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.