Thursday, June 30, 2011

Summer Lovin'

For about a third of the year, Munich is cold. Freezing cold. Perhaps it is because I have never seen proper snow but I cannot fathom living in those conditions. In fact, I imagine that I would simply stay at home and keep warm. If there is snow everywhere and you can’t drive around or ride a bike, why would anyone bother going to work? Hibernate during winter, then go back to work in Spring.

It is now Summer here in Munich and from what I have seen, I think people must work through Winter so that they can take the entire Summer off!! We have been fortunate enough to have some spectacular weather over the last few days and there are people outside everywhere. From sunrise at about 5am until the sun goes down again at about 9.30pm, people are outside enjoying the fine weather. So many, that it has made me believe that no one must work in Summer.

During a 4hr ride, I pass a constant stream of people on bikes. Families, couples, groups or individuals, all just cruising along. There isn’t one point where I cannot see someone else on a bike.

Down at the Isar river, the crowds are insane. Every pebble ‘beach’ is covered with people all swimming and getting a dose of vitamin D. Move further upstream and the sun bakers all get a little bit more liberal and strut around naked. The water in the Isar is pretty cold...

Further upstream and huge wooden rafts float down the Isar. Not tiny, dingy sized rafts but ones made from several trees that hold around thirty people. They have their own toilet, brass band, BBQ and bar. It is more like a floating pub than a raft. They drift down the Isar at walking speed as those on board sit back in their summer gear and enjoy beer and a BBQ.
In the city, the parks are equally congested as people search for their piece of green space. On the hot days, even the fountains get a workout as people walk around in them to cool their feet off. Last night, at 9.30pm I even saw joggers running laps through a cemetery that had become a place of recreation. It is strange to use the term ‘unused cemetery’ but this one had become a park and people were taking full advantage of it.

So for the next few months, as the sun continues to shine and everything stays green, people are getting out and enjoying themselves. I do wonder though, does anyone here go to work? Do they just shut up shop when the weather is nice out? From many other things I have seen here in Munich, it would not surprise me if it was a law that you must obey.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Idle threats

Whilst riding around the states I got to see many things. One of these things happens to be pointless road signs. Not a sign that offers any real important information like distances, directions or names of places, but signs that give idle threats or blatantly obvious advice.

At almost every school there is a big, bright, blue and white sign reading ‘Drug-Free School Zone’. Apparently, the drug zone is on the other side of the school.

Another one of my favourites is the neighbourhood watch signs. There are a number of different styles but the message is the same; if someone sees you doing something wrong, they will rat you out to someone who will actually do something about it.

There were many other pointless signs to choose from but unfortunately, I didn’t always have my camera ready. There were many fake cut outs of children about to run out onto the road and I even saw a cut out of a police officer with a whistle and a hand in the air, all designed to get drivers to slow down. I can see what the signs are trying to achieve but can’t help but get the feeling that they are born from concerned citizens with too much time on their hands. It is like putting up signs that ask people to obey the law. Pretty obvious in the first place, isn’t it? 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Stutenkase

Yesterday we ventured south into Bad Tolz at the base of the Alps for the annual Genuss und Kasefestival (Gourmet and Cheese Festival). Here you can find everything that is cheese and its associated companions such as wine, breads, dips, spreads and even meats. There were wheels of cheese the size of small children and even the animals that the cheese came from. However, much to my surprise and disappointment, the Genuss and Kasefestival does not include cheesecake. Emily claimed that if they had cheesecake, they may as well have pizza. I disagree.


The cheese makers were separated into small booths and there was every type of cheese imaginable, all with free samples. We roamed the festival and tasted as many samples as we could. During the festival, we pondered the fact that knowing the German language would be a major benefit as we walked around, unable to interpret a lot of the signs indicating the style and flavour of cheese. Instead, we sampled cheese blindly, appreciating it for the flavour alone, rather than having any preconceptions based on its description. You could say, it was a true test of its taste.


We came up to one booth that seemed to have generated some interest with many people gathered around. We grabbed a couple of samples and tasted the cheese. It was very creamy but with a more mild flavour than what we have experienced. We looked at the brochure which had a picture of a horse with the words ‘Einzigartig mit Stutenmich’. Interested to know what kind of cheese this was, I typed the words into my translator as Emily went back for another sample. As, it turns out, the picture of the horse was there for a reason, as it translated to ‘Uniquely with Horse mare milk’. That’s right... HORSE CHEESE.

I’ve had goats cheese and even tasted sheep cheese but to me, there is something fundamentally strange with horse milk. Think about it. Have you ever seen a horse with udders? How do you even milk a horse? Where do they even milk horses? Does horse cheese still count as dairy? I couldn’t help but feel a little bit wrong after eating horse cheese.

I went to the ice-cream stand to wash away the taste and the thought of eating horse cheese but it still lingers with me. For all I know, I was probably eating horse ice cream and didn’t know it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Class of 2006

On our last night in the U.S., after the team took 1,2,4 & 5 in a race, we decided to celebrate and headed out for dinner. In the small town of Denville, New Jersey, there was not much to choose from so we went to a local bar and Mexican restaurant called 'The Rattlesnake Ranch'.
We sat inside the restaurant and ate our meals but we all sat in silence and stared out of the window. The reason; there was a 5 year school reunion outside in the court yard. Inside was quiet with families eating meals and outside was an open bar, loud music and a lot of people. 

After our meals, three of us decided to try our luck at getting into this school reunion. We loitered around the door for a while before taking our chances and walking straight in. We got a lot of looks as people tried to figure out who we were. I tried to explain that we were in Montville class of 2006 and was shocked that they didn't remember us. I even told people that I sat behind them in chemistry but unfortunately, a lot of people there didn't take chemistry. It was a bit hard trying to convince people that they had forgotten about the Australian, Hong Kong and German guys that they went to school with.

After a while of walking around talking to random people and taking advantage of the open bar, most people had realized that we didn't belong there but they didn't care. We managed to get random name tags to look a little more legit but soon the party began to wind down. 

We spoke to the people that remained and we soon discovered something. Most of the people that we had spoken to were just like us; they didn't actually attend the school and had snuck in to take advantage of the open bar. By the time the music stopped there was only 2 people left that were part of Montville High School class of 2006! Everyone had name tags on but like us, they were random names that didn't belong to them and had nothing to do with the school.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Lantern Rouge

I'm shattered, both physically and mentally. The first three weeks that I spent in the States were great. We did some good races and got some good results. We did some good training in a beautiful lakes district and enjoyed our time. During this time I was hoping to ride my legs into some better form and they were coming along nicely, well... I thought they were.

Two days ago, we started the Tour de Beauce, a 6-day tour in the South-East of Canada near Quebec. I was told that it was a hilly race with constant climbing and descending all day. I didn't think much of it. How bad could it be? After arriving, nothing could have convinced me of just how hilly this race is. There is absolutley no break from the hilly terrain. The roads stretch out in dead straight lines into the distance with not a flat section in sight. In fact,, I am convinced there is not a single flat road anywhere in Canada. I don't like hills. Anything over 5% and I cringe. But here, 12-15% small 'rises' is pretty standard. What is typically a KOM in a race in Australia is just a bump in the road here in Canada!

Just as brutal as the uphill sections are the downhills. They are equally as steep and long and thanks to brutal Canadian winters, you have to dodge potholes and cracks at over 90kph!!!

Stage 1 was 165km long with 3 KOMs however, I think there was really about 5 more climbs that you could classify as KOMs! Fortunately for me, a break of 22 riders went clear at the first climb and it contained almost all of the GC riders. With all of the big teams represented, no one was interested in chasing and so for the peleton it was a 140km bunch ride, with the break gaining over 20 minutes. During that 140km, I couldn't help but think to myself, 'Gee, this would be tough if we were going at speed.'

Stage 2 was a 162km long with only 2 KOMs but contained more climbing than the first stage. What I was thinking during the first stage came true with the race going full speed for most of the distance. The final climb had a section of 16% and this is where my legs failed. I drifted back into the cars and was left to make my way back with two others that had suffered the same fate. At the end of the stage, we had lost over 14min on the winner.

Stage 3 was the queen stage of the tour but I prefer to say that it was the 'mother' stage of the tour. It was only 155km long but had more climbing again and finished with an 8km hike up Mt Megantic (first picture) with a gradient of around 18% for the final 5km. I hung onto the peleton until the 120km KOM climb. From here, I was with a group of 10 riders and we slowly but surely made our way to the final climb. In the last 5km, we zig-zagged our way up the rediculously steep hill with the 5km taking almost 25mins to complete! We crossed the line 22min down on the eventual winner, former Tour de France podium finisher, Fransico Mancebo. I was spent. I was more than spent. It is the most spent I have ever been.

With all of the riders that have abandoned the tour, I am now lantern rouge. The red light. The last man in the field. This also means that tomorrow, I am the first person to start the 20km time trial. I am not looking forward to it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Invisible line

When you cross a border in Australia into another state nothing much happens. The number plates change colour and the police cars look a little bit different but that is about it. Let's face it, a state border is simply an imaginary line on the ground so the surroundings are no different and the only thing you have to worry about is getting rid of your fruit before you hit a fruit fly quarantine zone. 

In Germany, when you drive into Austria or Switzerland, the border is pretty much the same. Thanks to the Schengen agreement, you don't have to show your passport and everybody still speaks German. 

When I crossed the border from America into Canada for a race, I didn't really expect anything to be different. Every Canadian I have met has an American accent and speaks perfect English so I have never thought anything of it. The thing is, we crossed into French Canada with a car full of guys from 6 different countries including the USA, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and Hong Kong so at the border control, things may have looked a little strange and consequently, we had to sit in immigration for a  while as they checked our details. To the American guys that were with us, this was a source of some laughter as they joked that there is nothing worth protecting in Canada except the maple syrup! A fine example of the love/hate relationship similar to Australia and New Zealand.
 
Sitting in immigration is also where I started to notice a few more differences. All of the signs and brochures were in French first and English second. All of the immigration officers spoke perfect French and then when they discovered that we needed English that changed instantly into an American accent. I was bizarre. I kind of felt like I was in Europe but then I kind of didn't. Did I cross a border or some sort of time-space continuum? 

Once out of immigration and back on the road the bizarre transition continued. The speed signs and distances change from miles to kilometers and fortunately so did the Prius with the press of a button. The road signs and every other sign for that matter change from English to French and town names have a distinctive French taste such as Sainte Etienne or Monte Sainte Anne. My favorite difference that I have noticed so far is PFK or Poulet Frit Kentucky. 

With all these sudden changes, I am forgetting that America is just across the border. It is crazy that an imaginary line on the ground can separate two totally different places!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The croissant experiment

They are not that nutritious. They are definitely not low in fat. They are full of calories and taste even better when you put even more butter on them. They are not easy to make and they take a very long time to make. However, croissants taste good, damn good.

After enjoying a warm croissant fresh from the bakery this morning and looking up at the rain clouds that were rolling in, I decided to do a day of experimenting. How hard can it be to make a croissant? Thousands of bakeries do it every day so surely there is some short and easy way of doing it? And as the saying goes. When in Rome... (well Europe anyways) I decided to document this experiment for two reasons; firstly, so that I focus on the recipe closely and don’t stuff it up by adding salt instead of sugar or something else along the lines of a year 8 Home Ec class failure. Secondly and more importantly, so that my wife actually believes that I made them. That is, if they turn out good enough to look like they came from a bakery. I was going to need a recipe.

As it turns out, a Google search for ‘croissant recipe’ yields an astounding number of results. Some have ingredients in them that I am pretty sure I need to go to the black markets in the back streets of France to buy and some use ingredients that I think have no place in a croissant; kind of like pineapple on a pizza. So I limited my search to ‘easy croissant recipe’ and found one that seemed suitable.

My next step was to obtain the ingredients. No problem, right? Just head to the grocery store? Well, the thing is, I have no idea what the ingredients are called in German. Some translating told me that I needed... milch, salz, buttern, zucker, wasser, weizen mehl und hefe. Easy.

Our home here in Munich is a simple one. No 42 inch plasma (no tv at all, in fact). No home telephone. No clothes dryer. No mix-master and pretty much no kitchen utensils in general. Even our fridge is the size of a single-draw filing cabinet and doesn’t have a freezer. So I have to make do with what is available. A jug with some numbers on the side serves as my measuring cup, I roughly estimate tablespoons and teaspoons, I use a hand whisk to make the dough and my rolling pin is the flattest and smoothest empty wine bottle that I could find.

So it begins... Add 1 tbsp sugar, 1 tbsp butter, 1 tsp salt and 1 cup milk to a saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

Add 1 packet yeast to ¼ cup warm water and stir. Add to the milk. Slowly mix in 2 ½ cups flour until you have a very large mess and a yellow, stickyish ball that resembles a dough. If you are like me and don’t have a mix-master, it is at this step that you will get cramps in your forearm from stirring the mixture and will eventually resort to using your hands. Leave the dough to rise for 1 ½ hrs and it will almost DOUBLE in size! Cool in the fridge for 30mins.

While you wait, here is some pointless croissant trivia: Today, 30-40% of croissants sold in French bakeries are frozen. The modern croissant dates back to 19th century Paris. The Austrian ‘Kipferi’ bread is an ancestor of the croissant and its evolution into a puff pastry can be dated back to 1839 when August Zang, an Austrian officer opened a Viennese bakery in Paris. The French adaptation of the Kipferi got its name from the crescent (croissant) shape. There are many fake stories about the origins of the croissant with the most popular being that it was invented in Vienna in the 17th century to celebrate the defeat of the Turks with the crescent shape designed to mock the Turkish flag. So, even though it is considered a French pastry, the croissant was invented by an Austrian.


By now, the dough should be massive. At this point, I began to think that croissants weren’t so bad. There has not been a tub of butter added or 12 cups of sugar poured in. Then I read the next few steps... Roll the dough (using your best wine bottle) into a rectangle that is about 1/2 cm thick.


Now the healthy part and the messy part: Spread 250gm of butter over the lower 2/3 of the dough. Once covered, fold the top third down over the buttered section, then the bottom 1/3 back up over the others. Roll it out again and repeat the folding process. Cover the dough and throw it in the fridge for a couple of hours. Then repeat the folding process another 3 times!

So that's it. The hard part is over. All that is left to do is roll out the dough for the last time, cut it into 8cm squares and then in half into triangles. Then roll the triangles VERY thinly (I only learnt this AFTER I my practice batch and I had already rolled the others) otherwise they turn out more bread-like rather than flakey. Then to get the shape of the croissant, start rolling from the base of the triangle towards the tip with the point ending up in the middle. Curve it into a crescent and there it is....

Paste it with a whipped egg to ensure they turn golden brown (this was difficult as all I had for a brush was my finger) and put it into the oven for 25mins at 180 degrees celcius. Your kitchen should now look like someone had a papier mache fight but your croissants should come out looking... well... hopefully a little better than mine did. Let them cool before you eat them (the hardest part) and at least they should still taste like croissants. Not much risk of Emily thinking I got these from a shop...

Monday, June 13, 2011

American pride

Most peoples’ opinions of Americans are based on prejudice. Coverage in the media of things such as 9/11, the war in Iraq or even George Bush have lead to many misconceptions about American ideals and attitudes. Ask most people with an opinion and you will find that they have probably never even been to America. Many television shows and movies make jokes at the expense of America and they all help to perpetuate the American stereotype.

After staying in the States for a few weeks, I feel I have a much better understanding and appreciation for the American way of life. From what I have seen, Americans are a very proud people. Not just on a large scale but pride from a very basic level. Lawn pride. House pride. Street pride. Town pride. State pride. Country pride. This pride is often misconstrued as being close-minded and dogmatic but it is simply people defending their traditions and way of life. The term 'patriot' has almost become a word defining American pride rather than a generic term for pride for one's country.

At a local level, in America, this pride has many positive effects. It means that Towns are always very well presented with regular festivals and celebrations to commemorate local events or traditions. Local businesses get more customer loyalty and small town heroes are truly celebrated. The pride means that sports have huge crowd support. Not just big sports like the NBA or NFL but even smaller sports such as women’s high school volleyball get aired on television with huge crowds. In Australia, you are flat out getting parents to attend a high school game never mind getting television time! The pride means that those who serve the public are honoured and respected. I was fortunate enough to be here for Memorial Day and I witnessed anyone who was in public services from the Navy to the Police to Volunteer Fire Brigade being thanked for their work. It was ‘unAmerican’ if you didn’t shake their hand and thank them.

Unfortunately, this American pride is seen very differently elsewhere in the world. Most see it as being pig-headed and ignorant to other cultures but it is no different to Australia and its detention centres or France banning the burqa. They are just seen less in the media. I know posting this is a little risqué and not everyone is going to agree, but it is just my opinion and some food for thought. Feel free to comment!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fortune

After visiting China last year, I discovered that Chinese food in Australia is nothing like the genuine thing. It's no surprise then, that Chinese food here in the U.S. is the same, however, there is one slight difference to the Chinese restaurants I have been to back home. 

You see it on tv and in movies all the time. The Simpsons have an episode based around them. I've even seen them in supermarkets in Australia, but sadly the fortune cookie at Chinese restaurants is yet to take off. The closest thing we have is getting a paper party hat and a bad joke in a Bon Bon at Christmas time. 

Here in the States, getting a fortune cookie with your Chinese food is pretty standard. I've never cracked open a fortune cookie so I didn't know what to expect. 
Fortune cookies come with a lot of superstitions. Don't open your fortune cookie before you finish your meal. Don't eat your fortune cookie before you read your fortune. Don't open more than one fortune cookie. Unfortunately, I opened three fortune cookies before my dessert arrived and ate one before reading it. 

So what's inside? Well on one side you get your standard cryptic or metaphorical fortune that anyone looking for inspiration could apply to any situation. 


On the other side, I have a feeling that fortune cookie manufacturing companies could have gotten together with lottery companies. The fortune cookie gives you your lucky numbers which just happens to be the same amount of numbers as the lottery. I have to admit, after seeing the numbers I did, for just a moment, ponder putting them to the test in the lottery. But then I'd just be another sucker. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Green or not

You either are or you are not. There is no sitting on the fence, otherwise you are just being hypocritical. You are eco friendly or you are not. You either like the Toyota Prius or you hate it.

Jeremy Clarkson has made his point of view clear several times on Top Gear and once apon a time I agreed with him. I was not a fan of the Prius but it has grown on me and I have come to like it. I recycle, I buy eco choice products, I limit my production of methane gas, heck, I ride a bike everywhere and I don't even own a car at the moment. But if I did, I would not say no to a Prius.

Why this change of heart? Well, here in the States, our team car has been a Toyota Prius and I have had the opportunity experience its 'power'. Not only has it been used to get us from A to B, but it is used as our follow vehicle in races. Most European teams use powerful European vehicles like an Audi, BMW or Volkswagon. But our team car stands out from the others. Not only because it is a Prius, but because it is a bright orange Prius with Champion System stickered all over it.


At the Philadelphia International, the love it or hate it attitude towards the Prius really stood out. The course was lined with thousands of enthusiastic fans who let there feelings be known as the Prius drove passed. One of two things could be heard... 'Go the Prius!!!' or... 'Prius' suck!!!' Either way, it sure got some attention.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Philly International

The longest race I have ever done was a stage of Jelajah Malaysia. It was 221km long but with 13km of neutral, it was 234km in total. At the time, I thought it would be the longest race that I do for a while. After arriving in the United States, I discovered that we would be doing the Philadelphia International, what I thought at the time was a 155km race. A week and a half out from the race, I found out that it wasn’t 155km, it was 155 MILES! That’s 250km!!

This normally wouldn’t be that big of a problem, however, to make the race just that little bit harder, there is a short but VERY steep 800m climb aptly called ‘the wall’. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you need to do it ten times over 250km, it gets harder and harder every time.

In the early stages of the race, a small breakaway of 5 riders went clear, making the first 3 climbs up ‘the wall’ relatively easy. The gap ballooned out to almost 10 minutes and no team had taken control of the race. At this point I made a decision. Sure, it was probably not the best decision but I did it anyway. With such a long distance to cover and a steep climb to make every lap, I was pretty sure that my legs would not make the length of the race and even if they did, I would not be much use at the end. So with a lull in the peleton, I decided to go off the front and get some promotional time and hopefully, get the bigger teams to start reeling in the breakaway.

One of the greatest things about the Philadelphia International is the huge crowds that they get every year. With riders going the slowest as they climb ‘the wall’, most people accumulate there and as the race wears on, the hill turns into one giant beer fuelled party. As I climbed ‘the wall’, the screams from the crowd was deafening and it was an amazing feeling to have thousands of people cheering for you. After two laps stuck between the breakaway and the peleton, the Protour team of Liquigas decided that it was time to step up the pace and we were brought back into the bunch. A lap later and the wall got the better of me.


Fortunately, Matthias, our sprinter for the race, was well positioned for the final laps and still had enough in his legs for a final sprint. After 250km, the race came down to a sprint between a small group of riders. At the line, it was HTC’s Alex Rasmussen who took the honours followed closely by Liquigas rider, Peter Sagen. Matthias, crossed in a very close and very respectable 7th place. Not a bad result in America’s biggest one day race!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Spoilt

I'm the kind of person that likes to do things myself. It's not that I don't trust people to do things for me, I just don't trust people to do things for me. I like to know all the details, like all the interesting quirks that you get with a second hand car. Don't wind down the passenger window cause it won't go back up. Lock the car with the key because the central locking is faulty. Etc, etc, etc. Unless you own the car and do things yourself, how will you ever find these things out?

When it comes to my bike, wanting to do everything myself means that no one else touches it. When your bike costs more money than your car, generally you want to take pretty damn good care of it. However, between travelling, racing and training, there is very little opportunity to do any maintenance on your bike. Consequently, you have to let someone else do it. And to be honest, I like it.

During races, your bike gets cleaned and serviced every day. Before you start, your tires are pumped up, water bottles are filled and energy gels are ready to go. During a tour, for the first couple of stages I like to help out where I can. After this, I quickly become too tired to care and I leave my bike in the capable hands of the team mechanic.

The only thing that I am concerned about now, is that I hope I don't get used to it!