only was the job-description interesting, but it was also clear to me that I am a very good match, so I immediately knew that this was the job I want. I also realised that I actually know someone at the company (from cycling), so I could use this connection to get to know more about the work and atmosphere at TML. The things I had heard made me even more interested, so I sent in my CV and motivation letter on the 19th of December.

In the meantime I attended a great Christmas lunch with a dozen of other people at my PhD student’s place (for which I made a beautiful and tasty New York cheesecake with meringue topping), and we also adopted a cat. I am so happy Clio agreed to that, it is so nice to have Filou around :)

The application deadline was at the end of the year, but I already got a reply on the 4th of January, in which I got invited for an interview. The only one I had before was for my PhD, and it was with people I already knew from my ERASMUS stay, so I did not know what to expect… So my first real “corporate” interview was on the 9th of January, and it went very well. It took 1.5 hours, and we talked about a wide range of topics (in English), ranging from what I did during my academic career to my favourite problematic traffic situation in Leuven. I even got to talk about my star atlas project. All in all I came away with a very good feeling, wanting the job even more. Ten (very long) days later I got an email that they decided to hire me! I was so happy that I wanted to go and high-five Filou (after calling Clio and telling her the good news), but he did not really understand why I am jumping around in the living room :D That evening I was official to the yearly dinner of the Institute of Astronomy, so I got to celebrate with champagne too :) I signed my contract on the 22nd, and started working already on the 1st of February (by bringing two home-made cheesecakes, since it was not only my first day but also my 33rd birthday). I have a lot to learn, but it is very interesting, so I am convinced that this is the beginning of another exciting chapter in my life!

The year (2017) in cycling (and other sports)

2017 was the third year in a row that I managed to bike more than 10000 kilometres, and mostly thanks to the combination of great weather and plenty of free time in October, I even made this my best cycling-year ever with 11330 km (but only with a tiny margin over 2015). October became my best month ever by a landslide, totalling in 1813 km, 65h 48m, and 9218 m of elevation gain.

I had no special plans for this year, but I still managed to collect plenty of long-lasting memories on the road. First of all, for the first time since 2013 (and likely for the last time), I took my racing bike to La Palma again to ride during and after my observing run, and since I gained some free time by having a drivers licence, I could put in some extra hours of quality high-altitude training while working at the observatory too. I had a slight insomnia problem afterwards, but still managed to pull off two epic rides around the island (and a few shorter ones). I also did a few beautiful (solo) rides in the Ardennes, which I hope to do more in 2018, because one of my favourite things in cycling is still discovering new, scenic, and quite roads. For the first time ever I finally had a positive experience in a race while participating in the 12 hours of Zolder with Squadra Tornado: I felt strong in my shifts, I contributed to the race, and I came away fully satisfied at the end.

The raw numbers for my cycling – without the daily commutes of course – in 2017:

Total distance: 11330 km
Total elevation gain: 86881 m
Total time: 408h 10m
Activity count: 155
Average speed: 27.8 km/h
Average heart rate: 151.9 bpm (max: 199 bpm, after 2.5 weeks of rest, uphill sprint)
Average cadence: 88 rpm (but I only have cadence measurement on my road bike)
Average temperature: 13.2°C (quite average, but with a very cold 0.6°C January)

And now it is time to look at some maps and figures. Let’s start with the maps of cycling I have done this year. The first two maps show rides mostly in Belgium (with a zoom-in to the heat-map around Leuven), while the third is for La Palma.

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Just for the fun, here is a comparison of some of the bigger / more famous climbs I have done the past few years, with the last two being here on La Palma (although this year I only did the very last in this list).

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Out of the 155 activities, 110 were done solo, and 45 with at least another training partner, which means that I biked much more often alone this year. My most common partners in crime were Willem (23 times, for a total of 2.2 days) and his brother, Steven (19 times, 1.9 days). Here is a summary table of the rides by bike (note: the average speed for the track bike is incorrect).

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Here are the graphs showing the yearly evolution of my cycling distance, time, and elevation gain compared to the previous years.

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I also did a little bit of running (17.7 km) and hiking (74.8 km), adding up to a total activity time of 431 hours, which is not much worse than in 2015 (~450 hours, because I did much more running back then, besides almost the same amount of cycling). That is ~255000 extra calories burned!

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Finally, here is an overview of the evolution of the total activity time, and its distribution across the calendar throughout the years.

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Watching and photographing the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup in Namur

On the 17th of December I went to Namur with Willem, not only because he had VIP tickets to one of the best cyclo-cross races in the calendar, but also because that’s what Belgians do on the weekends during winter (while shame on me, I have never done it before). The whole day was great fun: I got to drive with a manual gearbox again (and I still owe Willem with ~1000 km of driving from our Trans Pyrenees trip :D), we met some interesting people, and of course we got to walk (and here and there slip) around a muddy course while soaking in the atmosphere and taking a few (or ~500) nice pictures. (Yes, we also got to use the VIP shuttle, and got free food and drinks, but that’s not the point.) We saw both the Women and Men Elite races, and while the former delivered a quite unexpected winner, the latter was unquestionably dominated by the reigning world champion, Belgium’s Wout Van Aert. Here is a small selection of the photos, I hope you will like them. (The conditions were not so easy to work with, there was very little light on this foggy, late afternoon, and these cyclists are way too fast even in the mud.)

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Between the end of the road trip and the end of the summer

Tomorrow I am flying to La Palma for a last observing run at the Mercator telescope, so maybe this is a good time to write a short summary of the past one and a half months. After coming back from Scandinavia we spent a weekend in Zeeland. Here I had a great (and pretty fast) ride around the Oosterschelde, enjoying the amazing bike infrastructure of the Netherlands, then on the evening we had delicious mussels with fries overlooking a small harbour. As usual, I did some kiting too before driving back to Leuven on the following day.

I did not work too much on the Leuven Sky Atlas lately, except for a few refinements, but I ordered a bunch of other sky atlases to be able to make a better comparison to them. So now I own all the sky atlases that I would have loved to have when I was an active amateur astronomer more than a decade ago… I would actually like to be more involved again, as astrophotography really interests me, but the Belgian climate plus the high amounts of light pollution are far from optimal for it, not to mention it would be another pretty expensive hobby.

I sent in my first job application outside of astronomy too, but after I am back from La Palma I will have to be a bit more active on the job market, because my contract at the Institute of Astronomy ends on the 30th of September, and while I would like to have some time to finish and publish my star atlas, I would not like to stay without a job for too long afterwards. So, if you are looking for someone with experience in data analysis, data visualisation, or you just need a business parter to start up a cycling cafe in the Leuven area, I am available :)

At the beginning of August I have been taking care of our friends’ cats for a week, which was really nice, and they loved me even after they got fed ;) Thanks to Clio we were VIPs on the roof bar of the Museum of Leuven for one evening during the Midzomer festivities. Here we had dinner while listening to a concert, then we ended the evening with a walk around the exhibitions of the recently renovated museum (which was actually my first time inside).

During one of my standard evening training rides the wind direction was perfect to try to get the KOM (king of the “mountain”, or simply the best time on a given stretch of road) on one of the sprint sections along the Demer, so after getting up to a good starting speed I opened my sprint. As soon as I started pedalling out of the saddle I felt a sharp pain at the side of my left knee, but I thought that it was probably just hit by a small stone or piece of wood that got picked up by my front wheel, so I kept pushing to actually break the previous record by one second (completing the section in 34 seconds at an average speed of 57.5 km/h, reaching a heart rate of 195 bpm for the first time in 2 years). During the last seconds of the effort the pain got more intense, and as soon as I stopped I could see the bee sting hanging out of my skin. I pulled it out, and kept the rest of the ride on a low intensity. My previous similar incident with a bee happened before we had internet (somewhere in the early nineties), but luckily I had no severe reaction to it this time either.

We also had our yearly summer holidays in Budapest. Besides enjoying the usual cocktails and cakes all around the city, this time we drove to the Mátra mountains. We visited the highest point of Hungary (1014 metres ASL), then the tourist center of Galyatető for lunch and to climb up to the new lookout tower, and on the way home the Royal Palace of Gödöllő for a small walk in the gardens. Clio finally got to enjoy some actual summer temperatures with three days between 33°C and 38°C before the weather got back to normal. Getting home was not very smooth, because first of all on the morning my parents’ car had a flat tire that we only noticed a few minutes into the drive towards the airport, so we had to call a last minute taxi, then the ground crew at Brussels Airport went on an unannounced strike, so we got a three hour delay on top of this. Of course this meant that our one checked-in bag also did not make it from the airplane to the luggage claim area after landing, so we had to drive back to the airport a few days later to pick it up…

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After a week off the bike the first time back in the saddle on an evening training session at the race track of Zolder was very painful, so I requested a switch in the lineups for the 12 hours of Zolder (moving from our 2nd team to the 3rd, the “Fun Team”) for the following Saturday. The 12 hour race itself was really great, we had a lot of people and supporters under the Squadra Tornado tent, and my legs were also surprisingly good. I did two shifts for a total of a bit more than three hours with an average speed of 40.4 km/h. I managed to stay with the main peloton in both sessions, in the first half of the second one I even worked a lot at the front of the group, and closed several gaps to small breakaway attempts (then almost got dropped because I pushed myself a bit too far, but luckily I managed to hang on). Our best team finished just below the podium, while we ended up at a 40th position overall (out of 207), and 4th (out of 12) in the under 40 team of 8 category. I was really happy about being able to stay with the fast group the whole time, for me that was already a huge success! The great legs stayed with me for a few more days, closing the summer season with a good ride on the Vlierbeekriders Classic.

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On the gaming departement, I am playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild these days on the Nintendo Switch, and I love both the game, and the portable console.

I have loads of plans for La Palma, so maybe there will be a few more interesting posts again.