Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Wife of a Cyclist: The Tour - Part 3: The Long Trek

Here is a link to another perspective of our day on Alpe d'Huez...
The Wife of a Cyclist: The Tour - Part 3: The Long Trek: "Day three saw us heading for Alp D'Huez! We were all fairly excited to be going to this part of the tour - some were excited about cycling u..."

Alpe d'Huez

Every year when I watch the Tour de France in the wee hours of the morning, I cringe at how close the crowds get to the riders as they climb over the mountain passes. They seem to ride towards a wall of people that simply opens up at the last second to let them through. The riders must just ride blindly and hope that people get out of the way as they approach.

Then there is always that person that likes to run beside the riders for as they can before another spectator or official tackles them out of the way. All it would take is one tiny mistake, one small misjudgement for them to ruin the race for someone. But it doesn't seem to happen.

This year, I got to be one of those crazy people waiting on the side of Alp d'Huez as the race came through. We parked on the back side of the mountain and not wanting to miss the opportunity to ride up the infamous Alpe d'Huez, I rode down the back side, around to the front and up for about 9km until the barriers started and bikes were not allowed through. For the entire length of the climb, the road side was lined with people. So much so, that it was a struggle to find an empty piece of road side to watch the race from. As I rode up, people cheered and screamed like I was in the race. As I came through 'Dutch corner', I was met by a sea of drunken revellers dressed in orange who had been camped on the mountain for the last 3 days to reserve the corner for themselves. They drapped flags over the road in front of me and raised them up as I rode through. It was insane.




After finding a place to watch, I had some regrets. Firstly, sitting on the side of the road for a couple of hours means you don't get to hear exactly what is happening in the race. You can listen on the radio or watch it on television but unfortunately, I had niether. Secondly, I had no real way of standing out in the crowd. Friends and family were watching at home, hoping to see me on the side of the road but it was going to be difficult. I had no Austrlaian flag, no full-body orange skin suit, no giant stuffed kangaroo and I had even forgotten to bring my cow bell with me. All I had was a bright green umbrella hat and a plastic hand clapper that the promo caravan had thrown out earlier. Lastly, I decided not to run alongside the riders. I didn't want to be that guy that everyone remembers because he did something stupid on International television and knocked a rider off his bike in the biggest race of the world.

After a couple of hours of waiting, the helicopters began to circle above and the race was near. The crowds all packed onto the road and only moved aside as cars and motorbikes came through, missing by centimeters. The cheers and screams became louder as Alberto Contador was the first to emerge from the crowd. He passed by me so closely that I could have reached out and slapped him in the face. Eventually, Cadel Evans came through and every Australian on the mountain went nuts. From the guy wearing an Aussie flag as a cape to the guy dressed in a full 1980's Australian cricket player to the guy dressed as a giant green crocodile. The atmosphere was crazy.





After the peleton passed by, it was time for the mass departure from the mountain. 500 000 people wanted to go down the mountain at the same time including walkers, cyclists, cars and camper vans. My hands cramped the whole way down the mountain as I squeezed the brakes to slow down and dodge the masses of people. After reaching the bottom, I rode back around to the back side and climbed my way back up to the car. It was a long day, but well worth it.

Below is the profile for the riding that I did that day. Apparently, the side where I parked the car was the 'easy' way up the mountain!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Embarrassing

After spending 3 months in Germany, I thought that I would have picked up some of the language but it appears that I have not. 'Please', 'thank you' and a few other random words is about as far as my vocabulary extends. 

Today, it dawned on me... Dogs on the street know more German than me! I can call them in English, tell them to sit and they don't do anything. When their owners speak to them in German they know what they are saying and do what they ask. 

It's a bit sad really that a dog understands more German than me. Someone can tell me to 'sit' or 'come here' in German and I wouldn't know what they are saying!!!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Back to Earth

The Tour de France has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Not in that I didn't understand it, but in the way that it was only something that I ever saw snippets on television in the wee hours of the morning. It was like watching an event manufactured for Hollywood rather than a bike race. 

Consequently, in my mind I exaggerated a few aspects of the event, such as the sheer steepness of the climbs and the speed at which they fly up them. To me the Tour was a race of supermen, levels above anything else that I had seen or done. 



Being able to sit and watch the Tour by the side of the road and ride some of the parcours has brought it all back down to Earth a little bit for me. Yes, the mountains are long but they are no steeper than the mountain roads in Australia. Yes, they ride up them fast but they don't fly past like freaks of nature in the big chain ring without a look of strain on their faces and the gruppetto rolls through at speeds that look achievable to some.  

I'm not saying that I'm disappointed in what I've seen, I'm now just a little more realistic. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that this year's tour is being proclaimed as the cleanest ever with seemingly more human like performances from it's contenders. From close up, I certainly didn't see anything that made me think it was freakishly super human. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Mother load

When choosing a spot on the side of the road to watch the tour go by, you need to choose very carefully. If you find somewhere on a flat section of road, the race will go by in a flash and you won't see much. If you go into the final km's of a climb there is generally so many people that you can't find your own section of road.

As a result, we set up camp in the town of Briancon at the base of stage 18's final climb up the col de Galibier.  The riders will be strung out going slowly past as they begin the climb and there was (relatively) fewer people around. 



But there is another thing that you need to take into account when choosing a place to watch... Where is going to give you the best opportunity to catch free stuff?!

2hrs before the race rolls by, a caravan of publicity cars and sponsor promotions drives the race course. It keeps those that have been waiting for hours on end entertained and they also throw samples and free stuff out as they go. From hats and keyrings, to samples of laundry detergent and newspapers, there is a constant stream of freebies for more than 30mins. Cars in the shape of ducks, giant chickens, water bottles and a plethora of other shapes drive by with music blaring as people in the back dance and throw the items. How they keep this up for 5hrs a day for three weeks is amazing. 







So on the side of the road in Briancon, we were not well positioned for catching the free stuff. We had to battle small children and an elderly couple that seemed to catch everything. I'm pretty sure he used to be a baseball player. 

After a while, you get that kind if rage where you know you are doing the right thing but it still annoys you and there is nothing you can do about it. Like giving your seat to an elderly person on the bus or letting an upset child watch their cartoons when a game is on. 

Fortunately, we were a lot luckier the next day on Alp d'Huez. A company was wanting sone promotional shots as the tour rolled past so they set up a large banner behind us with their logos all over it. As the caravan rolled by and threw out all the freebies, the banner acted like a giant net, catching everything that was thrown and dropping it conveniently at our feet. We didn't have to do a thing. 



We hit the mother load and many people saw this. You could see the jealously in their eyes, but like us the day before; they just had to shut up and accept it. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Five in One

If you are in the right place in Australia or if you are prepared to drive for an extended period of time, you may be able to visit 3 or so States in one trip. This can be a big task as most states are larger than many overseas countries. 

Today, we left on our journey to watch the tour de France in the French Alps. To do this, we had to drive for around 9hrs but we also visited 5 different countries during the trip!

The trip began in Munchen, Germany, where we crammed our Audi rental car full of luggage and struggled to squeeze our bikes in. A trip to watch the tour de France would not be the same without riding some of the course so it was concluded that it was worth nursing a set of wheels for the entire journey. Driving across Germany, I took full advantage of the autobahn... 



The next country was a brief transition through Austria before moving into Switzerland. Here we entered the Alps and also some sort of price vortex as everything almost doubled in cost. 



From Switzerland we drove into Italy for lunch at the beautiful lake Como. Thankfully, the sun came out and we were able to enjoy the amazing surrounds. 



France was our final destination and after what seemed like $1000 in road tolls, we drove into what can only be described as absolutely amazing mountains. Huge snow capped peaks surrounded us with tiny picturesque Alpine villages and ruins of castles and forts dotted throughout. It made for some spectacular cycling scenery. 



The one downside to this amazing back drop is that when you do want to go for a ride, you have no choice but to go up. We rolled out of the drive way and in every direction we had to climb a mountain. 

Thankfully, what goes up also comes back down so we also enjoyed periods of speeds around 70-80kph without having to pedal!

Pick your own

I'm not one for home decoration. Heck, as long as there is food in the house I'm not fussed if the feng or the shui is in the right place. However, I do understand that some, like my wife, prefer a more welcoming atmosphere and purchase many ornaments purely for aesthetic reasons.

Take flowers for example. Sure, they may brighten up a room with a touch of colour and nature, but are they really worth the trouble? They never last more than a week or so and over this period they drop dead petals and leaves everywhere. They require remembering to fill the water and to trim the stems from time to time and worst of all, have you ever tried to clean an oddly shape vase after it has had flowers in it for a couple of weeks? It is not possible.

Still, many like to purchase flowers for several reasons and Germany is definitely no exception to the rule. Perhaps it is because for about a third of the year, everything is covered in white snow and you are flat out getting a weed to sprout nevermind a flower. Once Spring rolls around and the flowers begin to blossom, everybody is out picking flowers and florists get a booming trade.

In fact, to make getting flowers easier (and fresher), the outer suburbs have many 'pick your own' fields of flowers. If you see a big banner saying 'Blumen - selbst schneiden' (which translates to 'Flowers - self cut') on the side of the road, you will find a field of flowers and a price list for each type. No one stands around all day as it is an honour system with a cash box attached to a drum filled with concrete. People can stoll up, cut their flowers of choice and drop a couple of $$ in the box.




I think it is brilliant. Not for decorating the home. But if you are on your way home and need to apologize to the missus for a minor transgression, or you forgot to get a gift for someone, what is better (and now easier) than a bunch of flowers?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

'Group' Ride

In my entire time here in Munich, I have not seen a single bunch ride or group training session. Every ride that I have done has been either solo or with my friend, Ben. We have pretty much exhausted every conversation topic that you can think of so a lot of the time, we rode in silence anyway. Tired of this 'honest riding', we decided that would find, at least, someone else to ride with.

On Sunday morning, we set out through the most common areas for cyclists to congregate, looking for a group to join yet, we found nothing. When I was almost ready to give up, we came across three other cyclists waiting on the side of the road. Being the more knowledgable one in the German language, Ben asked them if we could join them. We were welcomed and told it would be around 3-4hrs of riding. Finally, some company! I didn't care if we rode extremely slowly, I was just happy to have some company.



Little did I know that riding slowly was the least of my worries. One of the three riders seemed to be on a mission, riding the entire way at 100%. He accelerated up every hill, usually leaving behind a couple of others and then when he'd say we should slow down for them, it still took about 5km for them to catch up. The other two that were with him, began to get more and more irritated as the ride went on, complaining that the ride was much faster than usual and we were not riding as a group.

In the end, we arrived home about 30min quicker than we would have if we rode by ourselves but still did pretty much the whole ride solo, chasing down the crazy guy at the front!

Waiting room

If you have read any of my previous posts, you may have pieced together that I do not like waiting. From the doctors waiting room to airports to holding onto a paper ticket at the supermarket deli waiting to get some salami.  Nothing annoys me more. (Except when people splash me before I've submerged myself when going swimming in very cold water. There is just no need for that. I'll get in when I'm ready!)

Today, I am having a horrible, horrible day. When traveling in Europe as a tourist, thanks to something called the Shengen Agreement, you are permitted to stay for a period of 90 days within a six month period. This means, that even if you leave Europe for two months and return again, your 90 days does not start again, it keeps adding on. Consequently, after some calculations, my permitted time here is due to expire on the 9th of August and I need to apply for an extension. 

I gathered all my paperwork and headed into the 'Kreisverwaltungreferat'  this morning, 15 minutes before they opened as I've been told there can be long waits. There was already a mass of people at the front of the building so I knew I was in trouble.  Fortunately, service is alphabetized by surname and I have already visited once before, so I found my appropriate counter easily and was happily 4th in the queue. I explained my situation an was given some paperwork to complete. I thought it was brilliant; no long wait. No meetings. Just fill in the form. 

After about 10 min I had completed the form and handed it in. The lady behind the counter handed me a piece of paper and said, 'Here is your number. You must wait until you are called.' My number was 29 and in the 15min I had been standing there, they were up to number 2. I sat down for the long haul and that is where I am now, with nothing better to do than write a future blog post. 

I am unprepared. I brought no reading material and everything around me is in German so I can't read it anyway. My iPhone battery is nearing the final 30% of it's life so I can't even risk Angry Birding my way through the wait...

Wow, something brilliant and something I have never seen before just happened. A lady with a food cart just came around to sell refreshments. She has coffee, soft drinks, snacks, sandwiches and even Red Bull so you don't fall asleep and miss your number. Waiting room food cart- what a great idea. Imagine sitting in the department of transport and someone wheels in a food cart. Heck, they don't even have a vending machine.  It's caffeine time...

Sadly, having readily accessible coffee in a waiting room does come with it's own dilemmas. After two cups of coffee and a bottle of water, nature is calling me. She isn't just calling, she is screaming at me. I have no idea where the toilet is and it is getting dangerously close to my number. I have been waiting for 1 and 1/2 hours and they are up to 25. By my calculations, I should have plenty of time to go. Instead, I am squirming in my chair and looking around with as much subtlety and secrecy as checking your shoes for dog poo in public: No matter how you try to hide it, people know what you are doing (and that something near you smells funky).  But if I get up, I could miss my number and even worse, someone will steal my seat. I don't want to have to stand for an hour when I get back. I have to make a run for it...

I followed the signs to the toilet as quickly as I could and have returned a few minutes later to find that... nothing has changed. My seat is still free and They are still on number 25... 
26... 
27... 
28... 

Hooray! Only 2hrs and 15minutes of waiting...

I'm waiting again. This time it's because they need to check details with the manager. Maybe I'll be deported? Maybe I've been here illegally this whole time and I never knew it? Maybe I won a prize for being the 1 millionth customer? I sure hope it's a prize...

Well, it's kind of a prize. I have won the permission to extend my stay by 7 weeks. That was relatively easy. All that's left to do is pay and get that little bit of paper stuck in my passport. If I can only find the cashier. (I am really typing this as I walk)...

I'm waiting again! This time while they stick a new visa in my passport. I have ticket number 185 and they are currently up to 163. Could this day get any longer? They are toying with my emotions...

Finally, the ordeal is over. Mission accomplished. And it only took 3 and 1/2 hours. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Classy buskers

If you walk down the Queen Street Mall in Brisbane, there are many buskers performing for money. The competition to do this is so fierce, that each year the council holds auditions and only the top buskers get permission to perform. Despite this, there somehow still manages to be the kid with the Yo Yo Diablo and the token spray painted silver statue guy. Not exactly what I'd call rivetting entertainment.



Here in Munich, the buskers seem to have a little more class, and dare I say, talent. Yesterday, in the Queens St Mall equivalent, Marienplatz, there were several groups of buskers all playing classical music. There was even one opera singer. Not the typical buskers that I am used to seeing.



Although the level of performance is extremely high, I can't help but feel that the people who truely need to busk are missing out. How is the guy on his last $5 supposed to make money to get his plane ticket home? If someone can afford a $5000 chello or violin, they probably don't need to be busking.

Real Life

Manikins rarely really represent the people that are going to wear the clothes that are on them. They are pretty much giant Barbie Dolls with proportions that would cause them to topple over if they were real. Or, on the other hand, they can be faceless, androgynous dolls. But we get suckered in, and they work.

Today, I saw some more down to Earth manikins. Manikins that give you a real idea of what the clothes will look like on the average Joe. In fact, I think that they would be perfect for Australia. I’m pretty sure they modelled some of the manikins on some friends of mine. ..




I particularly love that they went for absolute realism with the open fly and bulging beer belly on the first manikin. Yet, he still has the Zoolander pout happening.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

No Sympathy

Not knowing the German language has been frustrating. There have been many occasions when speaking German would have been extremely handy, like when trying to order a McFlurry with both MnMs AND Oreos. Or when the mailman buzzes your door and wants you to accept a parcel for someone else in the building. Or when you are looking for the ‘login’ button on the Munich Library website to renew some books.

After a while, you begin to avoid situations where you may need to speak German. You go to the same coffee shop. You line up at the same check out chick that speaks English. You order the same thing on the menu because you know you to pronounce it.

After being in a foreign country for so long and struggling with the language, your ears become very attuned to the Aussie accent. You can be standing in a crowd and here an Aussie from the other side of the room. Normally, its the abbreviation of about 4 or 5 words into one slurred slang term like, ‘How are you going?’ into ‘Owyagoin?’. Recently, I went to a bar at a backpackers to catch up with some friends and the Aussies stood out like... well, you know the term.



The room was filled mainly with American and Australian backpackers. Normally, you wouldn’t really be able to tell the difference until you hear them speak but for some reason, I had a feeling the guys in the shorts, singlet and pluggers holding three beers and shouting a lot around the pool table were Australian. I don’t know what it was that gave it away??? We immediately got to chatting and discovered that they too were from Brisbane. After several months away, it was good to get some reminders of back home and they agreed.

‘It’s so good to speak to another Aussie!’, they proclaimed. Sympathising with them, I asked how long it had been since they had been home. ‘Oh, this is our second day.’ My sympathy was quickly lost.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Asia vs Europe

After spending some time racing and travelling in Asia and now Europe, I thought I’d offer my opinion on some of the differences between them, from the point of view of travelling and racing.

When in Asia, I get a feeling that I am a lot more welcomed and treated more as a guest rather than a tourist. The people in Asia seem as if they are more accommodating and make a genuine effort to ensure that your visit is enjoyable. They do their best to avoid the language barrier and will put in a lot of time and effort to communicate with you, even if they cannot speak a word of English. In Korea, I had one person use a pencil and paper to draw pictures in order to have a conversation with me. In Europe, I have found things to be a little bit different.

Here in Germany, I definitely feel that I am a tourist, that it is a privilege to be here and I must tip-toe around the locals. My presence here is more of an intrusion rather than a welcomed visitor. There is little effort from locals to speak English and in some cases they flat-out deny that they can! One example of this is when we purchased a mobile Internet device for our time here. The assistant at the shop spoke very good English and helped us with the details and set-up. Two weeks later, we had some problems and had to return to the store to ask some questions. The same store, the same sales person and he claimed that he could not speak English! Only after we told him that he sold us the item in the first place did he realise that he spoke ‘a little bit of English’.

On the other hand, here in Europe, there are a lot more innate things to see and do. Things that are not designed solely with the tourist in mind. From amazing architecture to outdoor areas to restaurants, galleries and museums; there is so much to do that both locals and tourists can enjoy. There are not many places that exist but locals rarely go to. For example, almost everyone overseas has heard of the Australia Zoo thanks to the efforts of Steve Irwin and it is a very popular tourist destination. However, most locals in Australia would not really consider going there. In Asia, from resorts to fun parks, it seems that most attractions are purposely designed for tourists and visitors. Perhaps this explains the feeling that tourists are more welcomed there?

As for bike racing, there are also many differences between Asia and Europe. For starters, the roads are very different. In Asia, we race on huge highways that are 4 or 5 lanes wide. There are very few sharp corners and there is always plenty of room to move around. In Europe, you are lucky to get to race on a two lane road as most of the races are on the back roads around small villages. You must constantly fight to hold your position on the road and in the peleton and will quite often end up riding in the dirt on the side of the road as too many people try to squeeze into the same space.

The style of racing is also very different in Asia. Although there are many teams racing each other, they very rarely ride as one. You quite often get team mates chasing each other down as they appear to be riding only for their own personal results rather than that of the team. Consequently, very few teams can control a race and the pace is kept high by constant and random attacks at the front of the race. This means that breakaways rarely survive and there are a lot of sprints. In Europe, the team members seem to know their roles well. Large teams sacrifice riders for the greater cause and will often be seen riding at the front of the race in order to block the chase of their team mates up the road. If you are racing solo or have a small team, this can make things very difficult.

It has taken me some time to get used to the style of racing here in Europe and I have had to fight my way through to the front of the peleton on many occasions. With over 200 riders on the small roads in some races, it is vital that you can hold your position. It is a skill that you rarely need in Asia but is compulsory here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Confusion

Normally, when you race a criterium, you line up on the start line a few minutes before the official start time. The commissaires will give you instructions such as how long the race is, how many sprints there are, warning bells and whistles etc etc. It's generally quite important to listen to these instructions as they can help you time your attacks to give you the best opportunity to pick up points or a sprint bonus along the way. 

On the weekend, I did a criterium here in Germany, except with some small differences. Almost every criterium race in Germany is a points race of around 70km with about 35-45 laps. Every 5 laps there is a sprint in which the top 3 get points with the person with the most points declared the winner at the end. In between these sprint points are other, random sprints for small cash rewards or prizes such as wine. There is usually no specific lap that these sprints occur, the judges just decide to throw them in whenever they feel like it.

As I lined up at the start, the commissaires shouted out instructions over the loud speakers, of which, I could understand nothing. I looked around at others to see if anyone else was as confused as me but I am pretty sure I was the only non-German speaking person in the field. As I looked around, the race suddenly started. No count down, no hoo-rah. Everybody clipped in and away we went.

The course was a typical four corner circuit just over 1km long with only one corner that required any real braking. After a couple of laps, the bell sounded. Knowing this was not for points, I half-heartedly sprinted through at the front of the bunch, just wanting to hold my position. As we came across the finish line for the sprint, the bell rang again. I was a little bit surprised but thought the sprint must have been for points. I contested the sprint and crossed in 3rd positon only to be met by another bell. By this stage, I was feeling a bit of burn in my legs and had to drop back for a rest. Two laps passed by and the bell rang again. Again, I was sure this was not for points so did not sprint but as we crossed the finish line the bell rang again.



This continued on for the entire race and for the entire race I was so confused as to whether I should sprint or not. A couple of times, purely by luck I managed to lead my team mate out to collect some points but if anyone asked me, I could not say if they were sprint points or not. To me, it seemed like the bell rang almost every lap and I could never tell what it was for! Instead, I spent the race making sure that break aways did not escape and tried to set things up for someone that knew what was going on.

In the final laps I was well positioned at the front and finished in the top ten for the sprint but this has no effect on the final results. After the race I checked to see if any of the sprints I went for were actually worth any points and as at turned out, they weren't. Fortunately, my team mate managed to get it right a couple of times and finished up in 4th place overall.