Friday, August 18, 2006
Saturday night we dined on our freeze dried “emergency meals” that we’d carried with us throughout the trip before our final night in the tent. Any somberness about ending the trip was quickly washed away with thougths of reaching our final destination and seeing our Portuguese friends and family in the coming days.
Sunday, the day of the week that all grand tours end, we made great time over the flat land, riding on the 50km wide strip of land between the Tejo and Ribeira rivers. Stops were minimal and we had 70km behind us by 1:00 p.m. There was farming along the floodplain — rice, tomatoes, corn, transitioning into sandier soil and cork trees that you see nearly everywhere in Portugal.
As we neared Setúbal, and therefore the Atlantic Ocean, it became windier and the roads considerably rougher. Many Portuguese villages still had their old cobbles exposed and our chosen route gave us cobblestones for kilometers at a time. The vibration is so intense it makes you wonder if the fillings in your teeth are going to shake loose.
Susana had a vague idea of where we were, with former classmates from villages like Lau, Lagameças, and Poceirão, passing a picnic area her family dined when she was a child, and other forgotten places as we got closer, with the mountains of Arrábida beyond the city now in view. And then the graffitied sign for Setúbal, another kilometer down the boulevard, and we were to the door of her parents’ building. Our odometers read 4650 km (2890 miles). Susana called up to her parents, but there was no answer. Before we decided what to do next, their car pulled into the parking lot next to us.
With our arrival, our trip instantly changed form from two people in the countryside with bikes into reunions with friends and family, city scenes, and chaos. We haven’t had much time to reflect on the trip and what the end means, hence this late posting. But our legs are still twiching and want to get back on the bikes, which we’ll have time to do in the next three weeks.
More thoughts, statistics, and photos will be coming soon.
Saturday, August 12, 2006
Not far inside the border the scenery changed a little. There were more trees — olive trees that look withered and dead even when they’re healthy, mighty cork trees that are planted everywhere and stripped of bark every ten years with the year of the last harvest painted on the trunk. And fragrant eucalyptus trees that are planted in groves beside the road offering a nice shady spot to drink some water, and a sweet smell to take your mind off the heat. It’s still extremely dry and Susana has nearly lost her voice from either the dry air or pronouncing too many Portuguese “R”s too quickly.
We’re handling the heat much better than expected, and as long as we have cold water every so often to bring our body temperature back down, we’ve been cycling through the afternoon. Drinking hot water from your water bottles that have been in the sun too long just makes you hotter, and often sick to your stomach. We’ve also been taking Lava Salts, salt pills for endurance athletes who drink huge amounts of water to replenish electrolytes. When you’re drinking and sweating 12 or more bottles of water per day, you need a little replenishing. The apparent wind that you create from moving through the air helps a lot, and when it’s this hot a tailwind is almost a curse. Today one thermometer read 43 (110 F), and I believed it.
In addition to the changing landscape, there are more and more villages, and people have been waving, honking, and giving us thumbs up at a rate approaching the French. At one cafe water stop there was a small crowd watching the Volta a Portugal on TV, a week-long cycling race. Even though I didn’t recognize any riders or teams, it was good to know we’re not the only idiots riding out here in August.
In Nisa we stopped outside a supermarket that had closed for the day, but the owner came out and asked if I needed anything. When I explained that my wife was already getting some water across the street, he offered some “cheaper colder water”, so I flagged Susana and he let us in. He then went around the store with us as we shopped in the dark aisles, making suggestions for the regional cheese, telling us to buy the cheaper yogurt since it tastes the same, and making us buy the spectacular, sweet peaches. As he was ringing up our purchase, he was noting how cheap everything was, “37 cents for these tomatoes!” and then threw in two “souvenirs” which were t-shirts the employees wear that say “Supermercado Amoreiras Nisa” so we could advertise his store in the U.S.
The biggest thorn in our sides, as expected, are the Portuguese drivers. They’re the fastest and most dangerous that we’ve encountered, and will slow down for nothing. We’ve stayed off the busy roads for the most part, but one stretch had several incidents where oncoming traffic passes other oncoming traffic on a narrow road with nowhere for us to go. Why do they go so fast in such a small country, I often wonder. Fortunately today was much more relaxing riding on quiet country roads in Alentejo.
After another long day we’re now outside Montargil, camping on a river with the smell of grilled sardines wafting through the air. Susana asked her parents what they’re having for dinner tomorrow night, so if we complete one more long day we might make it.
Friday, August 11, 2006
Yesterday morning, with the Portuguese border sitting ahead, we hammered onward over hills and down valleys as fast as we could. The riding was hard, constant 100-200 meter climbs in the sun, and as the afternoon wore on, the sun only beat down on us more directly as we pedaled west. Sunglasses weren’t enough, we had to look down at the road it was so bright.
By 8:00 p.m., we were in Valverde del Fresno, the last town in Spain. From here, the mile markers counted down from 17, and we were all alone on this road leading from a small town in Spain to a smaller town in Portugal. This really was a no-man’s-land, just a few olive trees and crumbling 1000-year old towers on distant hills in both countries looking down on our progress, reminders of when crossing the border was more dangerous, but not less difficult.
The anticipation built during this last hour as the kilometers whittled away. We were expecting a hilltop crossing, since we rode beside a ridge from Valverde, but instead the road dipped down with two kilometers to go and continued downhill past 1 km. Finally, at the dry creek bed of Rio Torto, there was the border, with long-abandoned customs houses as we’ve seen across the EU countries. We stopped at the Portugal sign. Susana was happy.
Just inside the border, at the appropriately named Senhora do Bom Sucesso, we found the campground where we collapsed immediately upon arrival. It was our longest day with 148 km (92 miles), and 2200 meters (7217’) of climbing, our second highest of the trip.
Since our arrival, Susana has been talking to everyone about anything at all in her mother tongue. It rained here recently? In August? Oh, August four years ago, wow.
And suddenly everything is nicer.
Friday, August 11, 2006
It’s hot. Now we’re getting to the Spain we expected, the one that is a furnace. We haven’t seen a cloud in days, and there are public service commercials on TV reminding people that throwing glass bottles into fields can start fires as the glass magnifies the scorching sunlight onto the dry brush.
As someone who has biked across Nebraska twice and can appreciate the subtleties of dry, unchanging ranch land, the landscape in Castella y Leon has been pretty subtle, if not downright boring. Fields of wheat, not a tree or piece of shade in site. Flat but not perfectly flat, just like the ocean isn’t perfectly flat when in a small craft.
Ocasionally we’ll pass by a pig farm that wakes our senses, or a group of los toros grazing in the pasture, but our days consist of a series of hops into the sun, from one town to the next where we can find some shade until we make the next 10 km jump to the next village. Usually the village streets are deserted, but anyone out walking gives us a long stare, unbroken by any stares in return. The cafes where we get some water are alive with men on their siestas drinking beer and playing dice.
Passing through this monotonous landscape, we’ve had to find excitement for our pallates instead. I’ve long thought Spain has the best green olives of anywhere in the world, but we’ve also been feasting on the sweetest red bell peppers, wheels of Manchego cheese, and whatever local delicassies the restaurants offer.
Up north we saw a lot of pilgrims traveling the Camiño de Santiago, the route they’ve traveled for a thousand years to Santiago de Compostella, to the cathedral where the body of the apostle James is buried. There are many cathedrals along the route with their own relics, although by this point in the trip we’ve seen enough “splinters of the cross” to build a new housing subdivision, so we’ve avoided many places such as Lourdes.
In Alba de Tormes we received our first flat tire — my rear tire, the most worn of the four because it carries the most weight. It’s near the end of its life and I have no complaints patching a tube every 4115 kilometers.
In France the people passing in cars would sometimes yell “allez allez!” or “bon courage!” as they passed. In Spain, we’re more likely to get the middle finger or “burro!” or something worse. It’s so much like Nebraska it almost brings a tear to my eye (but no, it’s just salty sweat burning my eyes). Does Oscar Pereiro deal with this harassment on every training ride, or perhaps this is something unique to what must be the most desolate part of Spain?
We haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in Spain, with noisy campgrounds or the annual patron saint’s festival on the night we’re there, with music until 6 a.m., which we’ve experienced twice. When we tried to get away from the noise by camping out in the country, the deserted spot we chose seemed to come alive after sunset with teenagers bothering us all night long.
Anticipation builds as we near Portugal.
Tuesday, August 8, 2006
We should know by now that small roads on the map that lead to mountainous border crossings are going to be steep. The Col d’Erroymendi was the steepest climb we’ve done since entering France on Col d’Agnel. I had to stand on the pedals more than I’ve ever done before, mashing away at the switchbacks from 250 meters (820’) up to 1362 m (4469’), and my knees still haven’t forgiven me. When I remarked to Susana at the top how unusual it was that there weren’t any other cyclists here, she said, still out of breath, “Yeah, forget Tourmalet, come climb this one in your beautiful team jerseys.”
At Col d’Erroymendi there was a small saddle and final climb before the border at the Port de Larrau, 1573 m (5161’). The last several kilometers of road hadn’t been resurfaced and you could see heavily faded paint from some ancient Tour. On the final climb you could make out a dozen inscriptions that read “INDURAIN”. If that doesn’t give you a shot of adrenaline… Miguel Indurain is the Spanish 5-time Tour de France winner (1991-1995) with a heart that pumped so much blood his resting heart rate was reportedly something like 35 bpm.
The pass was ferociously windy and cold, so after changing the language tape in Susana’s head we made our way down into Navarra. The landscape immediately became more arid, the sun brighter, and the land hotter, drastically different from the French side. As we descended, the wind pushed us down the river gorge, until we were on the dry plateau, with sparser, shorter trees and a lot of windmills. I think the landscape looks like an early Almodóvar movie, while Susana compares it to Sergio Leone’s films.
The wind continued for the next few days and seemed to be the only thing harvested in this deserted area, from giant white wind generators. The same wind that knocked us all over the road, and caused much frustration for some of our worst cycling. I kept having to unclip my foot from the pedal, preparing to tripod as a gust would hit us from the side. When the wind was behind us, it was great, pushing us right along, but that was a rarity. I reached 77 km/h going down a hill that wasn’t even that steep.
The towns in Navarra are small and lack stores with regular hours, or much information for out-of-towners. We’re told we can buy vegetables three doors down where there’s a dark room with low ceilings. Want bread? Wait in the town square at 11:30 when the bread truck arrives. It’s just that there aren’t many people living here and ameneties are few. When we do find a market it’s usually closed since siestas last from 1-6.
Any land route to Portugal obviously includes Spain, and it’s not that we’re not excited to be here. But what drives tourism in Spain are the cities and beaches, not the arid countryside. That, and the Portuguese have a relationship with Spain not unlike Canadians have with the United States, where one neighbor is much more economically and culturally dominant. This causes a lot of eye rolling when facts are confused about the smaller neighbor.
When the European Union was formed in the 80’s, the richer countries invested money in the countries “under development”, such as Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. In Spain, a very public way of showing voters where the money was going was by improving the road system, so consequently the Spanish roads are the smoothest and widest of our trip, and allow the few cars to whiz by without bothering us.
We spent the night in Olite, once the capital of Navarra, now a tiny picturesque village. The next morning we rode into Tafalla, where we finally stocked up on supplies. They were preparing for their running of the bulls in a few days, similar to Pamplona’s more famous festival, putting fences all through the town center.
It was here that we decided to take a train to save a couple of days of riding in this windy unforgiving plain, rather than hauling ass to make up time when we’re still feeling beat up from the Pyrenees. Surprisingly, it was the wind and not the Spanish August heat that led us to the train station. The temperatures are cool, and even in the afternoon it’s chilly in the shade.
We’re now in Medina del Campo, 90km east of Salamanca, about to depart southwest in lighter winds and flatter roads.
Friday, August 4, 2006
We had some minor bike maintenance done on Tuesday. I got new bar tape, Susana got new derailleur cable housing. We had the work done at Liberty Cycles in Bagnéres de Luchon, “specializing in every kind of bicycle.” Gérard, the mechanic and owner seems to be well connected to the local racing scene from his stories and paraphenelia hanging on the walls, such as a signed jersey from Miguel Indurain, and a photo with he and LeBlanc, the outgoing Tour de France president.
He wasn’t a very fast mechanic, often being interrupted by a cutomer with a purchase or stopping to tell us a story as he worked. But he gave us a scrapbook to look at with years of Tour de France memorabilia as it usually passes through the town, and his stories and perfection on the wrench made it well worth the wait.
We talked a lot about doping. He said substances were widely available from the junior level on up. It was sometimes the trainer pushing banned substances on their athletes and sometimes up to the rider if they wanted to indulge. He said it was easy to tell if a rider was using, since it also affects their head, like recreational drugs, and their technique would be affected — not riding as aerodynamically or drafting as much, shifting at the wrong moments, etc, since they’re not using their own power. He also said that the biggest losers are cyclists who dope and don’t win races.
I asked him about our climb for the day, Col du Peyresourde. Whenever we ask someone about a climb, we only get one kind of answer. “It’s hard,” or “tough” or “steep”. But he said, “it’s not too easy, not too hard.” I appreciated his honesty — it was hard, but not the hardest we’ve done.
Wednesday morning had us leaving Arreau for Col d’Aspin and later, Col du Tourmalet, the most notable pass in the Pyrenees. The day started like a winter day in Seattle with fits of drizzle and mostly cloudy and cold. I thought I was riding well on Col d’Aspin (1489 m, 4885’) until I got passed by a nine year old on a miniature racing bike.
The skies opened up and the views were impressive at the top. Not too many long steep sections here. Next was Tourmalet.
Tourmalet literally means “bad route”. At 2119 m (6952’), it climbs more than 1200 m (4000’) from the westbound side. It was first known to be used as a passage in the 11th century. In 1675 it was purchased by the Duke of Maine so he could build a proper road for his entourage to take him to the thermal springs in Bargéres, and his road was completed in 1688. It has also been crossed by Napoleon, and continues to be climbed by thousands of cyclists every year.
Like Col d’Aspin, the mountains around Col du Tourmalet are completely bare — they were clearcut 400 years ago to build ships for France and Spain during years of navel escalation and never replanted. Instead of bears, birds, and other wildlife, the mountains are now just used as grazing land for cows and feral horses, a tragedy for the coming generations. But in 400 years things haven’t really changed that much.
Our climbing of Tourmalet was slow and steady, with the confidence of many other passes now behind us. But it was still hard. It was a relief to see a sign for the upcoming switchback that read only 8%, to give a little rest from those that were steeper. Obviously the paint on the road from past Tours lasts a long time, as we saw a lot of slogans for Tyler Hamilton, the American cyclist banned from the sport for an illegal blood transfusion two years ago.
Unlike most French mountain passes we’ve ridden that start out steep and get a little easier, this one is the steepest at the top. This climb was comparable to Alpe d’Huez, and the experience was probably much like it would have been with our full panniers. We made it to the top and zoomed down the rough road on the other side.
We still had a little more daylight and some energy left in our legs, so we continued past our planned stopping point on to the next climb, Col du Bordéres, to push ourselves to the limit just once.
And we succeeded. Ending the day with 2935 meters (9629’) of ascent and eight hours in the saddle (plus breaks), we scarfed down Morocan food with legs a-blaze, having done as much climbing as the hardest stages in the Tour de France.
Thursday was another famous climb, up the Col d’Aubisque, but from this direction it was just another hill beyond the Col du Solour. There were many antique cars escorted by dozens of police cars and police motorcycles as we rode up, with people out on the road watching everything go by. Soon after one large wave of motorcycles came there was some silence before a lone cyclist emerged and came flying down the road with a team car following. And then a few more cyclists and more team cars. We soon realized it was the Tour de Pyrenees, which we’d seen flyers for previously. There were jerseys for Rabobank, Quickstep, and Codifis, but I assume it was their B-teams. Regardless, nothing like stumbling upon a bike race to break up a climb.
A few more passes today have gotten us to Licq, in the French Basque region of the Pyrenees, not far from the Atlantic Ocean. Some older people here still speak Basque, a language completely unrelated to any other European language, but quickly dying with new generations. Tomorrow we’ll leave the Raid Pyrénéan route and enter Spain with our last French climb, the Port de Larrau. And of course, one person we talked to described it as “steep”.
Monday, July 31, 2006
Before entering the Pyrenees we collected our extra gear and sent our third and final package to Susana’s parents, lightening our load that much more. But it was largely a symbolic gesture, like throwing a deck chair off the Titanic, since our bikes are still tanks.
The Pyrenees are great, much like the Cascades at home, but with granite rather than volcanic rock, so the mountains are much steeper. And even though many of the peaks are at 2000 meters insteead of 3000+ like in the Alps, they’re every bit as steep.
With all the writing on the road cheering on cyclists from this Tour de France as well as years past (Ulrich, Voight, Vino, Beloki, Basso, and “Armstrong on the Moon”), it occurred to me just how great it was to ride these roads. You can’t shoot hoops at Madison Square Garden or play catch at Fenway Park, but you can ride the same roads that you see the professionals riding on TV, with all the painted cheers, too.
And speaking of the pavement, I was face to face with it early on the climb to Portet de Lers. I was waiting for Susana, enjoying the scenery and hardly moving at all, when a barricade caught my handlebars and knocked me over. Fortunately it was an empty road and nothing came of it and we went on, just a stupid mistake that could have been worse.
While Susana gets nervous the day before big climbs, I remind her that the pros do too. In Hell on Wheels, a documentary that followed Team Telekom in the 2003 Tour de France, each night Erik Zabel, a veteran sprinter, would confess to the camera how nervous he was about finishing the climbs in the allowed time.
But Susana had no problem today, as we crushed our record and climbed 2155 meters (7070’) over three Cols that took us into Spain for 18 km before returning to France atop the Col du Portillion, which was also part of this year’s Tour. We celebrated by purchasing the most expensive wine in the grocery store (Ok, it was €7.50, and a small store).
On the Col de Menté, we rode by the memorial for Fabio Casartelli, the Italian Olympic cycling champion who crashed and plunged to his death near that spot in the 1995 Tour. He was a teammate of Lance Armstrong at the time and years later Lance won the stage and dedicated the victory to Fabio. I’m usually not one for memorials, but this one was quite nice, a statue of a winged bicycle wheel.
With our focus purely on cycling these last few weeks, we’re in much better shape than when we reached the Alps, even better than when we started the Pyrenees. At this point, climbing is all I want to do. It’s part Zen, part intoxication, and the agony is all but gone.
Susana says she likes listening to the cowbells clanging around from the cows as they chew on grass on the way up. In fact today she reached the top and exclaimed, “I have a disease, and the only cure is more cowbell!” (with apologies to Christopher Walken).
Today marks another milestone for me: reaching 3629 km (2255 miles), this trip becomes my longest bike trip, surpassing my 1995 Nebraska-Canadian Rockies trip.
Tomorrow we have an easier day (I call them rest days) with only the Col de Peyresourde before we reach the pinnacle of the Pyrenees on Wednesday, the Col du Tourmalet.
Sunday, July 30, 2006
It’s been over two weeks since we first set foot in France and we’ve had that much time of extremely pleasant cycling. French roads are in very good condition, French people are very friendly and courteous to cyclists and there is a French bakery on every corner. Even the kids are polite as I’ve never seen before — always willing to offer a “bonjour” first thing in the morning in the coed bathroom when I am still trying to fix my âbat-jour shaped hair from the night before.
French people are also more talkative and ask a lot of questions about our trip when we stop to fill our water bottles at a public fountain. When we say goodbye, they always wish us “bon courage”, whereas in Italy people used to tell us “buona fortuna”. I find that interesting, since the first translates as “good courage” and the latter “good luck”. Languages often give away cultural differences, as if French believe our destiny is within oneself and Italians attribute it more to outside factors. I tend to agree more with the former.
It’s been almost one month since we last stayed at a hotel (Viterbo, Italy was the last time) and it’s with some surprise that I have to admit I do not miss it a bit. Campgrounds are so much more biker-friendly. However, this is also to say that other than occasionally eating at a restaurant (we cook the majority of our meals) we haven’t spent any time indoors in a long time. On the other hand, I suspect it will be weird to come back to our house and have that much space again after living in our small MSR tent for such a long time.
Our time in France has been so enjoyable that we haven’t taken one day off the bikes in 17 days, making a concession today by taking the afternoon off, after a climb to Col de la Core at 1395 meters, a 900 m gain from where we started this morning. We’re now in our second day in the Pyrenees, relaxing at our nice campspot by the river and eating some fresh fruit. The Pyrenees have made for some hard days of climbing although the scenary is well worth it, with long valleys, cows going on with their business, and green, lots of green.
I always get quieter and quieter with apprehension the night before a big climb, not knowing if the steepness ahead is within my cycling abilities. Scott, on the contrary, gets talkative and excited as if he can’t wait to go. It turns out that i’ve been living up to it so far. No pain, no gain.
Yesterday morning when we arrived at the bottom of the mountains in Tarascon sur Ariége (just north from AndorraU, we joined a route named the Raid Pyrénéen, which crosses the length of the Pyrenees mountain range. It was created in 1912 by the Cyclo Club Béarnais, but not ridden until 1950. The route starts in the Mediterranean village of Cerbére and travels west 817 km over 28 cols, or passes, with 16,000 meters (52,500’) of climbing, ending in the Atlantic town of Hendaye, and is intended to be done in 10 days. We joined it at the beginning of its fourth day, the first serious day of climbing, going over three cols.
Yesterday had about 1705 meters (5600’) of vertical gain in a total of 70 km. I was proud of myself for not having to walk my bike for any length, although I struggled in the 10% stretches. Luckily, there were only a couple of those. I came to realize that I am confortable up to 8%, not so good at 9%, having a hard time at 10% and pushing my bike up at 12%. I always get words of encouragements from Scott — who manages to stay positive the whole way — and that helps a great deal.
Tomorrow’s ride should be hors categorie once again — three cols in a 76 km stride from our base town Castillon en Couserans through Spain for 18 km and back into France.
As always, in the eve of a big climb, I get antsy and little nervous. Scott, on the flip side, is so excited that if he was a dog his tail would be wagging right now.
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