Sep 16, 2010

My Dream Evening

Leaving Barcelona was bitter sweet. Although it was one of the most interesting places I’ve visited, I was excited to get up the coast. Riding into Barcelona was one of the toughest bike rides I had ever been on. I was praying that leaving would be the opposite.

The strong coastal wind that was pounding me from the front (that’s what she said) was now hurling me up the coast at an average speed of 23 mile per hour. As the miles clicked away, I wondered how far I could make it today. My original plan was to finish the 80 mile trip to Girona. However, much before four hours had passed, I was already outside of the city limits. It was a rather hot Thursday afternoon and I started to fantasize about drinking beer on the beach of some amazing seaside town. Riding all day through the dull Spanish countryside deserved some type of reward. Beer and the beach was my destiny. Remembering all of the small beach towns I passed near the French border, I hammered along the flat highway with a dream.

Chasing me from the southwest were some nasty looking storm clouds. I hadn’t seen rain in a week so I quickly dismissed the idea of getting caught in a storm. My dream evening was far too perfect and I wouldn’t be happy settling down anywhere else. The sound of the waves crashing onto the beach, the feeling of sand on my battered feet, the taste of cold beer flowing into my slightly dehydrated body… It all sounded too perfect to pass on. Storm or not, I was going to make it.

My Garmin had just clicked past 90 miles when the clouds settled in above me. The winds started to howl and the temperatures immediately dropped 10 degrees. I knew I was getting close to the coast, but continuing on was a serious gamble. In the outskirts of Figures, I headed into a small town in search of some directions. The sun was still barely peaking through the black sky. I found a small, seemingly cozy hotel that would have been perfect for one night. It had one hitch… it was 19 miles from the coast. I forged on into the dark afternoon.

Feeling an imaginary parachute attached to my back, I dragged myself through the brutal headwind. I was only 7 miles away from Llanca, a small Spanish beach town, when the storms hit. At this point, I didn’t even know if I would be able to find shelter in Llanca. But, it was the first town near the sea, and my dream evening was much too important to me after 101 miles of riding under the scorching Spanish sun.

Llanca was indeed a beautiful and small coastal village. My dreams would have been a reality… if the rain would have ever stopped. After carrying 40lbs of gear 108 miles in less than 6 hours, I was greeted by a rain drenched beach. Luckily, I found a nice, inexpensive hotel across from the beach. After a shower, I headed across the street to a small bar for that cold beer “on the beach.” I guess only some dreams can become a reality.

The next evening I was back in Perpignan for a fairly exhilarating two days involving some attempted cliff diving, some mountain running, and one terrifying evening from the back of a scooter. These few days were unlike my last stay in Perpignan in that I now had a plan. Beziers was 90 miles away and I was going to make it there for their biggest street party of the year, La Feria!

Cheers from Llanca!

Sep 11, 2010

One “Nasty Monday” in Barcelona, Spain

The sun beat down on my black Spin kit. The sweat crystallized on my jersey before I even had the chance to realize that I was sweating. The chosen route to Girona, the halfway point to Barcelona, was on incredibly hilly coastal roads. The road would climb out of each quiet Mediterranean beach village until it eventually started to descend into the next village. This repeated for hours. The climbs were steep and long, but each time the road reached the summit, I was greeted with one incredible view. I tried to fight the urge to get off my bike every 5 minutes to take another picture. Over one of the last climbs, I finally crossed into Spain. The smell of the Spanish countryside immediately hit me. Cow shit. Ugh. The temperatures rose even more, and I started to have trouble keeping myself hydrated. I had been riding pretty hard all morning. I didn’t like the idea of “touring,” so I had been riding like a normal training day (with 35lbs of gear). As I started to get closer to Girona, I realized that an 80 mile ride with bags was more like a 100+ mile ride. My bonk hit swiftly at 65 miles, just outside of Figueres, Spain. My head sank low for the last hour into Girona. After over 5 hours of riding in the sun, I needed some cool weather and some sleep. Instead, I received an uncomfortable bed in a shitty hostel with no windows and a night full of sweating. At one point, I woke up, ripped the sheets off the bed, walked to the shower, soaked them in cold water, made my bed, and went back to sleep. Even though I was wet, it worked and I got some much needed rest.

The next day ended up being the second most challenging day I’ve spent on a bicycle. **The other came a week later when I rode through the windiest region in France on my way to Beziers** I woke up early thinking that I needed to do another run, so I set out into the streets of Girona. I followed a nice river trail to the outskirts of the city. As morning came, the fog lifted off the river, and I was treated to a beautiful run in a fairly dirty Spanish city. Exhausted from a lack of sleep and my morning run, I took a quick nap before they finally kicked me out of the hostel. It was around 12 and it was already starting to get hot again.

The ride to Barcelona was one of the worst afternoons I had this entire month. The countryside was dull and infinite, the sun was hot as hell, and the wind pelted me head on for the duration of the ride. I couldn’t get any break from the wind, and I started to realize that I would probably have this headwind for the entire 80 miles. Luckily, I found a little entertainment to keep my mind preoccupied. As I slowly made my way through the Spanish countryside, I started to notice young women hanging out on the side of the road. When I passed the first woman, I assumed she was selling something on the side of the road (she pretty much was). In southern Arizona, there are plenty of people that sell food and crafts on the side of the highway. I assumed this was like that. I slowed down thinking that maybe I could buy some food. The girl stood up from under her umbrella, turned around, hiked up her skirt and flashed me her backside.

“Ahhhhh!” It was a shrill of shear shock and a little excitement.

 I couldn’t even believe it. I had never seen prostitutes outside of the city like this. Most of them were very young and somewhat attractive eastern European women. If anything was going to save this ride, it was going to be free nudity. The closer I got to Barcelona, the more naked women I saw (a precursor to what my stay in Barcelona was like). Around 20 miles out, I hit the seaside and the real headwind struck. Those last 20 miles took me around 2 hours. I tried to have patience, but there were no more prostitutes.

Rolling into Barcelona was a bit overwhelming. The city was large and I had no idea where my host, Luis, lived. Again, my GPS worked for shit and it took me an hour to find his apartment. As he opened the door to his centrally located apartment (he lived in the gothic area right between the beach and the city), I was hit with a blast of AC. I welcomed the icy apartment with open arms. Never mind the fact that my bed was a love seat, his apartment was freezing. I loved it.

After some much needed food and a few beers, I felt like Luis was an old friend. Luis is a very particular, laid back yet outgoing, homosexual from Argentina. It took me awhile to realize that he was gay, but his fairly flamboyant and weirdly gigantic French roommate should have been a slight give away. In any sense, I could have cared less about Luis’s sexual preference. I was just happy to have such a caring and hospitable host in Barcelona. Plus, we got along well and I had this feeling that my time in Barcelona would be unforgettable.

The next day was Monday. Nasty Monday to be exact… but I’ll get to that later. Exhausted from the last few days of travel, I slept until 1pm. Luis had just got back from work and we made plans to go to the pool later. Because of travel, I hadn’t been swimming much. Let’s just say, swim training in Barcelona was well worth the 10 Euros I paid for pool access. It was kind of like paying cover at a strip club and then getting to do a swim workout. Walking out onto the pool deck was like walking into a women’s locker room. Almost every woman was topless. I felt like I was overdressed in my tiny blue Speedo. I found an open lane and tried to start my workout. But to my surprise, the women don’t just tan topless, they train topless too! Two fairly attractive (and topless) Spanish women asked to share my lane. I quickly nodded my head in agreement. Both women wore bottoms, a swim cap and goggles, and both women were legitimately doing swim workouts. I tried to do my workout, but I ended up doing an impromptu kick set. I couldn’t help myself. Instead of trying to blend into the odd swimming environment, I used my go-to excuse for this trip… “It’s okay. I’m American.”

As we left the pool and headed towards the beach for some post workout relaxing, I saw a very odd site. Looking back now, it wasn’t so odd for Barcelona, but at the time it was quite shocking. A man walked down the city streets completely naked. With some sandals on his feet and a bag draped over his shoulder, he walked through the streets like it was no big deal. I couldn’t stop starring. This was NOT normal for me.

Later at the beach, **Luis actually took me to the gay beach without telling me** I saw way more nudity, male and female, and a few other things that I would rather not share here. Although, if you would like to know, just ask me. I have pictures too!

That night we met up with a few friends of Luis for what we will call “Nasty Monday.” It was already 10pm, which means I could finally get some dinner. In Spain, restaurants don’t even open until 9pm. This was a weird part of Spanish culture that I didn’t like too much. Anyways, after dinner and a few drinks, we headed out to this club in the heart of the city. It was a Monday night and I didn’t think that it was going to be too eventful. We arrived around midnight, grabbed a few gin and tonics and hung out in the empty club. Fast forward 20 minutes… the club is freaking packed! In literally 20 minutes, 500 people packed this club. I couldn’t even believe it. The music was bumping, my judgment was fairly slighted and I was ready for what Barcelona had to offer…

The clock clicked past 1:00pm before my body was somewhat functional again. With that retched hangover cloud floating over my head, I tried to engage in some touristy activities. I quickly decided the tourism is boring and it was too damn dehydrated to be roaming through the park, no matter how beautiful the landscape (Park Guell was quite stunning and I would absolutely recommend this tourist attraction, especially in the winter). I took retreat in an icy apartment.

Tired of feeling the effects of Barcelona, I convinced myself that I needed to run myself into some type normalcy. Being that Barcelona is quite polluted, I took the train to the outskirts of the city. Once out of the train station, I ran straight up… a pattern that frequented my runs in Spain and the south of France. The road twisted and turned as I climbed out of the city. Not accustom to the steep grade, my quads burned with that lovely feeling of lactic acid. My breathing was heavy and my hangover was quickly a feeling of the past. The grade evened out for a bit, but my effort continued to climb. Latching onto a struggling mountain biker, my climbing pace turned into a tempo as I followed him onto a dirt trail.

With a slight turn of the head, I whispered to myself, “You have got to me kidding me…”

I was greeted with the most beautiful view Barcelona had to offer. The narrow dirt trail, cut out of the side of the mountain, went for miles and miles. Over my right shoulder was all of Barcelona with the infinite sea in the farthest distance. I hammered along the oblique surface displaying a small smirk that barely revealed my euphoric state of mind… My mind was a clear slate… total blankness. I didn’t dare think about the long trip ahead. 

Sep 6, 2010

Running into the sky in Perpignan, France

After a long train ride from Geneva, I finally arrived in Perpignan, France. I was tired and a little perturbed after standing in a crowded train car attempting to hold my bike up. I thought to myself, “How amazing will it be to finally start traveling by bike.” After two days of travel, I was tired of trains and long flights. **By the end of my trip, I was ecstatic to catch a train back to Geneva**

My train arrived in the center of Perpignan. I had a host set up outside of the city, but like many mistakes I made on this trip, I failed to realize how far outside of the city he lived. Looking back now, I wish he would have said “Pedal to the mountains, then pedal up the mountain.” Instead, I had a list of confusing directions. Being that it was my first time attempting to ride anywhere on my converted race bike / touring machine, it did not go well. I ended up lost, following my GPS, which was set for traveling by car. While I flew down the side of the freeway (incredibly unsafe decision) at 30mph, I was starting to get seriously scared. If bike touring was like this, I wasn’t going to survive one week of this trip. Lucky for me, I found an exit and proceeded on an alternative route. Unlucky for me, the navigation function on my phone drained my battery and I was now lost and without a phone. Because I was relying on my phone for EVERYTHING, I started to feel like I was screwed. It was now getting dark. Fuck. **After this mishap, I started to rely solely on paper maps and written directions**

Nothing in the last month went as planned. Everyday, I found myself in a situation where I had to think on my feet. If there is one lesson that I learned in the last month of traveling, it is to live everyday minute by minute… to never stress out over little disasters… and to truly believe that everything will work out, no matter how bad the situation seems.

Lost and confused, I did what anyone would do. I found a bar. Now, I know that I was only a few kilometers away from my host’s home in a small village that lay in the foothills of the Pyrenees. But, at the time, I had no freaking clue where I was! I sat at the small local bar, ordered a beer, and asked if I could plug my phone in. After a few beers, my phone was alive and I was able to continue into the mountains. As I climbed higher, the homes became more and more beautiful. When I arrived, I was greeted by Matt, a short, corky British guy in his 30s. Staying with Matt ended up being an amazing decision. His home was nestled deep in the Pyrenees. It was equipped with a small basement apartment and swimming pool. It took some time to truly get to know Matt, but what I uncovered was a selfless, strong willed, well educated guy with a lot to share. Matt was also a brilliant chef and didn’t mind cooking for me both nights that I stayed with him.

The next morning, I jumped on my bike and headed towards the sea. With my speedo, goggles, sandals, and towel strapped to my bike rack, I flew down the mountain towards the sea. Matt had given me directions to a more private beach called La Plage de Paulille, about 20 miles outside of town. I made him promise me that there were no big sharks in the sea **there weren’t any sharks, just lots of fish** The water was chilly, but the sun was hot. I definitely liked swimming in the crystal clear Mediterranean water. Avoiding snorkelers ended up being the most difficult task. The water was calm and I started to enjoy swimming with the fish. The ride back into the mountains was much more difficult, but I was excited to be riding in a new place. The roads were steep, narrow and winding. Each small village I passed through was a welcomed change to the steep mountain roads. Back outside Sorede at Matt’s house, he had just finished up work and wanted to go for a mountain run. I assumed there were some decent trails in the area, so I gladly went along. I should have realized what the run would be like when Matt said “we’ll basically run up the mountain for 6km and then run back down.” Up we went indeed.

The dirt switch backs had us climbing faster than I thought was possible. The road was steep and it was difficult to keep a running pace. Every time the road twisted back towards Perpignan, we were greeted with the most amazing view of the region. As we stumbled higher into the sky, the view became increasingly more beautiful. When the dirt road ended, a narrow and rooted single track trail began. It snaked its way higher into the mountain. The terrain became technical and Matt’s short stride started to benefit him. I had never seen anyone run technical terrain like Matt did. Jumping over rocks, climbing ledges, and running through roots like a football player running through tires. I tried to stay as close as possible. Towards the top of the mountain, we weren’t even running anymore. The trail was so steep that we used our hands to climb the rock ledges. Looking up, I could see the feeble ruins of a thousand year old watch tower. We climbed towards the sky. Once we reached the summit, I was greeted with one of the greatest sites I had ever seen with my own two eyes. We could see for a hundred miles in both directions. We looked down on the Mediterranean Sea with Perpignan, the Pyrenees and all of France on our left, and the Spanish countryside on our right. I took a few deep breathes, spun around and screamed into the night as the wind nearly knocked me off the stone ledge.

“Are you fucking kidding me!?! Matt! This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life!” He laughed and nodded his head.

The next morning, I packed my bags and started the 160 mile trip to Barcelona. What was waiting in Spain was a totally different type of adventure, but it wouldn’t even be three days before I had myself repeating the exact same phrase that I screamed on top of the mountain that night outside Perpignan.

Cheers from the Pyrenees

Sep 4, 2010

Bikes, Bocci, and Beer in Geneva, Switzerland

It was 2:00am in Cleveland when my plane landed in Switzerland. Exhausted from the flight, I knew I would have a long day ahead of me. After collecting my suitcases and bike box, I found a quiet corner and started putting my bike together. Arriving in a new country, building a bike in the airport, and riding out the front door is an interesting experience to say the least. Someone from the training center in Premanon was kind enough to meet me at the airport to get my bike box and suitcases. He didn’t speak English, but knew I was grateful for his help. By the time I was ready to roll out, the anxiety started to kick in. If I spoke any French at all, the first few hours would have been MUCH easier.

I needed to find downtown Geneva, find the train station, book a ticket to Spain, find a place to stay and situate my belongings. Sounds easy enough, but when no one in Switzerland seemed to speak English, the task became much harder.

My plan was to use my cell phone to find the train station. But the address was on my dead laptop and my phone was too dead to open the navigation. Great… After an hour of attempting to not get hit by traffic, I finally made it to the station. This was a success, but I found out that I could not bring my bike to Spain without packing it in a box. I guess I am going to the south of France instead. I booked the ticket for the next day, and made my way down the street to the Youth Hostel. It was 1pm in Geneva and I couldn’t check in until 2pm. I was hungry anyways, so I found a pub on the corner and had a sandwich and beer.

After checking into an insanely expensive dorm room with 9 other people, **seriously, it was like 30 euros for this bed** I locked my belongings in a locker and headed out for a run. After a quarter mile, I was on a path that circled Lake Geneva. Although crowded, it was a gorgeous place to run. The exhilaration of running in a new city had me floating through sub 6 minute miles. I knew I should slow down, but it was the best I’ve felt in months. I was healthy, in a new city, and finally running well. I said “screw it” and continued to hammer down the road. I felt my pace waver momentarily, but that changed as I ran by a group of topless women lying on the rocks. I quickly decided that my turn around should be here. I doubled back, slowed wayyyyyyy down, took a long look (it was free nudity), said bonjour in my crappy American accent, and then continued on my way. I thought to myself “Geneva isn’t all that bad.”

After a shower and short nap, I figured it would be a good time to take the bike out and really see the city. I tossed on some jeans, tied my shoes to the bike rack, and headed out. After cruising around the city for awhile, I found the “Old City.” It sat a few hundred feet above downtown, surrounded by large stone walls. My bike wobbled as I tore through the cobble stone streets. This city was definitely a site to see. I sat down at a small cafĂ©, ordered something in French, and ended up with a dish that resembled a cross between a thin crust pizza and a pancake. **It was a crepe, but at the time, I thought all crepes were sweet** After dinner/breakfast, I cruised through a few of the parks that surrounded the old city. When I finally headed away from the old city, I was attracted to the skate park I saw in the distance. Across from the skate park was a large stone bocci ball court. The court was filled with younger guys and girls drinking 1664 and playing bocci ball. After watching for a moment, I rode up to the fence.

“Par-lay voo ong-lay?” Asking someone if they spoke English was the only phrase that I had mastered so far.
“Yeah, we do,” they responded.
“Thank god. Ummm, can I play?”
“I guess so. You’ll make four so we can play teams”
“Sounds good to me,” I said as I forced my way into their game (this is how I make friends).
“You want a beer?”
“Hells yeah!” I shouted. These guys seem alright to me.

After an hour of playing bocci and a victory that I had earned, they invited me to roll with them for the rest of the night. With no other plans, I gladly accepted. We all hopped on our bikes, slightly buzzed, and began ripping through the city as the sun set. By the time we got to the festival on the lake it was dark. After locking our bikes to a fence that had been erected for the festival, we grabbed some burgers and beers and found a place in the grass. With thousands and thousands of people gathering for this summer event, it was the biggest festival I had ever been to. **Until two weeks later when I attended La Feria in Beziers, France** After a few beers, we went to jump back on the bikes but ran into a small problem. The festival workers had continued to put up fences and our bikes had become fenced in. After a good laugh, I considered climbing it, but quickly remembered that I don’t climb fences anymore. No worries though, the fences were zip tied together and I had my pocket knife on me. After tearing down their fence, we quickly got on the bikes and headed into the park for a late night concert. The music wasn’t my style but the beer and large amounts of women were my style. As our blood alcohol levels grew, our group had begun to grow as well. We now had around 12 people rolling through town on bikes. We headed back to a bar near the festival and picked up right were we left off. By 2am, these guys had become old friends. We laughed and drank late into the night. We joked about our differences in culture and I actually learned quite a bit from them about French culture. I even had the awkward pleasure of kissing a female acquaintances three times on the cheek. **It was only awkward the first time, I got used to this part of French culture very quickly**

We finally called it a night when it began to rain. After a short, wet and semi-drunken cycle back to the youth hostel, I stumbled up to my 10 person dorm room. I woke everyone up as I slammed my locker shut (several times) by accident. As I lay on the stiff mattress, I thought back on the evening. “This is exactly why I wanted to travel by myself.” By forcing myself to be social with strangers, I had an amazing time in a brand new city. If this is the pattern for the next 4 weeks, it is going to be a long month! **It was indeed a VERY long month**

Cheers from Switzerland!