Thursday, October 28, 2010

Yinging My Yang

Probably the best thing about doing a hard ride is that you then get to do a recovery ride the next day.

A recovery ride is supposed to be kind of like taking a stroll in a park. You don't attack the hills. There's no sprinting. You just ... saunter.

I've decided that this is going to be my mode for the rest of the year. I'm going to take a couple of recovery months.

This does not mean that I won't be riding. That would be kind of like punishing myself, really. It just means that I'm going to take it easier, look at the trees, and stop any time that I see fresh-baked goodies.

I came to this new resolve Sunday, after I set out early for a long recovery ride. RandoGirl slept in, so that she could meet me in College Grove about 10 am. They have a good parking lot, and there are some wonderful route opportunities from there. More important, however, is that they've re-opened the grocery store, and carry lots of fresh-baked goodies.

There was a stiff wind blowing Sunday -- mostly in my face as I headed south. I went through McKay's Mill (where I took the first picture), and then headed to Bethesda. On Choctaw Road, just after passing through the above tunnel of leaves, I came across a bunch of turkeys sitting on the pavement. When they saw me, they proved that wild turkeys really can fly.

It's been a dry fall in middle Tennessee, so the trees have not been as colorful as usual in many places.

One good thing about sunglasses: They tint things with a little more yellow. In fall, this makes mild foliage less ho-hum.

On Giles Hill Road, the headwind became a crosswind as I finally turned east. Going down another tree-canopied lane, a gust came up, and I was suddenly biking through a red, orange, and yellow kaleidoscope as leaves tumbled down and across the road. I decided yet again that this is the prettiest planet that I can ever remember living on.

Sure, the wind can be a bitch sometimes. When it's in your face, you work hard. When it's at your side, you work hard. When it's at your back, you get a break ... but it's never as much of a break as you feel that you should have earned after all that riding into and across that wind. However, if not for that strong wind, I would not have gotten that incredible moment riding through a fall-tinted kaleidoscope.

You gotta take the good with the bad.

RandoGirl and I did another 30 miles together, using a route that mostly kept the wind blowing across us. We still ended up with a good stretch near Murfreesboro where the wind was at our backs, and RandoGirl took off.

Back up on Patterson Road, however, the wind was blowing us over.

Later, it was in our teeth on Arno Road, and then Eudaily-Covington. By the time we got back to the car, we were tired enough of the wind that I didn't mind putting the bike into the van and catching a ride home. Maybe another 30-40 miles would have been better for me to keep my base for randonneuring, but I was tired. I also wanted a couple of cupcakes from the grocery.

Between slow riding and cupcakes, I'm probably going to turn into a slug during the winter. Come spring, at the few races that I plan to do next year, I may do very poorly.

But fall is a time for moderation and balance -- and not just by leaning into the crosswinds. You can't be "all hammer all the time," just as you can't look at every ride as a 100+ mile suffer-fest. If losing a little of my edge is the price that I must pay for keeping joy in my riding, then it's worth it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How I Won the Fly Gran Fondo

Short Answer: I won it by riding it.

A Little Longer Answer: Anybody riding this course, with these people, and then chowing down on bodacious cajun food and drinking extraordinary local brew afterwards would obviously be a winner. So I won.

And now the long answer ... maybe so long that you won't read it. So you should stop now.


I mean it.

Oh, all right. If you insist ...

First, I've got to tell you how sick I was last week. I spent far too many hours cramped up in a shiny metal tube, breathing in what 200 other unhealthy people were breathing out (or worse), and caught a cold. Then, I rode my bike in to work on Wednesday, trying to flush the cold out. It didn't work, and Thursday I stayed home, feeling like the crusty part on the edge of the crud that grows on very, very old garbage.

If not for the fact that I was kind of the organizer of this team (I hesitate to call myself "captain," since that involves a level of responsibility with which I am more than slightly uncomfortable), I would have bailed. But we had just found our fifth team member, and we had to have at least five riders, so I merely reconciled myself to the fact that -- thanks in no small part to me -- we would suck.

Friday I felt a little better, and Saturday I was no longer ill. All that remained of my bout was about 3.5 gallons of phlegm, split evenly between the sinus cavities in my stopped-up head and the alveoli of my consumptive lungs. As long as I did not need to breath and/or oxygenate blood, I would be fine.

RandoGirl and I rode down to Fly with one of my team-mates, the erstwhile Jeff Bauer. It was still a little chilly as we unloaded and gathered our teammates: Lisa Starmer, Larry Lewis, and John Burrell.

For some reason, we had all decided to wear the same jersey, so everyone got back in their cars and went home to change. Just kidding (I kill me)! Actually, we just decided to race under the Gran Fondo Fixies name because we had enough jerseys. None of us was actually foolish enough to ride this race on fixed-gear bikes.

Vida Greer, who had done an incredible job organizing the race, soon lined us all up and gave us instructions.

We were to be the third team out, with one minute between each. There would be four checkpoints on the course, and all team members had to sign in at each. We would then get the time of the last team member across the finish line. Standing at the starting line, the instructions seemed perfectly clear to me, even through my Mucinex/Sudafed haze. Basically, we would bike along the course, stop when we were told, and sign things. Between these intervals, my team would wait for me ... a lot. Ultimately, we could then limp in at nightfall, amid derisive laughter.

Somehow, however, when we started, we managed to go fast. We cruised along the first flat section of Leiper's Creek Road, and then zipped up the first climb up Steam Mill Hollow. We caught a rider from one of the first teams as we hit Leatherwood Road, and were looking good as we started the parts of this road that are dirt.

Somehow, the dirt sections slowed down the earlier teams, and they quickly came into view. Since this was my route, however, I knew where the few trouble spots were, and before we were back on pavement my team was actually in the lead.

Then, we had a flat.

Actually, John had the flat, and the smart thing for us to have done here would have been for the whole team to stop and help him fix it. Unfortunately, we were tired. John had been so strong during the first few miles of the race, taking very long and fast pulls, that I kind of welcomed the flat as a chance to soft-pedal a bit and recover. So, only Larry stayed back with John to help him fix the flat, and Jeff, Lisa, and I rolled on.

And on. And on.

The teams we had passed on Leatherwood passed us. Then the Gran Fondo team. Then another team, and a pack of the fast individual riders. When a couple of tandems passed us, we turned around and started back. We went less than a mile before John and Larry finally came along. Apparently, the tire did not want to be changed, and they had been forced to become insistent.

We decided at this point that our race was pretty much over. We still rode fairly hard, of course, but we took our time as we came to the first sign-in station on Kettle Mills Road. On the descent down Love Branch, we hammered for a few miles, but then eased off again as we went through Hampshire and back up to Ridgetop. We even stopped at the entrance to Amber Falls and took a few team pictures.

First, Lisa took one. Then, I took one with Lisa in it. One of the solo riders came by, so we got him to take a picture of all of us.

Obviously, we were not in a hurry at this point.

We moved quickly along Cathey's Creek ... but not so fast that we couldn't appreciate what a beautiful road it was that day.

I was starting to feel my lack of lung capacity on Greenfield Bend Road, and a long fast stretch on Snow Creek forced me to fall in behind Jeff with a raspy, nasty cough. We took our time going up the harsh climb of Pigg Schoolhouse Road, so I felt better as we went through Santa Fe. This didn't last, however, and the team was forced to slow for me again for the last couple of miles, as we limped in to Fly.

Where we discovered, much to our amazement, that we were the third place team.

Apparently, some teams had lost a few members on the route. Since we stuck together (translation: My fast teammates slowed down to drag me along), we managed to salvage a podium spot. Along with certificates suitable for framing, we all got a nifty bag, bracelets, and a very nice pair of merino wool socks. Of course, we also got to eat jambalaya from Papa Boudreaux's and drink Yazoo Brewery beer afterwards.

All that, on top of a great time riding a fantastic course, would make anybody a winner.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

You Don't Know What You've Got 'Til You're Gone (and Come Back)

While we were in Italy, we were constantly "oohing" and "aahing" (in Italian, it's pronounced "a-oohing" and "a-aahing" -- thank you, Rosetta Stone) over the scenery. The lovely coast, the olive trees, the vineyards ... bellissimo!

As we're flying back, our first glimpse of our native continent was bits of Newfoundland. From 30,000 feet, the seas looked wild and cold, with the wind blowing the tops off of the waves surrounding the small rocky islands. Later, landing at Washington's Dulles airport, we could see the brilliant fall colors of the trees as we came in over the deep blue of the Potomac River. Finally, driving home in Nashville, we saw again the same colors, tempered by our slightly warmer climate, covering the easy hills of home.


Tuesday was crazy, and I had picked up a cold during the trip home. This morning, however, I was able to bike in to work again. The air was cooler than in Sicily, of course, but I was cozy in tights, glove liners, and a long-sleeve wool jersey. It felt great to be back on my bike (nothing personal, Experience Plus -- I just need a longer cockpit), on the same old roads, seeing the same old fellow commuters ... even if they were in cars.

The fall colors canopied my roads, where a few damp spots remained from yesterday's rain. Descending into one neighborhood, I rode through a patch of low fog that made me feel as if I was floating on top of a cloud, ghosting along on vaporous wheels, wispy contrails flowing under my fenders. I sat up and sipped my coffee, then worked hard on the short climb back out. After three days off of the bike, the effort felt good.

A lady in an SUV stopped to let me out at one intersection, and a little red car held back on a fast descent until I waved him past at the bottom. Nobody passed me too closely, or in any blind corners. Everyone behaved.

It was really great to get away for a couple of weeks -- visit different places and immerse myself in the culture, bike with my wife and a slew of new friends over beautiful roads that offered a great mix of challenging climbs, tricky surfaces, and sweet descents. Afterwards (and sometimes during), we ate a lot of great food, drank some excellent beverages, and watched the world go by.

But, do you really have to go to a different continent for that? Well, no. Not really. As a matter of fact, I'm going to tell you how you can take a little cycling vacation ...

Saturday, there's a ride that I guarantee will have some roads that you have never ridden on. It's got a fun mix of pristine pavement, smooth dirt, fast flats, and truly challenging climbs. At the finish, there will be superb cajun food for registered riders and locally brewed beer.

And it's right here in middle Tennessee.

Yes, I'm talking about the Fly Gran Fondo. You may have biked all over Fly, Leiper's Fork, and all points in-between, but there are some roads that you have somehow managed to miss. Vida and Lynn Greer and I found them, and then we put the best of them all together to build this really great route.

This ride will open up some new, heart-wrenchingly beautiful vistas to you, and you will kick yourself if you miss it. Have you ever kicked yourself? It's a good way to pull something. I don't want that, and you don't want that, so you may just as well come on out and do this ride.

Here's a preview ...

Yeah, that's me out there (the screen really does put 50 pounds on you). Recognize the road that I'm riding? Of course not, because it's a secret road! You may know some of the other roads we will be doing, such as Snow Creek or Pigg Schoolhouse. If you read this blog regularly, you may have even heard about how beautiful Cathey's Creek is, or the great shady climb up to Ridgetop.

Well, this route has those ... and more. And, unlike a lot of my routes, it has less of something: This thing's just 65 itty-bitty miles long.

So, come join me and 100+ other riders Saturday, October 23, on a mini-vacation to a unique culture (just hang around the front porch of Mr. Fly's store for a while and you will see things you've never imagined). You'll ride some new (to you) roads through beautiful fall-colored country and enjoy cycling challenges and thrills. If you're one of the 100 registered riders, you'll also get delicious hot cajun food from Papa Boudreaux's and cold beer from Yazoo Brewery when it's all over.

And all the Italian that you need to know is "Gran Fondo."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Marys in the Overhead

When you tell people about long bike rides, they often shake their heads and say things like, "I could never do that. It would just hurt too much."

Right now, I'm at 32,000 feet over France, in a shakey shiny metal cylinder. The guy in front of me has his seat levered back so that it's resting on my left knee; my right knee is wedged against the bulkhead, under the armrest. (Airplane seats are not designed for 6' 2" people.) There's a baby 15 rows ahead of me -- I can only imagine how jarring the crying is in row 21 -- and a strange aroma keeps wafting up from a few rows back that could be someone's lunch, or maybe a recurrence from last night's dinner. We've got just eight hours of flying ahead -- about the amount of time that a fast 200K takes.

Travel like this hurts too much.

It's times like this that I fantasize about doing this kind of trip some other way ... any way that would not require me to get on an airplane or in a car. It's not that I'm afraid to fly, and it's not really on pure ecological grounds. Planes are necessary, and (compared to cars) not that big a polluter. I kind of like the view from a plane, and I like getting where I need to be relatively quickly. To be honest, I just have an aversion to being anywhere surrounded by lots of other people.

And it's not even that I don't like people, either. I am people. Some of my best friends are people. RandoGirl and the RandoDaughter are people, and most of my fellow randonneurs are people (or so they assure me). I often like meeting strangers, talking to them, and finding a different perspective on things.

But when you get this many of them all around me in a really small place, I immediately want out.

RandoGirl and I had a great time on the last days of our cycling trip. We had a few more days of really great long rides to beautiful locations. We went inland, stopping for a picnic on a nice quiet road surrounded by groves of orange and olive trees. We went back to the coast for quaint hotels on rugged shores with lovely sunsets.

Sunset over the sea in Agrigento

Sunday morning, we travelled to the Palermo airport with Ray and Sharon, a couple from Vancouver who had been on our trip. We took a cab to the Agrigento train station, and then crossed Sicily via the interior. From the train, it looked like nice quiet farmland interspersed with stark granite mountains. I kept wishing that I could have traversed this by bicycle, even though it was about 250 kilometers.

In Palermo, we took a bus to the airport. It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon, and everyone was out and about. There were bicycles everywhere in the city -- many folks just rambling around town, and some guys out doing their training.

Bike lane in Palermo

At the airport, we got to pay a fee for our luggage. Now, we had a lot of luggage -- probably too much -- but we had packed according to what we thought were the airport allowances. We were wrong, obviously, but you really have to wonder whether the airlines purposely try to make their baggage rules on their websites confusing, or if they are just lucky obfuscation amateurs.

Anyway, eventually we got on the first small silver tube. It wasn't too bad, as planes go. It was full, of course, and the seats were too small, and it smelled funny. But it took off on time -- at least, for Sicily -- and arrived.

At the Rome airport, we got our bags, ate a quick dinner, and headed for ground transportation. We had considered seeing if the Courtyard by Marriott had a shuttle, but could not figure it out. Finally, we went to the taxi stand and asked one of the drivers how much ("Cuanta costa" in Italian) for a ride to the Courtyard by Marriott in Fumiciano (which is the same city where the airport is). He said 20 euro, which was acceptable.

Of course, he couldn't be the one to drive us. I'm not sure if the older, irascible gentleman who grabbed our bags was supposed to be the next guy in line or what, but we ended up in his cab. I repeated the directions: Courtyard by Marriott in Fumciano -- via Portuense. "Si, si," he answered, and began the usual Rome taxi driving thrill ride on the autostrade. We quickly fastened our seat belts.

RandoGirl and I looked at one another when we saw the sign saying that we were leaving Fumiciano. I wanted to show the driver the address again, but he was weaving in and out of Saabs, Fiats, and Mercedes at over 100 kph. When he finally slowed down for the traffic, I held up the piece of paper on which I had written the hotel address again, saying, "Courtyard by Marriott ... Fumiciano."

"Si, si," he answered. "Marriott," pointing to a hotel on a hill. Hmm, we thought. It doesn't look like Courtyard by Marriotts usually do in the States, but he's the cab driver. Those guys are supposed to know.

We pulled up, and a bellhop came out for our bags. "Is this the Courtyard by Marriott?" RandoGirl asked.

"No, no," he replied. "That is in Fumiciano." Then he started to give the cab driver directions, but the driver said no, thanks. He could find it.

Back into the cab we go, and the cab driver is putting the address into his GPS. He wants Via Portuense in Rome -- we both tell him, "No! Fumiciano!"

He mumbles something under his breath, but all we catch is "Americano."

Soon, sure enough, we are on Via Portuense. The driver is going along, looking at addresses, and grumbling ... a lot. Apparently, Via Portuense parallels the autostrade, but he is insistent on staying on this busy street to take us to the hotel, which he seems to think must be close.

About 45 minutes and a half-dozen traffic-choked roundabouts later, we pull into the Courtyard by Marriott. Throughout this debacle, I had been watching the meter on the cab, which now read "68.50." After we get the bags out, I hand the driver the agreed upon 20 euro, plus a two-euro tip. He, somewhat predictably, explodes.

"No! No! This is impossible!" he cries. "Seventy!"

"No!" I reply. "You agreed! Twenty euro. It is not our fault that you took us first to the wrong hotel."

"No! No!" he said. "You said Marriott!"

"We said Courtyard by Marriott. In Fumiciano"

"Si, si, Marriott."

He then gave me back my 20 Euro bill and told me that I was a stupid American. I pointed out that at least I knew the difference between a Courtyard by Marriott and a Marriott, and he tried a few more times to pick a fight with me. RandoGirl and I started to walk away, and he asked for the 20 back. I gave it to him, and he said a few other things in Italian.

But I don't speak Italian. I'm a stupid American.

After a rather comfortable night at the Courtyard by Marriott, it took us five minutes on the six-euro shuttle to get back to the airport. There, we stood in line to give our bags, and then stood in another line to pay 50 euro for the extra bag. (Lufthansa and Alitalia must use the same lawyers to document their baggage policies ... or maybe it's the stupid American in me again.) This left us rushing for the gate, with a quick stop at the duty free store for a few bottles of Brunello di Montepulciano.

Back at baggage check-in, we had noticed a group of German tourists carrying large statues of the Virgin Mary. All of these folks were on our flight, which meant that their statues had to be properly stowed before we could leave the gate. Once the overhead bins were full of Virgin Marys, there wasn't enough room for the small carry-ons with which every European travels. (This is a sensible way of avoiding the extra-bag fee that only stupid Americans end up paying.) As a result, the area beneath every seat was crammed, jammed, and chock-a-block before we could finally push away from the gate ... half an hour past our appointed time.

Mary in a hoody

RandoGirl and I were a little worried now. We had a two-hour layover in Munich before our flight to Washington, DC, and then our final connection home to Nashville. Two hours had seemed like plenty when we were booking the flights ... but, then, three bags had not seemed excessive then, either.

After an hour and a half bumpy ride in another smelly metal cylinder, we jumped off the plane in Munich and ran for our gate. We had to go through another passport check, of course, and then another security screening, but we made it to the plane with a full 15 minutes to spare before the plane pushed away.

Getting to our seats, we would have heaved a sigh of relief ... but we were on another cramped, stinky cylinder and could not draw sufficient breath to heave said sigh ... without gagging on the stench of last night's stale bratwurst.

And, so, here we are on said same stinky cylinder. They just brought RandoGirl a cold Diet Coke in the smallest can I've ever seen.

In Europe it's Coke Light

I had been planning to do Paris-Brest-Paris next year. Maybe I can come over on a boat.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Mi Amphora, Tu Amphora

It's just after 7 am Thursday here in Marinella. I'm sitting on the rooftop terrace of our hotel, watching the sun come up over the low peaks of eastern Sicily, and I am struck once again how beautiful this place is.

The weather here has been like Florida at this time of year, but with a little less humidity. The day starts off about perfectly, with temperatures in the upper 60's. It warms nicely by the time we start riding -- usually between 9 and 10 am -- and is toasty in the afternoon. The winds also pick up then, as you would expect being along the coast. Fabio says it's why the sailing here is so good.

Here's a picture of the sunset from this same terrace last night.

Tuesday we had a great ride. I planned to go out very early, descend Erice, and then climb back up to join everybody for breakfast and the "real" ride. Unfortunately, in all the hurry of getting someone to let me in to the garage where the bikes were kept, I grabbed the wrong bicycle -- RandoGirl's. By the time I realized my mistake, the garage door was closed and the hotel employee gone.

Descending Erice on a frame three sizes too small felt kind of weird. I was worried that climbing back up would be a little hard on my knees, so I only went a couple of miles before turning around and heading back up. I stood for most of it, so it wasn't too bad.

I got back to the hotel about the time that breakfast was being served, so I woke up RandoGirl and ate. Then, we all got the right bikes, and headed down the mountain.

My new plan was to descend, then climb back up the way that I had come, and then slowly try to catch back up to RandoGirl. I screwed it up a little by missing the left turn onto the new road, so I got another mile down and back on one of the roads that I had used to climb up to Erice before. Then, I took the right road down, which was so curvy and twisty that I was on the brakes all of the way. I then started back up, thinking that I would take some pictures during this climb.

But, you'll notice that there are no pictures. This is because I had (once again) left the memory card in the laptop, which leaves one with a camera that -- technically -- has no film. This left me with the sole option of hammering my way back up the climb.

Once back at the top, I "enjoyed" the descent again (I apologize now to my brakes), and then put my head down to try to catch up to the group. I eventually caught RandoGirl in Motya. We caught the ferry over and toured the Phoenician ruins there, then rode together along the salt pans to our hotel in Marsala. After getting cleaned up, we then toured one of the distilleries there that makes the wine named for the town.

It was very interesting and tasty. The wines are extremely varied, as you would expect from Sicily.

Wednesday, we got the bikes ready. They had spent the evening having a party in the courtyard.

I got to watch the guys load the spare bikes for a while. This is a pretty involved operation, particularly considering how narrow and twisty some of the roads are, and how low the tree branches hang over them.

(I'll try to publish the video below, but Sicily is not exactly internet city; if it doesn't show up, expect it when I'm back in the states.)

It had rained pretty heavily during the evening, so we had to go around (and thru) a lot of puddles on the first part of this day's ride. Usually, it was just RandoGirl and I, but for this stretch we picked up many of our fellow travellers. This gave us a chance to all get lost together a few times.

When we left the coast, we rode through vineyards. These look like raisins, which they use in some of the Marsala wines.

We stopped for lunch in Mazara del Vallo, walking around that town a bit. Then we continued down the coast. It was a lovely, rocky, wild-looking beach. It would have been spectacular if not for the piles of garbage.

Many of the architectural sites and museums here have amphoras. These are large clay vessels that the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, and whoever else lived here used to carry liquid produce. In a couple of thousand years, historians will have lots of our Coca Cola amphora.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Short Rides with Lots of Stuff

My original plan was to add in lots of extra mileage on this trip, to avoid getting bored. Instead, our tour guides have add in lots of extra stuff between the mileage, and thus have kept me from getting bored. I feel spiritually and intellectually enriched, even if my quadriceps have not kept pace.

I also feel gustatorily enriched, which might be why my quadriceps feel left out. They are having a hard time keeping up with my swelling midriff.

After Thursday's short spin, we left Modello on Friday to head for quieter country. The first 20 kilometers or so were kind of hectic, since Modello is really a suburb of Palermo, but once we got out past the airport things quieted down. This was helped by sticking to less-travelled roads, as usual, including some where the pavement came and went at irregular intervals.

Eventually, we arrived at Castellammare del Golfo, which is a small fishing village centered around a castle on a gulf (duh). Much of the trip was punctuated by sections with small roving packs of dogs, interspersed with areas where the garbage had not been picked up for a few weeks. Apparently, the garbage workers in Sicily are on vacation, while the dogs are working overtime.

Saturday was a lot more fun. We left the hotel at Castellammare del Golfo for the ruins of Segesta. The route included lots of fun little climbs, and then a climb that RandoGirl and I got to do on foot up to the theatre and temple there.

If the climb up to the theatre wasn't enough fun, we then decided to take the paths back down. These were filled with loose rocks, which was interesting to go down on wearing our cycling sandals.

We were the first riders in our group to get to Segesta, and then were the first to leave. We rode on to Chesanuova, where Girolamo (one of our guides) had told us to go by the Jolly Bar for the best cannollo around. He was right.

Fortified with pastry, we headed to Valderice and on down the hill to Bonagia, where we were staying at a really nice hotel on the water. I enjoyed the descent so much that I then went back up to Valderice, intending to descend again. However, it was such a short climb that I decided to climb all the way up to Erice.

Erice is a small medeival town, and was slated as our destination in two days. I got a quick look around, and then got another look as I kept trying to find the road back down. Finally, after 45 minutes of circling around back to the same parking lot, I figured it out. Fifteen minutes later, after a really fun descent, I was back at the hotel in Bonagia again.

That evening the entire group had a great dinner at a restaurant just around the corner from the hotel. I'm not normally big on seafood, but every dish that we had was classic Sicilian with a differnt kind of fish, and I loved it all.

Sunday was a simple out and back ride from Bonagia to the beach at San Vito lo Capo, followed by a ride to the Lo Zingaro Natural Reserve. It was a windy day and the route had plenty of climbs, so we got a good workout and a fortified descent. I got my speed up over 70 going down one long straight road with a tailwind ... kilometers, though, and not miles per hour.

At the beach, nobody was interested in swimming, mostly due to the blustery conditions. Igor, another of our guides, took a quick dip, and Fabio led a group of us off to the reserve.

I took off on the climb, since most of the other riders were not interested in doing the descent down to the reserve entrance. It was very beautiful down there, however, with gorgeous clear water in a cove. There was not much of a beach, though, since most of that portion of the island is pure granite.

After climbing back up, I zipped back to the beach to join RandoGirl for the return trip. As I mentioned, the climb back up the hill where I had hit 71 kph was a slog, and we both suffered. From there, we stopped at one of the largest granite quarries in the world for a short look-see, and then got back to Bonagia just before the rain started.

Before dinner, we had another educational experience. As the hotel used to be a tuna factory, our guides had arranged for a tour of the museum there. We got to learn about how the locals had learned to catch tuna over the course of two millinium, which was really quite interesting. For example, I never knew that red tuna used their left eye to gauge the distance to the coast, while their right eye gauged the distance to the ocean floor. The way that the Sicilians, and the Phoenicians before them, used this trait to catch tuna was really pretty neat.

The rain and wind came in heavily that evening, so RandoGirl and I went with another couple -- Robert and Sylvia from Seattle -- to the same restaurant that the group had dined at the night before. Again, the meal was perfect.

My original plan for Monday was to get up early and climb up to Erice again before breakfast. The storms that came in during the night, however, made that plan less than pleasant in the light of day. Thus, I goofed around most of the morning and watched the rain and wind, then finally rolled out just before 10 am with the group.

The first part of our trip was about 10 kilometers along the coast to Trapani. As we rode, bits of drizzle would hit us, but it never really rained again. When we got to Trapani, the sun came out and the day warmed up as the wind eased off.

Fabio is from Trapani, and he very much enjoyed showing us the fish market, old hotels, and the fort. We even got to see Fabio's old high school.

After the tour, we all had a quick gelato before heading up to Erice. Traffic was harsh getting out of town, but quickly quieted once we got on the mountain road.

Up in Erice, RandoGirl and I found our hotel, checked in to our room, grabbed a shower, and went out to see the sights. While the weather had been clear on the ride up, however, a fog had rolled in during the afternoon, and mostly we saw gray.

Back at the hotel, we sat around with some of the other folks from the tour before going to a reception. RandoGirl and I filled up on snacks there, and decided to skip dinner and head to the room to read and write a blog entry.

Which I just did.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Finally! A Bicycle!

I never realize just how unhappy it makes me to be away from a bicycle until I am forced to be away from a bicycle.

The titanium bike Experience Plus! has for me this week

RandoGirl and I left Rome yesterday afternoon. We had a blast -- riding the Metro, seeing the sights, hanging out in the piazzas, eating good food -- but were ready to leave. Rome is a great city, but it's still a city, with all of the pollution, crowding, noise, and general hubbub that comes with it. And, to be honest, how many ruins can you really look at? I mean, I get it: It's old. Cradle of culture and all that. Art out the wazoo.

Can I leave now?

Anyway, we got to Sicily, and after a crazy taxi ride got to our hotel. It's very pretty.

View from out hotel room, towards Palermo

We walked back to town to try to get dinner, but found that this is "The South." Now, I'm from the South, but this is a different South, and here in this South nobody even thinks about dinner until after 8 pm. They then stay up till about midnight, sleep later, and then maybe get to work when they feel like it.

They say it's The South, but those of us in America would call it what it is: Key West.

RandoGirl by the Sea

Eventually, we got somebody to say something other than "manana" and feed us dinner, and rambled on back to the hotel. It's much warmer here (in The South ... duh) and the air conditioning in our room was not up to the demands, so we had a fitful night. This was followed by a lazy morning of breakfast and hanging out on the patio. Since we are in Sicily, it only makes sense that there would be a convention of drug dealers at our hotel.

Just before noon, we walked into town for a nice quiet lunch. When we returned, it was finally time ... to get a bike!

And so we did.

We got fitted by Igor, Fabio, and another guy whose name begins with G but nobody could pronounce or remember. Most of our fellow travellers were there, and I will introduce you to them and show their pictures in later blogs. This one is all about the ride.

Igor and company had marked a short 25-kilometer route. It was about five kilometers or traffic as we headed towards Palermo, and then we turned left onto the mountain road and climbed for seven kilometers.

RandoGirl early in the climb -- our hotel is behind her

Just beyond, looking towards the top

Even higher ... 

RandoGirl lovin' the climb

On the way up, we got passed once or twice by local racers out training. I held back ... but it was hard.

We weren't sacra enough for this zona

At the top was a lovely monastery, but we weren't allowed to go in there. We were wearing shorts and lycra, and those are "of the devil."

We went a little past the monastery to get some pictures of the other side. I kept going until I found a decent place to pull out and get a picture of this neat fort stuck on the side of the mountain.

Safe from invading cyclists

While I was taking this picture, a local racer came up from this side. He asked something in Italian that, I think, was "Do you need any help?" I replied, "No, grazzie," and then jumped on my bike to try to race him to the top.

Obviously, Max Watzz came on this vacation with me.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The State of Cycling in Rome

Often, many cyclists yearn for the end of the automobile. A time will come when we will all beat our carbeurators (or fuel injectors or whatever the hell it is that's under the hood and making all of that noise) into chainrings, the lamb will lie down on Broadway and vomit the tiger out of its tank, and we shall fear no more the hazardous hurtling Hummer as we blithely take the lane on our daily travels. The air will smell sweeter, as we all go about our daily lives toting local grown produce and free-range Angus beef in our panniers.

Who needs a helmet when you've got a bald spot?

Of course, the panniers are Canadian and the components on these bicycles are Japanese, but they will be delivered by elf-driven cloud chariots pulled by teams of unicorns.

Until this day comes (Branson Air is working on the cloud chariot thing), I invite all of you to move to Rome. Of course, you'll soon be broke because most of you don't speak Italian and will thus be unable to find jobs, and will quickly fritter away your meager savings on gelato, espresso, and Diet Cokes. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Bianchi with a front fender, chain guard, handlebar bell, and friction generator head lamp

Not that there aren't cars here in Rome. There are plenty of them, along with trucks, buses, and motorscooters. They zip around doing zero to 25 to zero, shimmying through alleys like dogs wiggling out from under a fence, bending the laws of time and space to find parking spaces. Frequently, the cars and motorscooters violate basic laws of physics, with the usual disastrous results. RandoGirl and I are of the opinion that one our of every three sirens we hear in Rome are for kamikaze scooter pilots being carted to the hospital.

Do not overcome the barriers of location (at least, without a permit from a theoretical physicist)

Like most European countries, Italy has made automobiles less appealing by making fuel so damned expensive. Like most old European cities, Rome has gone further by preserving a heritage that is perpetually at odds with motor vehicles. Since the streets are narrow and winding, reversing themselves and ending without so much as a by-your-leave (which, I must admit, I've never gotten myself, even if I have had a number of "on-your-lefts" which felt equally dismissive), driving would be a chore here. For drivers of trucks and taxis it takes an extra level of skill. Those that can't handle it are relegated to less strenuous forms of driving -- like Formula One.

At what point does it cease to be a motorcycle and become a one-seat car?

Since getting about by car is so difficult, Rome has lots of pedestrians, a decent subway system (although no Subways themselves, which has kept RandoGirl and I from eating fresh), and a lot of bicycles.

Everything you need, except a front fender

We also found a bicycle designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

Leo was fixed before fixed was cool.

Rome apparently has a bike rental program, as many cities have instituted, so you can rent a bicycle in one location, ride to another, and leave the bike there.

Of course, when we checked these bikes out we found that only two of them were in working order. On the other two, one rear tire was flat and the other had been pulled mostly out, probably by someone intending to steal the tube. It is also interesting to note that, directly opposite this rack was an office of the local militia, the caribinieri.

Here's another rack that we found a few blocks away.

And this one, near Piazza Popolo.

It is possible that all of the bikes were in use at this time, and that people  were out enjoying a lovely ride. Of course, we only saw one of the green bikesharing bicycles out while we were walking about. Every one of these bikesharing racks seemed to have instead been misappropriated as parking slots for motorcycles and scooters.

We did see rental bikes in the park, though. Or, at least they were kind of like bikes.

And there was a handcycle at the Handicapped Festival being held at one of the piazzas.

But I don't consider either of these indicators that cycling is more integrated into Roman culture than it is in America. For the handcycling athlete, this bike is like the set of Pings is to the golfer. It gives them pleasure and exercise, but it is not something that is integral to their daily living. The same thing goes for the couple in the bike-car. It is, at best, a diversion.

Contrast it with this guy.

He's just on his way home from work, with something he picked up for his happy bimbo.

RandoGirl and I were very impressed with this fellow, who not only had a cat on a leash, but put the cat on his shoulders to bike home with him. If this ain't love, what is?

Finally, there was this guy on a Bianchi, whose picture I took when he was stopped at a red light near the Coliseum.

Okay, so I stink at taking pictures. Nonetheless, you can tell that this fellow is not just out for a spin. Since it was about 1 pm, I'm pretty sure that he was on his way to or from lunch. He wasn't riding a bike for exercise or in a race or to make any kind of social statement. He was just getting around, working with the pedestrians and cars around him, and living his life. That's what I consider sustainable energy.