Monday, March 21, 2011

Bike road trip from Paris to Bordeaux

This month I finally had the opportunity to go on a road trip in France, by bicycle. The trip was about 665 km, from Paris to Bordeaux. Here is an overview of the stops, from Google maps:

The initial goal was to do about 60km per day, over 10 days. In the end, it took 12 days. The list of stops:
A: Paris
B: Etampes
C: Orléans
D: Beaugency
E: Blois
F: Tours
G: Richelieu
H: Poitiers
I: Ruffec
J: Cognac
K: Blaye
L: Bordeaux

I had not done any training or preparation for this trip, and I lead a pretty sedentary lifestyle. This means that if I can do it, anybody can :) All that is required is motivation! (Ok and a few more things I'll get into.)


Below are my actual tracks, seen in Google Earth, with the data extracted from my GPS.

Zoomed out to see how the path fits in with the whole area of France (click for larger picture):

Zoomed in a bit (click for larger picture):

Here is a video simulation of the trip:


Getting into shape
The most difficult leg of the trip was from (B) Etampes to (C) Orléans, about 60km. This was only day two of the trip, and most of the trip was through wide open fields. While this makes for beautiful scenery, it was also quite windy. The wind, coupled with my not being in the best shape, led me to overexert myself, greatly straining my knees in the process. I had initially planned to bike the following day another 60km to (E) Blois, but I could barely get myself to mostly walk 32km to (D) Beaugency. :) I ended up staying an extra day in Beaugency, most of it spent in bed recovering :) After this rest day, I think I was in better shape than before the trip started!

I did have a drizzle on a couple of days. Even with a slight drizzle, being out in it long enough can get you soaked :) Fortunately I had a rain poncho which kept my backpack and its contents completely dry. I only had to deal with uncomfortable wet legs for a few hours. The most challenging weather I had was from Ruffec to Cognac, where for most of the trip, there was a constant drizzle, wind (though not as bad as on the road to Orléans), which when added to the hills, made for a relatively difficult trip. I was very glad to find a heater in the hotel room at Cognac that afternoon :)

The bike:
My bike is almost a bottom-of-the-line mountain bike. I purchased it in 2006 for about 120 €. I believe it was the second cheapest bicycle at Carrefour. This shows that you don't need a top-of-the-line bike to do a long road trip, though I'm sure a higher quality bicycle could make life easier. :)

My backpack:
I carried all my supplies in a regular sized backpack. Here is the list of all my supplies, either inside my backpack or on my person:

  • A hat
  • A few pairs of socks
  • A few pairs of underwear
  • Three shirts
  • Two shorts
  • 1 pair of pants. Not jeans. The pants I brought were lightweight and dried quickly.
  • A rain poncho
  • A fluorescent yellow reflective safety vest
  • Reflective clips for pants/socks.
Bike tools:
  • Bike pump
  • 1 inner tube
  • 1 small can of lubricant for the chain and gears
  • Screwdriver
  • A Garmin Dakota 10 GPS, mounted on the handlebar
  • An odometer which died along the way
  • Alkaline batteries for the GPS and rear light
  • Camera
  • Cell phone
  • Charger for camera and cell phone
  • Can opener (which I actually never had to use)
  • 1 spoon
  • A bag of cereal and dried fruits and nuts
  • 1 meal: usually one canned food item plus one fruit
  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrush
  • Sunscreen
  • Deodorant
  • Four fold-out maps of the various regions I was going through.
This was all I could fit in my backpack. If there was one more thing I wish I had brought, it would have been a comb! :) And maybe some moist napkins, to wipe my hands. At some point, the chain on my bike came off, and my hands became completely black in the process of putting it back on. I had nothing to clean my hands with, and resorted to using leaves, which didn't work so well... :) I believe the people at the hotel that night thought I was a homeless bum, because of my dirty appearance :)

Things I bought along the way:
  • A bike seat. After a few days on the road, I painfully discovered that a quality bike seat would be worth an investment :) I bought a Selle SMP TRK seat at a bike shop in Poitiers for 39 €, and it was the best purchase I made during this trip.
  • Shoes. I wasn't sure if my shoes would last through another 60km, so at Tours I treated myself to a new pair.

I spent every night in a hotel. I simply did not have room to carry a tent to go camping, and, quite frankly, the nice warm shower in a hotel after a day of biking was always very welcome :)

While, in theory, this trip could probably be done strictly with paper maps and no technology like a GPS or smart phone, using these technologies allowed me to focus on the riding and to enjoy the trip.

While I didn't always follow the GPS directions exactly, it was still extremely useful to see where I was. Often the fold-out map would indicate a route as D42 (route départmentale number 42), but the actual street would either not be labeled at all, or be labelled something like “Rue de Jacques Chirac”. Try navigating that with only paper maps. :P Also, as I avoided taking the high-traffic streets, my paths were often comprised of many different small streets, mixed with some medium-traffic routes, often traveling from small town to small town. Navigating from one major city to the next, without a GPS, would require writing down or memorizing a list of 15-20 different routes and small towns to travel through (not to mention, if you DO happen to get lost, having to stop and pull out the big fold-out map to figure out where you are...). Vive la technologie !
Plus, tracking my position with the GPS allows me to show some nifty stats (below) and simulations in Google Earth :)

Smart phone:
I had an iPhone during this trip, but any phone with internet access and a few apps would have worked just as well. The apps I used were:
  • Google maps. Sometimes a more user-friendly alternative to the GPS, when walking around inside a major city.
  • I booked most of my hotels the same day, on the road. As I experienced first hand, with this kind of trip it is difficult to plan in advance all the hotel bookings, as weather, physical condition, or bike condition may force a change of plans. An app like allows you to see the prices of the hotels around you and to reserve a room. Much more useful than just riding around looking for a hotel in the city and hoping to find one with a decent price (which I did the first night at Etampes).
  • PagesJaunes (yellow pages). Google maps was disappointing in locating things like grocery stores in several of the cities I visited. On a few occasions it indicated stores that either were not grocery stores or simply addresses which did not exist. The yellow pages app was more accurate.
  • Web browser. This was useful for checking the weather. There are also some weather apps.
  • Facebook. Obviously not necessary for the trip, but a nice addition to keep in touch and post your progress. Unfortunately the iPhone Facebook app did not allow me to upload any photos, so I had to e-mail them to my boyfriend so he could upload them for me from his PC :)
  • E-mail. Also a nicety to keep in touch, but may also be necessary to show hotel booking confirmations.

Daily Routine
I more or less followed this routine each day, with some variations:
  • 6am: wake up, breakfast
  • 7:00am-7:30am: check out of the hotel
  • 7:30am-8:00am: leave the city
  • 8:00am-10am: riding
  • 10am: snack time :)
  • 10am-12:30: riding
  • 12:30pm: lunch time
  • 12:45pm-arrival (sometime between 1:30pm and 4:30pm): riding
  • Check in hotel
  • Find grocery store, and buy dinner and tomorrow's lunch.
  • 6:00pm: dinner
  • Plan tomorrow's trip, Facebook, E-mail, Scrabble, phone boyfriend :)
  • 9:00pm: sleep!

Some nights I would go to sleep as early as 8pm. I must say I did a lot of sleeping during this vacation – I suppose to make up for the extra physical activity. :) I rode from about 6 to 9 hours a day.

Doing a bike road trip can only be a truly low-cost vacation if you go camping. In my case, I indulged in the luxury of staying in hotels every night (though I usually picked the cheapest ones). Here is a breakdown of the cost of this trip:

Hotels: 585€ (avg 53€/night)
  • Ferry at Blaye: 4€
  • Return train trip from Bordeaux back to Paris: 95€
Food: Negligible. In fact, I probably saved money during this trip by eating mostly from grocery stores, instead of out in restaurants. :)
    Total: 684€

    Plus the investments I made:
    • Bike seat: 39€
    • Dakota 10 GPS: 180€
    • Map of France for the GPS: 40€
    Total: 259€

    So why on earth would I want to go from Paris to Bordeaux by bike, over 12 days, when it is a 3 hour trip by high speed train? Here are a few reasons:
    • A physical challenge. To find out what I am capable of. I'm not usually a sporty person, spending most of my time in front of my computer screen :) so it's nice to get out there and do some physical activity every now and then.
    • Being outside. It's a nice change to spend most of the day outside, in the fresh air. After working hard to climb a hill, it's a great feeling to coast down with the wind blowing in your face.
    • Nature, calmness. Spending the day in the open fields, in the forests, along side the rivers, being greeted by a donkey along the road, watching cows and horses grazing, …

    Here are some statistics I've extracted from my GPS. This includes the total traveling time each day from departure until arrival, including stops and breaks. The average speed would be slightly higher if I did not include my lunch break.   These speeds look pretty low to me, so people who are even moderate hobbyist cyclists should have no problem doing this trip :)

    Day Path Avg Speed (km/h) Distance (km) Time (hours)
    1 Paris-Etampes 9 63.1 6.9
    2 Etampes-Orléans 8 66.0 8.6
    3 Orléans-Beaugency 3 32.9 10.5
    5 Beaugency-Blois 6 34.6 5.6
    6 Blois-Tours 9 68.4 7.9
    7 Tours-Richelieu 9 63.1 6.8
    8 Richelieu-Potiers 10 55.8 5.9
    9 Poitiers-Ruffec 9 77.1 8.5
    10 Ruffec-Cognac 10 64.8 6.8
    11 Cognac-Blaye 10 94.6 9.3
    12 Blaye-Bordeau 10 44.7 4.3
    8.45 60.46 7.37

    665.1 81.03

    My average speed throughout the trip seemed to correlate a bit to my state of fitness :)

    Saturday, February 5, 2011

    Virgos and Scorpios on the road: Who's more at risk?

    Last week, Allstate insurance published a press release, with a graph displaying the number of accidents in 2010, grouped and sorted by Zodiac sign. The data was based on the actual birthdays of customers. At first glance, one would be surprised to find that Virgos have a much worse driving record (8 times as many accidents!) than Scorpios. Astrologists and the superstitious would actually expect a lower accident rate for Virgos, known as perfectionists. On the other hand, "compulsive and obsessive" Scorpios would be expected to speed and exhibit risky behavior including tailgating and frequent lane-changing, leading them to a higher accident rate. Rational people would also be surprised at the results, expecting a uniform distribution of accident rates, with no dependency on Zodiac signs.

    So what is going on here?

    Some background on the Zodiac calendars
    Most of the information here can be found in the Wikipedia article on the Zodiac. A video on YouTube by dupeduperson also helped me to visualize this.

    Three types of Zodiac systems exist: Tropical, Sidereal, and IAU constellation boundaries. The basic principle shared between these systems is that the year is divided into 12 (or 13) periods, each of them associated with a constellation. At a given period, the sun, the earth, and a given constellation are aligned (the sun between the earth and the constellation).

    In western culture, the tropical system is the most well known. In this system, the year is divided into twelve equal parts. When the system was first created, sometime around the 7th century BC, on the first day of spring (the vernal equinox), the sun was "pointing" to the Aries constellation. The first month of spring was therefore associated with the Aries constellation, and the other eleven months associated with the nearest aligned constellation for that time of year, as the earth rotated around the sun.

    The seasons of the earth (and our current Gregorian calendar), however, do not depend on the position of the earth around the sun, but rather how much, and in what direction, the given hemisphere of the earth is tilted towards or away from the sun. The time between the vernal equinoxes, and the time for the Earth to complete its orbit around the Sun, are almost equal, but not quite. This is due to gradual change in the tilt of the Earth's axis of rotation about itself (precessional cycle). A page from the NCDC website has some graphics which are helpful in understanding this.  The earth takes about 365.256363 days to rotate around the sun, but the time between vernal equinoxes (the length of a calendar year) is 365.242374. This slight difference means that each year, at the beginning of spring (March 20 or 21), the earth is in a slightly different position on its orbit around the sun, thus with a slightly different alignment with the constellations. (The positions of the constellations, relative to the sun, are for practical purposes permanent.) Hundreds of years since the creation of the tropical Zodiac calendar, the sun is no longer aligned with the Aries constellation on the first day of spring. However, in the tropical Zodiac system, the beginning of spring has continued to be traditionally associated with Aries, regardless of the actual alignment of the constellation.

    The Sidereal (Hindu) Zodiac system takes the precessional cycle into account. In the Sidereal Zodiac system, the Zodiac periods are based on the position of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun, and thus based on the alignment with the constellations (and not with the seasons of the Earth). Because of this, the dates of each period change over time. In 2011, The Aries period in the Sideral system begins on April 14, while the Aries period in the tropical system begins, as it always has (applying the Gregorian calendar retroactively), on March 21.

    One inaccuracy shared by both the Tropical and Sidereal systems is that the periods are all of equal length. Some of the constellations (such as Virgo) cover a much wider area of space, viewed from Earth, than others (such as Scorpio). In the earlier part of the last century (1920s and 1930s), the Internal Astronomical Union (IAU) mapped the boundaries of the constellations. Since the constellations have varying size, a Zodiac calendar which most closely represents the alignment of the Sun with the constellations would use the IAU constellation boundaries and have periods of varying length. In such a system, the Virgo period is currently from September 17 to October 31 (44 days), while the Scorpio period is from November 21 to November 30 (only 9 days). In addition, using the IAU constellation mappings, a new thirteenth period is introduced - Ophiuchus

    Accident statistics: which Zodiac signs are really more at risk?
    We can see from Allstate's chart that the IAU constellation system was used, as Ophiuchus is included. If we assume that people are born uniformly throughout the year, we can estimate the percentage of the population born during each Zodiac sign in the IAU system.   We can also find the Zodiac sign distribution using some datasets of birthday distributions:  

    Start Date End Date Number of Days Uniform birthday distribution Life Insurance 1981-1984 birthdays US 1978 birthdays
    Aries Apr 19 May 14 25 6.8% 6.5% 6.4%
    Taurus May 14 Jun 21 38 10.4% 10.1% 10.1%
    Gemini Jun 21 Jul 21 30 8.2% 8.4% 8.5%
    Cancer Jul 21 Aug 11 21 5.8% 6.0% 6.1%
    Leo Aug 11 Sep 17 37 10.1% 10.6% 10.8%
    Virgo Sep 17 Oct 31 44 12.1% 12.6% 12.6%
    Libra Oct 31 Nov 21 21 5.8% 5.7% 5.8%
    Scorpio Nov 21 Nov 30 9 2.5% 2.4% 2.5%
    Ophiuchus Nov 30 Dec 18 18 4.9% 4.9% 5.0%
    Sagittarius Dec 18 Jan 21 34 9.3% 9.2% 9.1%
    Capricorn Jan 21 Feb 17 27 7.4% 7.3% 7.2%
    Aquarius Feb 17 Mar 12 23 6.3% 6.3% 6.2%
    Pisces Mar 12 Apr 19 38 10.4%  10.1% 9.9%

    365 100% 100% 100%

    The start and end dates are based on the 2011 dates from Wikipedia.

    Given the accident statistics published by Allstate, we can calculate the percentage of accidents per Zodiac sign:

    Number of Accidents Percent of Accidents
    Aries 112,402 6.6%
    Taurus 177,503 10.4%
    Gemini 136,904 8.0%
    Cancer 101,539 6.0%
    Leo 179,657 10.6%
    Virgo 211,650 12.4%
    Libra 110,592 6.5%
    Scorpio 26,833 1.6%
    Ophiuchus 83,234 4.9%
    Sagittarius 154,477 9.1%
    Capricorn 128,005 7.5%
    Aquarius 106,878 6.3%
    Pisces 172,030 10.1%
    Total 1,701,704 100%

    Now we can combine the two tables and compare the percent of accidents per Zodiac sign to the percent of the population per Zodiac sign:

    Percent of Population (Uniform dist.) Percent of Accidents
    Aries 6.8% 6.6%
    Taurus 10.4% 10.4%
    Gemini 8.2% 8.0%
    Cancer 5.8% 6.0%
    Leo 10.1% 10.6%
    Virgo 12.1% 12.4%
    Libra 5.8% 6.5%
    Scorpio 2.5% 1.6%
    Ophiuchus 4.9% 4.9%
    Sagittarius 9.3% 9.1%
    Capricorn 7.4% 7.5%
    Aquarius 6.3% 6.3%
    Pisces 10.4% 10.1%
    Total 100% 100%

    We can plot the accident data and Zodiac sign distribution on a chart similar to the Allstate graphic:

    As we can see, the percentage of accidents per Zodiac sign correlates directly with the percentage of people born in that Zodiac sign, with the biggest difference between accident rate and population percentage being less than 1% (for Scorpio).

    The proportion of accidents per Zodiac sign is directly related to the percentage of the population born under that sign. In other words, Zodiac signs are no indication of risk of accidents. Being born under a particular sign does not impact an individual's personality in any way that would affect his or her driving record. There are more accidents involving Virgos simply because there are more Virgos out there driving cars.

    Conclusion #2
    a) This publicity by Allstate should have been received by the public as an obvious joke. Anybody who was offended by the press release should seek psychiatric counseling.

    b) Perhaps Allstate could have anticipated the public's incapacity to understand or accept a joke, but it's really too bad they decided to retract it and apologize, saying “We deeply apologize for any confusion this may have caused.”  Humor like this should be welcome in our society.

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