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.)
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…
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.
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.
This is just the usual summary of recent events, outside of the more important ones that I have already covered in a few separate posts on the blog. One of these is that the blog turned 10 years old in June! I have been writing here for almost 1/3 of my life…
First of all, cycling: after coming home from La Palma I was not really in the mood for cycling for a while, and one of the main reasons was the bad weather. It is not unreasonable to ask for weather that is warm enough to put the winter outfits away at the end of April, right? Luckily while visiting the Netherlands with my parents, spring finally arrived for good, and the temperature in the past two months (at least when I was out riding, with an average of 19.5°C and 19.6°C) was even better than in the same period of the previous 3-4 years! Belgium is in the middle of a quite significant drought right now, so rain was not an issue either. As a result I had my third best month on the bike ever with 1399 kilometres in May (including nearly 11000 metres of elevation gain, which is a best when not counting months when I was riding outside of Belgium, and almost exactly 50 hours on the bike, which is good for a fourth place overall in my cycling career).
I started by doing the Tour de Namur, where after 100 very strong kilometres I lost all my power and felt like dying on the climbs, therefore the remaining more than two hours were really difficult, maybe because I did not bike for almost two weeks before that, or simply because I was way too hot with arm warmers and a merino base layer in 22°C… That was stupid, but it was only 8°C at the start!
Then a week later on the usual Saturday morning Squadra Tornado group ride I had very good legs, so I made some extra plans for the following week. Mainly thanks to taking a day off from work and going to the Ardennes for a 140 km loop over the highest point of Belgium (which by the way was really beautiful, but after 100 km I was dead again, thanks to the wind and the 30°C), this became a week of 475 km on the bike (with 4400 m+). Far from being on the podium, but a good one nevertheless (and likely my best for 2017). Then I was crazy enough to join Willem for a sprint training on one of the evenings, which was on one hand pretty cool (because I love sprints), but on the other hand I was so empty by the end, that when I arrived home Clio was worried that I would pass out on the couch. (I was just fine. Really.) Two days later I rode the Buurthuis Classic with Steven (Willem’s brother, who is probably going to kick my ass too after another year on the bike), but I could still feel the sprints in my legs. To keep things interesting I also did some off road biking here and there, and a few chill rides too, once even involving cake and coffee in Mechelen. Finally, last Saturday I did the first 200+ km ride of the year by doing the longest version of the Ti’Light Classic, extended with biking to the starting point in Tienen and then back home from the finish, making it a nice 219 km day. It was a great ride with good legs, until reaching the 150 km mark I was not tired at all, and only the last 25-30 kilometres were difficult, fighting alone against the headwind. This week it is basically too hot to bike (but I still went out on two evenings).
In the good weather we also had a BBQ (thanks for inviting us Lies and Willem), cocktails in the city centre, ice creams on a boat, and I made my first non no-bake cheesecake (it was delicious). Moreover, we went to cheer on one of Willem’s many races, and I took some photos too, a few of which turned out quite OK ;)
The end of another Premier League season arrived for Liverpool FC and I had a few nervous moments during the last weeks of it (because it would not be the “Liverpool Way” if there was nothing to worry about until the second half of the last game), but at the end everything turned out OK. They kept a clean sheet during the last 4 games while scoring 8 goals and collecting 10 out of the possible 12 points, and the team finished in the Top 4. This means that next season they will be in the Champions League again (assuming they go through the play offs)! Also, the new jersey looks awesome (back to the classical Liverpool red).
Concerning work, I took over the twitter account of the institute, I organised (delegated all the work to others) the open door days, and coordinated our outreach group during the past months. I think we are doing all right, but if the institute had an actual employee to do this as a full time (or 50%) job, things could be improved a lot.
We are leaving on a road trip to Scandinavia soon, and I am planning on posting a few pictures along with a short text every day here, so the blog might get busier for a while again :) Thanks for reading!
It is again the usual situation: I have not written anything here during the past months, but as always, this does not mean that I was not busy with various things basically all the time. So let’s have a short summary – in chronological order.
During November and December I played Uncharted 4 on the PS4, which looked very pretty, but progressed a bit slow for my liking, and the puzzles got quite repetitive after some time. For Christmas I got myself a new helmet (Giro Synthe MIPS) as a present, since my old one was getting way too old. Looks great, feels good. Then we spent two days between the holidays in Holland, visiting ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Nijmegen.
The first day we had sunny weather and Den Bosch was a nice city to walk around, while the next day Nijmegen was grey and cold, but at least we met up with Steven for dinner (and for lunch we also found a great place with delicious healthy sandwiches and drinks). On the next morning I also got the scrape-all-the-ice-off-your-windshield experience for the first time… Although we celebrated New Year’s Eve at home, the night before we went to the Spaans Dak for a fancy dinner, which was nice.
January was even colder than December. After cycling through the freezing fog in -5°C on the last day of the year (my coldest ride ever), I also biked through snow and freezing rain with my MTB during the first days of 2017 (this ride covered me in a layer of ice, and cost me a bit of skin around my left knee), and this kind of weather stayed for the following weeks too. This made January my coldest month on the bike (so far?) with an average ride temperature of 0.6°C (over 875 km in 34.5 hours).
I also got new glasses (my eyes did not get much worse, but my old lenses were so scratched from the years of cleaning that I really needed new ones), so now I have a slightly different look. Being a good citizen, I even went for a Belgian brand (Louis) for the frame. After all these expenses, I decided it was time to save some money, so instead of buying energy bars, I decided to make them myself. I used more or less the recipe from the Global Cycling Network, with some extra ingredients (and twice the amount to fill my baking tin), and the result was delicious. Since then I made a batch (almost 1.5 kg) every month. I also got a brighter front light (Lezyne Power Drive 1100XL) to be able to bike in the dark, therefore I had a few rides well past sunset for the first time ever. At the end of January I sold my MTB because I barely used it, especially since I got the cross bike. So now I have only two bikes again…
I started February with a small meeting in Bern at the International Space Science Institute, discussing the challenges in modelling massive stars. Unluckily around the same time I caught a quite bad cold, and I only recovered a week after coming home from Switzerland. (I felt so weak that I had to turn back from a group ride after 5 kilometres, which was pretty depressing after already not being on the bike for quite some time…). A week later (almost fully recovered by then) I went to the velodrome in Ghent with Willem (and the Belgian Rapha Cycling Club), which was a really fun two hours on the track with 40+ km/h. (Photo: Bert Van Lent – and I am on the far right.)
I wish there was a velodrome in Leuven, it would make my winter cycling training so much easier (and more fun). I had to buy a pair of new wheels for my road bike, because the originals were getting dangerously worn (partly due to the rainy and foggy descents in the Pyrenees last summer where we probably eroded a half millimetre from our rims in two days), and this time I did not go for the usual Mavic choice (although I am mostly happy with those wheels too), but I ordered a wheel-set from a smaller British company: HUNT. I choose their Race Aero wheels (1420g, 28 mm deep, and 22 mm wide rims, £379), and I am fully satisfied with them so far. They are hand built, light, aero, and HUNT offers a 60 day ride and return period, so I can only recommend giving them a try. Should I need a new pair of wheels, I find it likely that I would buy from HUNT again. Thanks to the wider rim, I also switched to a slightly wider tire (moving from 23 mm to 25 mm), and I can definitely feel the difference in ride quality (smoothness) and while cornering. The first ride with the new wheels took me to the French-Belgian border to do a reconnaissance of one of the routes that I had previously prepared for the Squadra Tornado training weekend. That week was great in terms of cycling overall (425 km in 15.5 hours), I even managed one ride in shorts (with knee and arm warmers, but still). Just before the end of the month I also completed the first century of the year too.
In March I started a big project that I always wanted to do; making my own sky atlas. The final push came when I was redoing a few figures about all the observations that had been made with the Mercator telescope since its inauguration (some of which I also compiled into a video), because I realised that I was already using a lot of the tools that would be needed to create a star atlas. Since this is a huge topic I want to write a separate blog entry about it (in the near future), but let me just say that I lost plenty of sleep time since the beginning of March to this project (but it has been always fun and I learned a lot while doing so). I was also a member of a PhD jury for the first time in my life, and I got to wear a fancy gown on the public defence of the candidate. I really liked that :)
For the second half of the month we finally got a spell of nice spring weather, so I returned to the South for the second reconnaissance ride, which was the nicest ride of the season so far (in Belgium). Unluckily the weather for the Tornado outing itself turned out to be pretty rainy, and I also had to drive to Antwerp in the middle of the weekend for an evening, therefore I only made it to the ride on Friday, so at the end I was really happy that I did the recon rides of the two other days earlier. On the PS4 I started playing Horizon Zero Dawn, which seems fun for now (although slightly repetitive). Towards the end of the month I bought a new cycling GPS, the Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt, which is much better than all the Garmins I had before, so I am very happy with the switch.
Unluckily it turns out that my unit has some kind of a hardware issue that only appears around an altitude of 2000 metres (and manifests in huge spikes or a complete loss in elevation data), so when I did my first bike ride from the Observatory on La Palma I had to face some nasty surprises. Of course – being a data scientist nerd – I was not happy about that, but luckily the Wahoo support was very helpful (maybe partly because I provided a detailed, ~5000 character-long description of the issue), and a replacement unit is already on its way as we speak (and as long as I am not crossing the ~2000 metre line I have no issues, so I don’t have to go back to one of my Garmin units in the meantime). Speaking of La Palma: I had an observing run at the Mercator telescope starting on the 4th of April (and lasting 9 nights, bringing my totals there up to 128 nights), then I took a week of holidays on the island just to bike around. The last time I travelled with my bike was in 2013, and most likely this is the last year that I have the opportunity to go to the Canary Islands for work, so I though I had to do it once again. During the nights I spent most of my time working on the sky atlas (drawing the outlines of ~300 dark and bright nebulae by hand) in the control room, and I did a 1.5-2 hour ride from the Observatory before every night (except for a very cold Monday). I have never biked this much up on the mountain. The previous years during the observing runs I only rode the bike between the telescope and the place where we stay during the day, which only added up to 10.5 km (when I rode up to the telescope twice) a day. Now I have a licence so I always drove the car to the telescope which saved a lot of time and energy, therefore I could go for longer rides between starting the instrument calibrations (right after getting out of bed on the afternoon) and having dinner (right before the beginning of the worknight). The weather was also quite nice at 2000 metres. It was almost always sunny, and during the first days it was even so hot that I could just bike in shorts, but a week into my stay I made good use of all the knee/arm warmers and the wind jacket I had with me too…
Normally I would take a taxi down to the hotel in Santa Cruz, but this time I made some arrangements so that I could just bike down, and a taxi would follow me with my bags :) That was quite cool (except for the part where a dog almost jumped at me while I was going down with 60 km/h), and I got an extremely helpful driver (via some local connections) who helped me with my bags a lot. I had six full days to bike, and I managed to bike on each day (which was a first again), although I had to cut a ride much shorter than planned, because I could not sleep anything the night before (thanks to my messed up internal clock). All in all I am happy with what I managed, especially the three longer rides. On the first day I biked around the Southern tip of the island before doing two 2nd category climbs, then after two days of fighting with insomnia I rode around the whole island (a really epic ride of 155 km with 3385 m of elevation gain), while on the last day of my holidays I biked up to the top of the island for the fifth time in my life, but for the first time without stopping.
This climb – leading up to the highest paved point (the Roque de los Muchachos at 2426 metres ASL) of the Canary Islands – is a monster. It is 41.5 km long, it starts at a few metres above sea level and climbs at an average gradient of 6%, but since there is a short downhill/flat section after reaching 2300 metres for the first time, the actual average gradient for the uphill parts is 7% (both for the first ~33 km and the last 3.5 km). Long story short, simply going up and down involves 2750 metres of elevation gain… This specific ride will stay in my memory not only because I finally managed to get up there without stopping, but also because the temperature went from 23°C at sea level to 10°C in the cloud layer (staying between 800 and 1800 metres, but while climbing that was not too cold, even though I was wearing only in shorts), then back up to comfortable (quite warm) levels thanks to the strong sunshine above the clouds.
This was all good until I had to go downhill though the cloud layer, because by that time the clouds became even thicker, so the visibility dropped to ~25 metres, and the temperature to 8°C. This means that I had to descend for a half hour through this layer (and due to the low visibility I had to go relatively slow, so it took me much longer than usual to get down), and I only had an extra gilet with me against the wind, but no jacket or arm warmers against the cold (since although I checked out what the weather situation was at the telescopes before leaving, I did not think about the possibility of having colder temperatures in the cloud layer at lower altitudes – quite stupid of me now that I think of it). With windchill values between 6°C and 2°C that was not a pleasant half hour, and I was shaking slightly by the time I emerged from the cloud layer, but I survived, so it is OK :D In total I biked 783 km in 34.5 hours on La Palma (with an elevation gain of 18140 metres, which explains the horrible average speed).
That afternoon (after warming up in the shower) I even managed to walk down to the new beach which finally opened after years of political games over permits and who knows what else, but now it is open, and it is a great addition to the city (providing not only access to the sea, but also a nice, new view over the colourful houses of the historical seafront with the mountains in the background). Speaking of things other than biking, just after cycling down from the observatory after my observing run, I got to watch two easter processions across the city, and they were both quite an interesting sight. My favourite italian place is luckily still open, so I ate there basically every night (except for one evening when I was so tired/lazy that I just stayed in my room and made spaghetti while watching Netflix). Although I am not a frequent coffee-drinker, I had to check out a place that I had read about in the Guardian a few months ago (El Cafe de Don Manuel). It turnes out that the article was not lying, it is a cosy, calm spot inside a beautiful renovated courtyard with only a few tables, and besides the good coffee, they serve delicious cakes too (one afternoon I simply could not resist taking a second piece, it was so good).
Flying home I got to sit on Business Class for the first time in my life (since for some reason when I booked my tickets to La Palma, this was the cheapest combination for these dates). It was a nice change to have legspace (and incredible amounts of it, especially from Madrid to Brussels) and proper meals, so I did not have to live on sandwiches and chocolates all day long. Of course if you think about it the price difference between business and economy tickets is basically more than what a (three) Michelin starred dinner costs (for two), so I would rather go for that and sit 5 hours without food and legspace if it was about my own hard-earned money. Ridiculous… (And then we are still not talking about First Class tickets on overseas trips.)
It was a bit of a shock to come back to the 7°C and rain, but hopefully from May the weather will finally turn a bit warmer. Besides work, I am also trying to put together a nice non-scientific CV for the corporate world, since soon I will start looking for a new job outside of academia, which will definitely bring some changes into my life.
2016 was the first year when my total mileage did not turn out to be a new personal best, but it was still the second year in a row when I managed to cross the imaginary 10000 km line (quite easily), and – most importantly – I had a lot of fun on the bike. The high point of the year was undoubtedly the Trans Pyrenees ride with Willem (which almost single handedly made June 2016 my highest elevation gain month ever), there is really nothing that could come close to that. Honourable mention is given to the 263 km solo ride to the coast which is my longest solo ride to date. I also got a cyclocross bike.
The raw numbers for my cycling – without the daily commutes of course – in 2016:
Total distance: 10559 km
Total elevation gain: 68667 m
Total time: 379h 8m
Activity count: 133
Average speed: 27.9 km/h
Average heart rate: 152.4 bpm (max: 194 bpm, but sometimes I did not wear my HR strap)
Average cadence: 87 rpm (but I only have cadence measurement on my road bike)
Average temperature: 11.9°C (~2.5°C colder than the past 3 years, with a 1.8°C December…)
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.
Out of the 133 activities, 72 rides were done solo, while a large percentage of the rest were predominantly Squadra Tornado group rides. In this sense, this was my most social year on the bike so far. My most common partner in crime was unsurprisingly Willem, with whom I rode together 47 times (a total of 146 hours in duration). Here is a summary table of the rides by bike.
I also did some running (120 km) and hiking (38 km), adding up to a total activity time of 401 hours, which is halfway between my numbers from the previous two years. I would be happy with the same in 2017 for sure.
At last but not least, here is an overview of my yearly progress (in kilometres, including running and hiking too) throughout the previous seasons.