Thursday, October 25, 2012

An open letter from the ONLY USA cyclist to ever win the Tour de France

I'm joining the revolution.  The UCI must change, because those who are in charge are corrupt and killing the sport.  So, I'm reposting Greg LeMond's open letter calling for change. Vive la revolution!  Vive cyclisme!

Three time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond posted this open letter on his Facebook page.

Can anyone help me out? I know this sounds kind of lame but I am not well versed in social marketing. I would like to send a message to everyone that really loves cycling. I do not use Twitter and do not have an organized way of getting some of my own “rage” out. I want to tell the world of cycling to please join me in telling Pat McQuaid to f##k off and resign. I have never seen such an abuse of power in cycling’s history- resign Pat if you love cycling. Resign even if you hate the sport.

Pat McQuaid, you know damn well what has been going on in cycling, and if you want to deny it, then even more reasons why those who love cycling need to demand that you resign.

I have a file with what I believe is well-documented proof that will exonerate Paul.

Pat in my opinion you and Hein are the corrupt part of the sport. I do not want to include everyone at the UCI because I believe that there are many, maybe most that work at the UCI that are dedicated to cycling, they do it out of the love of the sport, but you and your buddy Hein have destroyed the sport.
Pat, I thought you loved cycling? At one time you did and if you did love cycling please dig deep inside and remember that part of your life – allow cycling to grow and flourish – please! It is time to walk away. Walk away if you love cycling.

As a reminder I just want to point out that recently you accused me of being the cause of USADA’s investigation against Lance Armstrong. Why would you be inclined to go straight to me as the “cause”? Why shoot the messenger every time?

Every time you do this I get more and more entrenched. I was in your country over the last two weeks and I asked someone that knows you if you were someone that could be rehabilitated. His answer was very quick and it was not good for you. No was the answer, no, no , no!

The problem for sport is not drugs but corruption. You are the epitome of the word corruption.
You can read all about Webster’s definition of corruption. If you want I can re-post my attorney’s response to your letter where you threaten to sue me for calling the UCI corrupt. FYI I want to officially reiterate to you and Hein that in my opinion the two of your represent the essence of corruption.
I would encourage anyone that loves cycling to donate and support Paul in his fight against the Pat and Hein and the UCI. Skip lunch and donate the amount that you would have spent towards that Sunday buffet towards changing the sport of cycling.

I donated money for Paul’s defense, and I am willing to donate a lot more, but I would like to use it to lobby for dramatic change in cycling. The sport does not need Pat McQuaid or Hein Verbruggen – if this sport is going to change it is now. Not next year, not down the road, now! Now or never!
People that really care about cycling have the power to change cycling – change it now by voicing your thought and donating money towards Paul Kimmage’s defense, (Paul, I want to encourage you to not spend the money that has been donated to your defense fund on defending yourself in Switzerland. In my case, a USA citizen, I could care less if I lost the UCI’s bogus lawsuit. Use the money to lobby for real change).

If people really want to clean the sport of cycling up all you have to do is put your money where your mouth is.

Don’t buy a USA Cycling license. Give up racing for a year, just long enough to put the UCI and USA cycling out of business. We can then start from scratch and let the real lovers in cycling direct where and how the sport of cycling will go.

Please make a difference.



Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Hippie-chicks and the kindess of strangers

After settling in to the basic and clean Logis Le Cheval Rouge, we each seperately ended up migrating to the cafe/bar next door for some pre-dinner drinks. Now, it’s important to note that we were 200 meters from Chateau Villandry, a chateau that was justifiably famous for its gardens, and thus firmly on the tourist route. The town caters to tourists, and we weren’t really expecting much in the way of good food or fun.

We would be wrong.

While the Finn, the Lithuanian, and the Dane drank their drinks, I went into tour-guide mode and quickly looked around the area for the best possible dinner scenario. Everything looked too touristy, i.e. the fake chalk menu boards (do they really think we can’t tell that the menu hasn’t changed since forever?), and the wilted, yellowed menu sheets with menu choices that are clearly NOT in season... However, not 15 meters away from where the boys were wasting no time in ordering another round, I came across L'Epicerie Gourmande. It looked a bit hippy-ish, possibly vegetarian and clearly NOT geared towards the tour-bus crowd. The carnivore in me hesitated to read the menu, but was pleasantly surprised to see that there was, indeed, duck on the menu. Nothing risked, nothing gained. I popped in, completely unsurprised by the two girls who looked like flower-children – reserved a table and went to join the drinking down the street.

At 20:00, we began our meal by ordering the charcuterie as a starter. I ordered the duck as my main, and, for the life of me, I cannot remember what everyone else ordered – while they were ordering, I was led away to the vinotheque to choose what we would be drinking. Because L’Epicerie Gourmande is actually a teahouse/restaurant/wineshop with local foodstuffs and the occasional local handicraft, they’ve got a great selection of Loire wines. The wineshop part acts as the walk-in cellar for diners. You choose your wine(s), drink them and pay the same price as if you’d bought it in the store. Awesome.

So, the hippie-chick takes me and the Dane to the wine, where we peruse the ample range of choice. Always one for utilizing local know-how, I asked if she could recommend something. She could. She pointed out the most popular red, which was pricey, she then pointed to a much less expensive wine and said, “this is what I drink”. I’m sold. I’m a sucker for a recommendation that seems to go against the profit motive.

To complement our charcuterie, we’d ordered a local rose. It went down extremely well with the local meats. The Finn (an afficianado for all things cured, smoked, etc.) pronounced the plate excellent, so we ordered a refill of all of the above.

As we had our meal, drank the wine, ordered more, commenting to one another on how incredibly good everything was, how pretty the presentation, how nice the service, and reviewing the day, the whole repast became a too-loud, too-much-fun, too much wine experience. At some point, I noticed that the loudness wasn’t just us. The whole restaurant (it’s not big – maybe like a medium-sized living room) was buzzing. The one pair of American?/Canadian? Tourists (they all look the same, non?) had left, and I realized that the rest of the crowd was honestly local. Most of the space was taken up by a group of families and friends – clearly friends with the other hippie-chick owner who was tending the bar. They were having a great time, we were having a great time, and when it came time to (naturally) move from wine to digestifs, they were happy to raucously recommend what we needed to drink. We took their recommendations more than once, toasting to their health, while they toasted to ours.

We stayed until closing, enjoying the atmosphere, the drink and the friendliness of strangers. And people wonder why I do these trips...

Monday, September 17, 2012

Angry Finns, blood and troglodytes

Riding day Two (Loire Valley)

After an unremarkable breakfast at our hotel, we saddled up for our second day of cycling along the Loire.  Everyone seemed to be in a good mood, the weather was holding, and it looked like it should be a fine day all the way to our next overnight in Villandry.  During my previous trip, I had started from Tours, so the super-famous Chateau Chenonceau was not on my path.  I had decided that I won’t miss it this time, and had planned the route with a detour to see this gem on the Cher river.  Granted, getting there would mean climbing out of the Loire valley, cutting across some forests and open countryside and then cycling back down into the Cher valley.  The Lithuanian, the Finn and the Dane hadn’t voiced any opposition to the plan.

Off-route to Amboise

The creators of the Loire cycle route have taken great pains to keep cyclists on dedicated cycle paths when available, on sparsely-used roads when not, and off the main roads entirely.  That said, they sometimes go a little too far and take one out of the way, up and down unnecessary hills that don’t result in some sort of satisfying and climb-justifying sight.  Thus, we stuck to the main road from Mosnes to Amboise – setting a good pace with most of us taking turns pulling the line.
The road out of Mosnes

Amboise was where we would turn away from the Loire and head towards Chenonceau.  In the very center of town where we needed to turn south and up out of the Loire valley, we stopped at a pharmacy where the Finn stopped to stock up on medicine (apparently the yoghurt hadn’t helped).

The Amboise – Chenonceau route, already bustling with other cyclists (mostly families with small children) took us through a picturesque bit of Amboise, up some steep cobbles (at one point, the Lithuanian, brazenly attacking on the steep, kept going up, when our route went down, thusly dropping from 1st to last in a matter of seconds), and through the suburbs of Amboise.  We climbed out of Amboise where the route followed a busy road through forest, but turned off the main thoroughfare to a little-used forest road.  I missed the turn and signalled back to the others that they need to turn, while I headed back to catch up.

Finnish Protest

The small road through the forest was quiet and slightly rolling.  I knew that if I’m to score any KOM points in this bit of the trip, I would need to attack from far off to give myself some room to fend off any counterattacks.  So, when I caught up to the group, I casually took my turn at the front to pull.  When I saw that a downhill was coming up, I attacked, calculating that there would be a hill at the end of the descent, where I would be able to climb and reach the top first.  I was right, and I did.

This pissed the Finn off.

After berating me for “breaking the rules” and attacking from ridiculously far out, he proclaimed that he’s not going to play anymore.  Thinking, “uh oh, is this ‘where the race was lost’? Is this trip going to start to suck and descend into sullen silence and anger?”, I replied that when someone like me (who doesn’t “climb well for his weight”) wants to get to the top of a hill first, one needs to start early, and that if he doesn’t want to play the silly KOM and sprinting points game, he doesn’t have to.  He hung back in pissed-off silence.  I then sidled up to chat with the always-calm Dane and inquired as to whether the Finn’s ass hurt or if he’s hungover.  “Yes”, was the reply.

On another downhill, a sudden rush of Nordic indignation hurled past us, hunched over, legs a blur of vengeance and ambition.  The Dane and I exchanged glances.  “I guess he’s still playing”, I smiled.  “Yes”, was the reply.


After freewheeling down a hill that put to rest any ideas of coming back that way, we were just a couple of kilometres out of Chenonceau.  Parking in the bicycle parking lot, we decided to risk leaving our gear on the bikes, walked to the entrance and stood in a line of Disneyland-like proportions to get our tickets.  Passing though the crush of humanity, and told by the ticket-checker and a menacing sign that we are NOT allowed to picnic on the grounds, we caught our first view of Chateau Chenonceau.

Before the Finnish tour bus onslaught

Beautiful. Fantastic. Wish you were here. (that’s my elbow on the right).

Yes, the Chateau is beautiful.  Yes, it is probably the most-visited.  Yes, the hordes of tourists (it seemed as though it must have been Finnish day with the amount of Finnish that I heard all over the grounds) are annoying (not just the Finns).  Yes, it’s still worth it.  Yes, we were happy to get back on the road again.

Near death experience or a pound of flesh

Finding our bikes and gear untouched, we set off towards Tours.  This section of the trip was not on bike paths.  We got lost from the get-go.  However, we had a general idea of where to go, so with a couple of wrong turns, we made our way towards Tours, which would put us only 20 km from our stop for the night.

It’s worth mentioning that because this area was pretty much flat, there were no KOM points to be had, but plenty of town signs to sprint for.  In a run-down little town that had clearly seen better days (probably before the larger and faster departmental road nearby had been built ), a sprint to the-almost-death took place.  Lulled into a calm from a calorie-deficit, I was surprised when the Finn attacked from quite far out (taking a page out of my strategy book, it seems).  Thinking I could counter-attack before the visible, but still distant town sign, I got out of the saddle and sprinted to latch on to his wheel.  Alas, it was not meant to be.  My right shoe unclipped from my pedal, got caught on the return stroke, and was pushed under.  As I felt (in slow-motion) my rear wheel lift and saw my future face-plant and terminal road-rash coming at me, I managed to (somehow) control the speed wobble, wrench my foot out from under the bike, and careen to a stop without crashing.

The blood flowing from my leg and the pain in the ankle and foot were a small price to pay for what could have really sucked.

Troglodyte food

We were about 14 km outside of Tours (back on the Loire) at Montlouis-sur-Loire when we all realized that if we don’t stop for food, that we’ll miss our chance before all the restaurants close after lunch service.  This area, like many others along the Loire, have limestone cliffs along the water, where caves have been hewn out.  The caves were used as cellars, stables, even homes.  Some of these troglodyte spaces have been converted to restaurants.  We stopped at Le Cave, aptly named, for a well-deserved rest, food and copious amounts of wine.  The restaurant is across the river from Vouvray, so naturally, we partook in a bottle or four of the local tipple, grown, picked and made by the family that owns and operates the restaurant. 
Now it's my hands in the picture

The food was excellent, the wine as well.  The ambiance of the restaurant – cozy and warm from the blazing fire in the middle of the cave – was friendly.  We were clearly the only tourists in the place, and notwithstanding the lycra, sweaty/dishevelled appearance, and ordering too much wine for lunch, obviously welcome among the locals.  Plus, the Dane was convinced that the lady sitting at the table behind me was flirting with him (even though her husband and her in-laws were at the table too).

34 km to Villandry

The rest of the ride, including passing through the modern/ugly part of Tours was essentially uneventful.  St. Pierre des Corps (the TGV station for Tours) was where I had started my last Loire trip, so I was on familiar ground.  I didn’t get lost this time.  We got to our hotel, right next to the Chateau Villandry, with plenty of time to check in, stow the bikes, shower and have an incredibly enjoyable evening.

But the story will have to wait until the next post.




Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The raw side of Mosnes (Loire Valley)

Pre-dinner fun
So, we’re in Mosnes on Ascension day, i.e. in a small town in France on a public holiday.  Staying at Le Domaine des Thomeaux, a small chateau hotel in the middle of nowhere. 
Very pretty, very reasonable.

The prospects for entertainment or any choice in food or drink establishments are slim to none.  After having a couple of “recovery drinks” on the terrace of the hotel bar, the Finn, the Dane, the Lithuanian and I all agree to meet in 45 minutes to wander the village before heading to dinner at the adjacent hotel restaurant, the “Les Saveurs du Monde”.
The Finn and the Lithuanian had been complaining all day about “digestion problems”, “acid-reflux” etc, etc.  Back in my day, we called those sorts of things a “hangover”.  Anyway, they had decided that they needed medicine (which was not available because it was a holiday, and there were no pharmacies in the village), so they were willing to settle either for baking soda (best-case scenario) or some sort of milk product (worst-case scenario).  Strangely enough, as soon as we walked through the gates of the hotel and into the village, we ran across a tiny store that was actually open.  The walking-wounded bought some yoghurt drinks, I asked the proprietress if she knew if any of the local winemakers’ cellars were open that day.  She pointed us in the right direction, and off we went.

As we approached the cellars of Xavier Frissant, we noticed that it was full of people.  Some sort of local group was having an organized tasting.  That notwithstanding, the vintner, his son and the wife were happy to scooch some of them over so that we might have room at the tasting bar.  So we tasted. And tasted.  Starting with two different sparkling wines, then on to several whites, and finally to a number of reds.  These were some seriously nice wines at reasonable prices.  The vast majority were in the 5-7 Euro range with the premium wines in the 10-14 Euro range.  Definitely worth the price.  At this point, we were reminded of the only drawback of traveling by bicycle – you can’t really take your finds with you…
Apologies for the torn label -- paniers will do that to a bottle over a couple of hundred km.

With the skids greased, we returned to our hotel to sit down for dinner.  Les Saveurs du Monde describes itself as a restaurant gastronomique.  It doesn’t boast any Michelin stars, but it clearly would like to.  After receiving our menus we noted that the menu was small enough to signify that the kitchen might actually be market-oriented and wasn’t beholden to a repertoire set in stone.  While we were making our choices the amuse bouche arrived, as well as our Saumur sparkling wine.  The Saumur Cremant was as good as the amuse bouche was bad.  I don’t even remember what it was – I think it might have been mayonnaise in a shot glass..

Not a good start.

We then started noticing bad signs.  The wait staff/busboys were clearly nervous high-schoolers.  The “sommelier” wasn’t sure what was in the wine list.  We never had the same server coming to the table.  It was all a bit chaotic.  Nevertheless, we ordered our meals, our wines and settled in.

The wine was good.  Full stop.  I had over-done chicken (described as being an exlusive local breed that rivals the Bresse chicken in its awesomeness), the Dane and the Lithuanian had something eminently forgettable, while the Finn was the least lucky. 

Now granted, the Finn is a bit picky.  He’s a great cook, and he seriously knows cuisine.  Our last cycling trip (to Chablis) had him hating a restaurant that the Dane and I loved, because the duck that he ordered did not have crispy skin (granted, he DID ask if the skin would be crispy, and had been assured that it WOULD be.  It wasn’t.).  This time, it wasn’t a matter of being picky – his pork was raw.  Not au point, not rare, not undercooked, but simply raw.  One could simply chalk that up to the chef being distracted, taking the meat off too early, or something like that.  However, the problem was that the pork was raw in certain parts of the cut – an indication that they were using frozen meat (which they hadn’t even bothered to defrost properly).

The state of affairs was mentioned to one of the waiters (highschool kids).  His reaction?  A curt “d’accord” (OK)

We were amazed.

When the head serveuse came to our table to bus it (yes, strange that the high school kids weren’t doing it), she asked rhetorically whether we’d enjoyed our meal, and was taken aback when I replied that, as she could see, the Finn couldn’t eat most of his, because it was raw.  Instead of diffusing the situation by apologizing, she demanded to know why we hadn’t told anyone.  I responded that a) no one was within earshot for quite a while after we discovered the problem, b) it was raw and cooked at the same time, and c) we HAD told one of the kids, but had garnered only a reaction of “Duh. OK.”.  I then continued by asking her if they’d been using frozen meat, because the way that the cut was raw/cooked pointed to that.  At this point, she disappeared.

Up to this point, I had been desperately being quiet and polite (my voice projects, whether I like it or not).  Then the maitre’d came.  After patiently describing the situation to him, he had the gall to try to lay the blame on us, by implying that we hadn’t told anyone, and that this was all our fault.  Then I got pissed.  Leaving the French language behind, I asked him, in English and raising my voice, if he was challenging us.  It took him a good 4 seconds to realize that this situation had the potential of going south in a hurry.

His reaction surprised all of us.  He backed down.  He apologized profusely, told us that the entire meal would be on the house.  We declined coffee and desert and left – choosing to go for a walk to cool down.

After a nice long walk during which the Finn, the Dane and the Lithuanian assured me that I hadn’t been out of line, and that we’re all pretty amazed with the way things turned out, we returned to the hotel for a couple of gin-tonics before turning in.  During the second cocktail, the maitre’d showed up to mention that by the meal would be on the house meant sans wine.  Naturally, we agreed that that was only fair, especially as I had mentioned during the incident itself that I was glad that their restaurant had no control over the wine, because it was the only thing good about the meal…

So, long story short – Le Domaine des Thomeaux = nice hotel.  Les Saveurs du Mond = crappy restaurant, but with a maitre’d that has a sense of propriety.  It could actually be a good restaurant – it just needs a chef that actually cares about the food that he/she is putting out…

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Loire Valley -- it begins.

OK, a Lithuanian, a Dane, a Finn, and a Winecyclist stumble into a beer bar at a couple of minutes to midnight...

Sounds like the start of a difficult European joke, no? It was actually the (almost) beginning of a really good 3 day ride through undemanding terrain with some great views, nice architecture, good wine and some seriously good food.


I have done the Loire -- in 2009, if I'm not mistaken. It was my second big trip - with a just-purchased used Kettler trekking bike. It had a gel-seat and everything... (my butt has never hurt more than during that trip) - it was then that I was pushed to become an apostle of Brooks saddles. Anyway, the 2009 trip was a lonely-ish trip from Tours to Nantes (around 300 km) with minimal planning (ie, none). This trip was different.

I started preparing for this trip WELL in advance. The call went out far and wide in February to old and new friends, inviting them to an easy, but well-lubricated and filling adventure into cycling French waterways. The personal and private responses were enthusiastic. At least 10-12 friends said that "yeah, I'm pretty much a 100% in". Good thing I didn't make reservations with penalties...

When Ascension day vacation rolled around, the peleton had boiled down to 4 of us. We would be meeting in Olivet, a suburb of Orleans on Wednesday evening, so that we might get an early start on Thursday, cycling down the Loire past the famous Chateaux of Beaugency, Chambord, Blois, and Chaumont sur Loire
before having an altogether too rich dinner and too much wine before resting up for the next day that would inevitably be more of the same -- chateaux, food and wine. The trip would be debilitating...

The night before

Our hotel, where we would also be leaving our car, was a good 10 km south of Orleans proper, so naturally, we hopped on the bicycles and headed into town for drinks and dinner.  After crossing the Loire, we stopped at one of the first available squares with outside tables to have a glass or two (or three) of wine before going to Le Cozy, a restaurant that I had researched before the trip, and had deemed as being good enough for the food-snobs (the Dane and the Finn).  By food-snobs, I simply mean “people who really know what food is about, really like to eat and cook well, and would be unmercifully mean to me if I took them to a restaurant that they ended up not liking”.  No big deal.

Naturally, we struck up a conversation with a local couple at the next table who told us that Le Cozy is crap, and that we really need to go to La Chancellerie.  Naturally, we ditched our plans and switched to local wisdom.  Notwithstanding the fact that La Chacellerie was clearly a tourist restaurant on a touristy square, it was actually good, and reasonably priced.  So we treated ourselves to an extra two bottles (or was it three) of the local tipple.

About to swerve back to the hotel down some Orleans boulevarde.
It was dark when we left.  Somewhere along the way, I had the brilliant idea that we need to stop at a quaint beer bar somewhere halfway back to the hotel.  We locked up our bikes and confidently strode to the door, which was locked.  Strange, but we were determined to get our nightcap, which turned out to be a beer-schnapps.  I’ve had beer schnapps twice in my life – once in Germany (Kiel) and once in France.  I’ll try to remember to avoid any other beer-schnapps in the future.

We made it back to the hotel in more or less one piece (the Lithuanian took a nose-dive on a parking-lot curb, the Finn plopped into a bush of some sort, I did a sympathy crash for the both of them, and the Dane smirked).

I’m not going to tell the story about how we essentially broke into the reception area to look for the room-key that one of us had left at reception before leaving for dinner.  Suffice it to say that it was all caught on security cameras… the police were not, thankfully, called.


Freshly baked croissants, pain-au-chocolat, baguettes, cheese and butter.  That’s breakfast.  When you’re a big guy ready for a 100+ km ride, you let yourself go (like any other time, but now without the guilt).  We set off along the now-familiar path, on towards Mosnes, our first overnight on the journey.

As we had already done Orleans, I decided that we should skip that bit and take a “short-cut” from Olivet west towards the Loire a Velo trail, saving a good 10-15 km.

Rules of the road

The Loire valley is not a place where the Schlecklettes (or any other grimpeur) would be in their element.  It is, for all intents and purposes, flat.  One needs to entertain oneself inbetwixt the nice views of chateaux, nuclear power plants and wine-breaks in quaint wine-growers’ villages.  Thus, when traveling in a group, one can always go for sprint-points, fight for the king of the mountains jersey, etc.  Sprints are simple – if there’s a town sign, it’s the end of an “intermediate sprint”.  “Mountains” are simply anything that involves climbing (often becoming the subject of heated debate from the side of those that didn’t get to the top first, as to whether it was actually a hill or not).

Rouleur danois

Yes, the Dane was the sprinter for the day.  He had the uncanny understanding of when to attack.  I was forgetting all day long to watch for the red and white signs marking the beginning of the towns.  He didn’t miss them and the one-two that it would take me to realize what was happening would result in my inevitable defeat.

Winecycling – King of the Mountains

I crushed every 200 vertical metres of the day (I DID say that the Loire trail is quite flat).  Undisputed.  I earned every litre of wine represented by every polka dot on every king-of-the-mountain jersey ever made.
Scary French folk
Beaugency, where some cafe owner really didn't want our cash.
The morning ride, with its sprints and minimal climbs passed quickly with a quick stop for coffee in Beaugency.  At Muides-sur-Loire, the Finn got peckish, so we deviated from our path towards the village in the hopes of finding something to eat, as Blois was just a bit too far to bear without food.  After we crossed over the river, we saw that there was a broquante, a flea-market, going on on the left bank.  The smell of something being grilled met our noses, and we figured it  a good place to score some quick calories.  It was around 11:00.  The Dane and I quickly found the tent where the local amicale sportive had it’s fund-raising wine/grill thing going on, quickly ordered both and settled into fuelling up.  The Lithuanian was, as usual, on the phone, doing deals (he’s an independent businessman) – the Finn was off looking to score some local sausauge.  Amid the crush of local French humanity, our barkeep (the portly drunk guy pouring our 1.50 Euro plastic cups of local plonk) kept refilling us (and himself).  This place was rockin’!  The gapped-toothed, mullet-sporting locals were a far-cry from the “there’s something about French girls – they might not be the best looking in the world, but they DO carry themselves so sexy” line…
But, the poitrine (pork belly) sandwich was really good.
The buzz wore off before Blois.
We got to Blois (I won the climb over the slightly arched bridge over the Loire).  The poitrine had been digested and burned, so the tanks needed to be refueled.  We tried to get into a Michelin starred restaurant, but apparently, sweaty, lycra-clad Finns, Danes, Lithuanians and Winecyclists are not welcome at the Orangerie.  So, we plopped down in a hole-in-the wall that had, according to the Dane, the best beef tartare he’s ever had, some seriously good beef for me and other assorted goodies all-around.  Plus, the cat didn’t attack us… and slept through most of the meal. 
The end of the ride was at Mosnes.  It turned out that our hotel was, essentially, a Chateau – a nice surprise.  The weather was perfect for sitting out on the terrance and having a couple of glasses of rose, which we did before even looking at our rooms.  The town was the boondocks, with virtually no choice of eating establishements, so we chose the hotel restaurant.
That will require a separate post.  It gets ugly...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tour of Flanders 2012

My Tour of Flanders 2012 
(95.7 km from start to finish)

The night before, I laid out my cycling gear in the guest room so that when I got up at 4:00 in the wee hours I wouldn't wake the wifey-poo.  I had already packed all my gear, water bottles and "power balls" (i.e. my bag of figs) into the car, so all I needed to do was load the bike onto the rack and wait for George to show up.  George is a colleague of mine from work who I'd been harping to join me for the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen - or simply the Ronde) for the last 4 months or so.  He'd had second, third and fourth thoughts during the last week, but he arrived at 4:30, as promised.  We loaded his bike onto the rack and began the 3 hour drive to Oudenaarde - this year's starting line for the Ronde.

Now, I did the short version of the Ronde last year too.  Every year, they label the short version as 85 km, and it never is.  Last year it was labeled as 70, but was really 65, while this year it was 87 km.  Last year there were 4 climbs on the short route -- this year there were 12 (link to the climbs with all the nasty stats about gradient, etc).  Needless to say, I was a bit concerned that the extra 22 km and 8 more climbs might be a bit much.  I had finished last year's Ronde completely exhausted, legs shaking and vowing never to do it again.  To my credit, I did NOT vomit before, during or after last year's cyclo.

George and I agreed that neither one of us have anything to prove (we were both lying to ourselves -- cyclists ALWAYS have something to prove - to themselves, at least), and that we're not out to break records (true), and that we're going to look at the whole things as a nice outing (true).

We got to Oudenaarde around 7:00 to join the traffic jam into the designated parking area.  The traffic jam was the ONLY organizational inconvenience of the whole day -- Golazo, the company that organizes the event proved both last year and this year that they are simply awesome organizers.

By 7:30 we had cycled the 3 km. to the starting area, gotten our numbers, smiled at the official photographers snapping photos of each cyclist passing the starting line.  It was a fine Flanders morning -- around 5 degrees Celsius, overcast, but thankfully windless.  Pretty much everyone was in winter gear.  Not your's Truly -- I was in shorts.  It looked like I was the only badass on the road that day...

The first 16 km were a nice flattish warmup.  Then suddenly at 18 km. the Koppenberg reared up at us -- the first challenge.  "Koppen" is an abbreviation for cobblestones which in Dutch slang language are called kinderkoppen, or "children's heads".  Most of the 12 climbs were cobbled.

Cobblestones are both awesome and totally suck at the same time.   They totally suck when you need to ride them.  Unless you've operated two jackhammers simultaneously (one with your hands and one by the seat of your pants), you'll be hard-pressed to imagine the feeling of going over cobbles.  They're totally awesome when you see the pros riding over them, because they're going 40 km an hour, when you can only dream of doing half that.

I hit the cobbles at a good speed, downshifted and promptly lost all momentum.  The cobbles are unforgiving - if you slow down at all, they suck even more speed from you - if you lose your line and hit the rougher bits, you slow down some more.  The trick is - the faster you go, the easier it is.  I didn't get the trick.  I went slowly, really slowly.  Having downshifted into my lowest gear, I slow-danced on the pedals to the sound of my own huffing and puffing.  I was passed by pretty much everyone within shouting distance, including an older couple on trekking bikes.

I did the Ronde with my trekking bike last year.  Aside from the snide comments I got from the carbon-frame crowd, it was a most enjoyable experience, and I was very happy with my performance.  During the intervening year however, I had bought myself a vintage steel road bike, with the idea that it would be my sportive bike:

My Dawes Impulse -- a handbuilt English road bike made of 531 steel.  The saddle looks funny, because the clamp broke on the second cobbles, which started as a flat that I took at speed, imagining myself akin to Faboo Cancellara.  After that, the saddle kept rising up (for the next 77 km).  Not very comfortable.
Trekking bikes are great, because they have a "granny-gear" -- a really really really low gear that can get you up really really really bad hills.  Road bikes don't.

I'm the first to admit that I know very little about the technical side of my bicycles.  Sure, I can adjust the brakes, spokes, cables, derailleurs, etc., but I know NOTHING about gear ratios.  Well, I do NOW.  It turns out that my lowest gear is a 42-23.  George, who is about the same height and weight as I am (a clydesdale) knows a LOT more about gear ratios that I do.  After he took a look at my rear wheel, he said something along the lines of "wow, you actually made it up that hill with THAT?"  I'm not sure if that was supposed to make me feel good about actually making it up, or if I should have felt like a complete idiot... probably both.

My downfall.
  I would not make it up all 12 climbs.

The next five climbs, SteenbeekdriesTaaienbergEikenbergKapelleberg, and Varent were all just different circles of hell -- each with too much gradient, too little speed and too many skinny people passing me.  That said, I kept passing the little people on every descent and every flat that came after every hill (gravity loves the big people on descents), so I shouldn't complain -- if a race finish would have come on a descent or flat after any of those climbs, I would have crushed the field :)

Unless I would have taken a wrong turn.

Which I did.

I got up to the top of Varent, cursing and promising that I would NEVER, EVER do the damn Ronde again.  George, in his steam-engine fashion had dieseled up, out of sight before I got to the top.  At the top I noticed that the markers for the amateur cyclo had disappeared.  Only the signs for the pros were to be seen.  

Blinded by the sweat (or was it blood, or tears?), I took a left and started picking up speed on a false flat that was bringing me to a glorious descent.  As I approached 60 km/hour on a 2.5 km descent BACK into Oudenaarde, I starting thinking something was amiss.

All the signs were gone.  I was in traffic.  Amongst cars.  I saw two kids on road bikes with the Ronde numbers on them, looking confused.  I stopped and asked if they had any idea where the course continued.  They didn't, but were of the friendly sort and asked where I was from.  I returned the favour and they sheepishly admitted that they were from Flanders, from the local area no less... if anyone should have known the route...

I had to climb back up that hill...

Finally, after a total wandering about of about 10 km., I returned to the Varent, rode down a bit and noticed a right-hander that I had completely missed.  The cyclo route turned to the right BEFORE the summit.  How had I missed that?

It was not the organizers fault.  It was clearly marked - there was no way I should have missed it.  Well, it WAS their fault for putting all those climbs in... bastards.

Back on track, I put down the hammer, hoping that I might catch George at the feeding zone.  No such luck.  I later found out that George had waited around for me on the Varent, but after 15 minutes realized that there was no point in waiting any longer, because a) I was dead, or b) I was crying somewhere in the bushes below or c) lost.

So, I rode the remaining 65-ish kilometers alone - just like last year.

There are advantages to riding alone.  It's slightly less embarassing to get off your bike and walk up a particularly difficult climb, but only slightly.  The main advantage is that dancing, struggling, huffing, puffing, wheezing and cursing up the climbs, you are doing it for yourself.  There's no one else, no one you're performing for.  The only person you're concerned about is you and that bastard slightly ahead of you, because you WILL pass him.   

When I came to the flat straight that led to the finish, I started feeling good again.  It was over.  I'd done it again, and I'd watch the next day's real race with the unique personal experience of knowing how incredible punishing the climbs are.

As I cruised into the starting zone to get my swag bag, I met George who greeted me not with jokes about being slow or getting lost, but with a "thanks for making me do this".

After a beer and a portion of Vlaamse frittes (french fried potatoes, there is a story behind why they're called "french" fries, but it isn't to do with France as such) with mayonnaise, we got back on our bikes to ride the 3 km back to the car.  Now it was really over.  As we rode out of the corral, kids from the Primus brewery were handing out freebie cans of the beer brewed/canned specially for the 2012 Ronde.  I grabbed a can and rode one-handed back to the car, gripping the beer like a trophy.

This is NOT your average Belgian beer.  It's more like your average big-corporation, bubbly any-beer that you can find anywhere InBev/Miller, or any other global brewer have sunk their talons in. NOT very good, except when you've just finished the Ronde.  Then it's sublime.
On the way home, I called the wifey-poo and told her about the ride, and about how I'm never doing it again, especially because my gear ratios suck.

She said I should get a new bike.

I love my wife.  

I'll do the Ronde again next year, but only because she wants me to.