Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Home again

If you were away from home for 8 months, what would be the first thing you do when you get home? Unpack? Watch some English television? Eat your favorite foods that you have been missing? Well, this morning, 7hrs after I landed in Australia, I went for a ride. 

It was a surreal feeling doing a ride that I haven't done for so long and to be honest, not much has changed. However, there are some things that I noticed that appeared a little odd to me after being away. Here are a few...

For starters, everyone is driving on the wrong side of the road. When did that happen?! After riding and driving on the right hand side fir so long, it has become the norm. I find myself looking into cars and freaking out because there is no one is in what I think is the driver's seat. Despite this, there also appears to be less traffic on the roads. Maybe it's because I've just come from the craziness that is China, but the roads feel 'quieter'.

Before I left, due to the floods, many roads were damaged and repairs had begun to rectify this. 8 months on, and some of those road works are still going. Ahhhh, Australian efficiency. 

The mobile Internet in Australia is so SLOW. It takes twice as long to download a web page and is likely to drop out half way through. In fact, in my new abode (which my lovely wife worked hard to have ready for when I arrived) it seems that one reliable phone company can't even provide ADSL Internet to the location. Considering it's only 5km from the centre of the city, it's a bit ridiculous. 

Australia has, by far, a long long way, the best coffee. (Excluding Wild Bean Cafes and McCafe) Forget what people say about coffee in Europe, it's got nothing on an Australian brew. Ask for a cappuccino in Europe and you will generally get hot milk at around a billion degrees with 10cm of froth on top. 

The biggest difference that I noticed when I went for a ride here is that I have to wear a helmet. I got about 50m down the road before I remembered it. I can no longer have the wind in my hair when I'm riding around. Not even on the bike path. Not even when I go to the shop to get milk. I can't go back. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pimp my ride

Here is Asia, for most people, having a car is a luxury and pretty much not a necessity. With several modes of public transport and trains that come literally every 2 mins, it is easy to get around. 

A lot of people choose the bicycle to get from A to B, so there are an amazing amount of different types of folding bikes and smaller bikes that are able to go on the trains. 

In order to personalize their ride, a lot of people will add features like glowing neon rim lights, rainbow colored bits and pieces and in some circumstances, even a stereo! You can ride up behind someone on the bike path and music will be coming from their bike. Yesterday we found a good example of a bike tricked out with a stereo...



Not only was there a car battery and two big kenwood speakers... There was a 3600 watt amplifier strapped to the back for extra bass!!! 



I wonder if he had iPod connectivity??

Friday, September 23, 2011

Big day out

After completing the Tour of China, we were keen to have sone rest and recreation so Simon suggested that we take a trip to the theme park, 'Ocean Park' in Hong Kong. Deon and I thought it would be great to hit some water slides and go for a swim akin to Wet n Wild back home. 



So this morning we packed our towels and sunscreen and set out in boardies and thongs to meet Simon. On our arrival, we discovered that 'Ocean Park' is only a name and the theme park had absolutely no swimming. It was more like Seaworld with more rides rather than a water park. The name was quite misleading. As a result, Deon and I were in fir a long uncomfortable day. 



Ocean Park had a huge amount of things to do. Rides, exhibits, aquariums and animal enclosures, games and restaurants. To accommodate all of these activities, the theme park took up a huge amount of land. So much land that a cable car connected the two major sections of the park. 



This would not have caused us any problems except for the fact that Ocean Park is totally on the side of a mountain!!! There was no flat section and after 7hrs of walking, our legs were trashed. The distinct lack of support that thongs provide proved to be harsh on our feet as we searched fir more activities that involved sitting. 



Despite this, it was a fantastic day. Highlights include seeing a real panda, sloth and toucan, riding the Abyss tower ride, the jelly fish show, and getting very nauseous after riding the 'Flash' and 'Space Wheel'.   



Monday, September 19, 2011

Gift bearer

It's been almost 8 months since I was back home in Australia and almost 8 weeks since I've seen my wife. Needless to say, I'm keen to get back. I left Europe a couple of weeks ago to begin my return trip and since then, I have been carting around 50kg of luggage.



This has caused several problems for me especially when booking flights. I need to check who has the most luggage allowance and be sure that I am not going to pay a small fortune in excess baggage fees. For example, Qantas charges AUD$20 for every kilogram overweight which means I may as well buy another ticket and strap my bike to the seat next to me.

Despite this weight issue, it's not my biggest problem. After being overseas for so long, family and friends are expecting me to bring home a plethora of gifts and souvenirs but I literally cannot fit anything else in. I have already had to leave clothes and shoes behind just to make space. At the airport, I have to walk through security like the Michelin man with 5 layers of clothing on to make it look like I don't have as much stuff in my bags.

I hate to disappoint, but I won't be bringing a bag of goodies home with me. Maybe I'll be able to just tell everyone stories and entertain them with a slideshow night of all the pictures I took with my iPhone? Surely, that will be enough?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Confidence

I used to be confident at riding down mountains. I could take blind corners without touching my brakes leaning over further than moto GP bike. But ever since my crash at the Tour of Korea I have lost my nerve.

At the Tour of China we have two mountain stages. Both have a climb of over 10km before a long descent to the finish. I wasn't too worried about them except for the fact that it has been pouring rain for almost the whole week.

Maybe it's because I'm riding on tires that are 2.3cm wide. Maybe it's because those tyres have no grip and are pumped up to a rock hard 120psi. Or maybe it's because my brakes don't work when mixed with water. Whatever it is, I cannot take corners confidently in the wet.

Yesterday was the last mountain stage and it had a 35km descent to the finish. Leading up to the climb was a narrow winding road and in the wet, slippery conditions, I shuffled further back with every corner.



On the climb itself, I was alone and as I reached the top there was a thick fog that allowed me to see barely 30m in front of myself. This made the first part of the descent extremely difficult as there were hairpin turns and cliff edge drop-offs. I rode with my brakes on pretty much the whole time.



Once the fog cleared, I picked up some speed but still slowed down so much on the corners. This cost me some time and at the end of the stage it seems I was not the only one. There were huge time gaps through out the peleton with small groups forming everywhere.

Maybe I just respect my life too much?

Over eating

I never thought I'd say this but... I'm tired of eating.

In a multi-day race you trash your body day after day so refueling before and after each stage is vital. Normally, at home, I'd barely eat breakfast before riding but on tours you seat down to a buffet breakfast of pasta. After each stage you are dehydrated so you spend the next 12hrs drinking as much fluid as you can or the next day your legs are tired, sore and won't do what you want them to.



It's often said that during tours you are not eating for that day but for the next few days. If dinner comes around and you are not hungry so you don't eat much, you will suffer in the following days. So even if you don't want to eat, you have to force yourself to because you won't get another chance.

With one stage remaining and a rest day today, I'm not hungry. I just want to sleep in. I don't want a plate of pasta or rice for breakfast and I would kill for a good coffee.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Big questions

Before traveling to Asia, I thought about the big questions like, do Chinese people have tattoos of English words, is sweet and sour pork a real Chinese dish, and do Chinese supermarkets have a section dedicated to western foods?



In my time in china, I am yet to see anyone with a English word for a tattoo. Whilst Australians walk around with Chinese symbols saying 'wisdom' or 'peace', it seems that it doesn't happen the other way around.

I have had sweet and sour pork once in China. Despite the number of restaurants that I have been to, the dish is not as common as we make it out to be and it doesn't taste the same either.

As for the last question, last night I found the equivalent of the 'Asian foods' section in a Chinese supermarket. It had breakfast cereal, chocolate, pasta, coffee, peanut butter and a number of other western foods. The name of section was simply, 'Come from Europe'.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Manpower

With almost 20% of the world's population located in China (1.34Billion people), there is no shortage of manpower. From what I have seen here at the Tour of China, it seems that the saying 'many hands make light work' is extremely appropriate.

Stage 1 consisted of a 180km race in a dead straight line along one of China's national highways. For the entire 180km, the highway was closed to traffic with police standing at every intersection and driveway. Also extending the entire 180km was witches hats separating the media vehicles from the race. These witches hats were not spread out but were positioned 5m apart. Over 180km, thats about 36000 witches hats!!! How do they even organise that??? Who has to pick them all up??? Do they walk along side a truck for 180km to collect them all???



In the hotel restaurants, the number of staff is insane. In one hotel, when you first arrive, you are guided to the restaurant by a line of human witches hats that each welcome you and direct you to the entrance. At the entrance, there are four people to collect your meal ticket and guide you in. Inside the kitchen, there are about ten chefs, all cooking frantically as about 15-20 waitresses come to collect the food and fill the buffet as it empties. Afterwards, you make your way back to the elevator were four more staff are waiting to push the button for you then once inside the elevator, there is another staff member to press your floor button.





With so much man power it is no surprise that so many things are made in China. Whilst we strive for efficiency and achieve goals with as few people as possible, China uses sheer quantity to get things done.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Privacy

During tours, we have stayed in a lot of different hotels. Some are good, some are bad. Highlights include the love heart shaped water beds in the sex hotels at the Tour of Korea and the romantic atmosphere of sharing a room with a team mate in the hotels in the wine region of Germany.  But nothing could prepare me for the hotel at the 3rd stage of the Tour of China. 

I'm a man that likes my privacy. I prefer to use the bathroom in my own home or when no one else is around rather than getting 'intimate' in strange surrounds. So I was a little worried when we discovered that our bathroom had a window... that looked straight out into the bedroom.!



The last thing I want to do is look at Deon while he is watching television as I am sitting on the toilet. It is extremely uncomfortable. Neither do I want to see Deon's de-clenching face when I'm watching television. 

During meals, we would go down to eat and then race to be the first one back to the room. That way, you could get a little bit of private time before the other person gets back and stares at you through the window. 

Thankfully, we only generally spend one night in each hotel before packing up and moving on to the next stage. Hopefully, tomorrow's hotel won't have a bathroom peephole. 

Brinner

Breakfast in Asia is very different. There is very little cereal and you are hard pressed to find sandwich bread let alone a toaster to put it into. Here at the tour of China, breakfast has been what I like to call 'brinner'.

Instead of the usual hot dishes like bacon and eggs, you get dishes that I would typically eat for dinner such as stirfry, lamb chops, spicy cabbage, rice and fish soup.



There are some breakfast foods that I am used to such as hash browns and fruit but my favorite is the watery-rice like porridge that is somehow translated in English to...



There is nothing quite like a good hearty bowl of gruel for brinner.

Despite the vast variety of food, each morning lacks one key ingredient to starting the day... coffee!!! Teams, including us, have resorted to bringing their own instant coffee to breakfast.

The distinct lack of caffeine has resulted in me getting caffeine withdrawals. After 3 days, I'm pretty sure I have a brain tumor because I have an epic headache that only an espresso can cure. We have even resorted to getting into a taxi and showing a picture of the Starbucks logo with our phones. All to no avail.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Safety first

When you fly domestically in Australia, you feel pretty safe. Airlines like Jetstar and Virgin have relatively clean and new planes and their security measures give you confidence that they take their job seriously. On the plane itself, the hosties give a comprehensive safety briefing that outlines all the precautionary measures and safety equipment that they have in case of emergency. On a domestic flight on China, things are a little different.

On our way to the Tour of China, we had to catch a 2hr flight on a domestic Chinese airline. After making our way through an epic security check and full body pad down, we headed towards the gate. Coming down the escalators, I expected to see the usual line of airplanes and walkways. Instead, there was a massive line of buses. I was confused. Weren't we supposed to catch a plane?



We took our carry on luggage and crammed onto the bus which had no seats and was standing room only. With very little to hang on to, it was lucky that we were packed in so tight as people lost their balance. The bus drove for about ten minutes out on the runway and had to give way to the odd jumbo jet that was taking off.





When we reached the plane, we piled out onto the runway and lined up on the stairs to enter the plane. Once on the plane, we watched a cartoon safety video and I didn't understand a single word. Funnily, they did not mention life jackets in the event of an emergency. When I looked at the seat in front of me, I understood why.



Thankfully, I never had to use the seat cushion as a flotation device and we landed safely before cramming into another bus to drive us off the runway.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Dr Helmut Ng

For the last few weeks we have been traveling around for various reasons but for the whole time we have had to share a hotel room with one or two others. Being in such close quarters with another person means you tend to share a lot of things and unfortunately, one of these things is sickness. 

A couple of weeks ago, Deon got sick and then passed it onto me. I then passed it onto our team mate, Steven who then shared it with a couple of the visiting Hong Kong riders.  

With the Tour of China race fast approaching, and the flu still lingering, Deon and I decided to make a visit to the doctor in Hong Kong. We went to the family doctor of one of the Champion System representatives (Dr Helmut Ng) and it is by far the weirdest doctor consultation I have ever had. 



After filling out the paperwork, we all went into the doctor's consultation room where he looked us over one by one an asked us questions. The nurse then gave us some medication that looked like something that a person would try to hand you in a dodgey nightclub and he told us what to do. We then started a conversation about his diecast model car collection that he had in his office and he showed us pictures of his 15 year old Porsche that he owned, his previous two Porsche convertibles and his yacht. Dr Ng then invited us to check out his model car collection while he dealt with the next patient. 



We then went outside to pay the bill (around AUD25) and collect the free stickers that the doctor wanted us to have. Just as we were ready to leave, Dr Ng invited us back into his office and gave us a free box of moon cakes and packets of chocolate and vanilla nutrition drinks. We then had our photo taken with him and he asked us to drop by next time we were in Hong Kong. 



Best doctor's visit ever. 

Global warming

Even in summer, Munich was cold. In the middle of spring, I rode a couple of mornings at zero degrees and I'm pretty sure I froze when it rained. There was a couple of warm days but it was a dry warm and when you step into the shade you can just about put a jumper on. 

This morning we went for our first ride in Hong Kong and I think I have heat stroke. It was about 400 degrees and around 1000% humidity. Stopping at traffic lights meant that sweat literally dripped off and your sunglasses fogged up. 

It was so hot that we did the unthinkable. We went back to our old triathlon days and rode around in bike knicks only. (I can't believe I used to do training sessions on the bike in speedos)



It was only slightly cooler but drew a lot more attention from those passing by. The downside is that there are no pockets to put your things in.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Into the unknown

Yesterday I began my homeward journey from Europe but along the way I have a few days in Hong Kong and a tour in China to complete. After arriving in Hong Kong, I can immediately feel a greater sense of adventure and excitement. After 6 months in Europe, I have realized that I enjoy Asia far more. 



It's not just because everything in Europe is about 5 times the price (or 10 times for Switzerland) or because Europe dips into ridiculously cold temperatures. It is because Europe is, well, not so different from home. 

Sure they speak different languages, a sausage is a giant bratwurst, there is history all around and beer flows like water but all in all, everything is pretty much the same but with a Euro twist. Day to day activities are the same and there is no real excitement or risk unless you go looking for it. They use the same systems and they have similar ideals, so even if you don't speak the language, you can rely on previous experiences with the same situation back home and expect the same outcomes. After 6 months, the novelty of being in another country wears off and it becomes the mundane. 



Here in Asia, everything is different and you can never predict what is going to happen when ever you step out of the door. I never forget that I am in another country when in Asia. I cannot understand a single written symbol of the language nor a spoken word so each time I venture out, I have a heightened sense of adventure and anticipate a challenge. I love the spontaneity and excitement of it. The inability to plan something out and execute it without complications. Even getting food can be a surprise. It makes for great stories. 



Sometimes, I'll admit that this can be tiring. Dedicating 100% of your focus just to conduct yourself day to day is taxing on the mind and you can feel very alone when you are surrounded by the unknown. Then again, isn't it supposed to challenge your limits? I am looking forward to going to China again and will do my best to get lost in some markets in the back streets of a city I know nothing about. Otherwise, what will I write about?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Benefits

I'm not one to gloat or rub someone's nose in their misfortunes. Just ask any of my friends and they will tell you. Today I began my long journey home from Europe along with Simon and Deon, and having a better frequent flyer status than them has proven to be priceless. 

Firstly, at check-in, I was able to walk straight into the priority check-in lane whilst Deon and Simon (were supposed to) line up in the pleb queue. *Despite our priority check-in, an error with our tickets meant we were the last to check in anyway. 

Once we received our boarding passes and made our way to the plane, I found myself sitting comfortably in an emergency exit seat next to the isle, near the front of the plane. Deon and Simon trundled past me toward the back of the plane with a slight look of distain on their faces. 

After arriving in Dubai, we made our way to the Business Lounge where I am currently enjoying breakfast, coffee, wifi and hot shower. Deon and Simon are outside in the terminal, trying to find a vacant seat in which to sleep uncomfortably for the next three hours. 

I'm not gloating. I'm not rubbing their faces in it. But it sure is sweet. 

Spaghetti carbonara

Italy is famous for both its pasta and delicious gelato. But what happens when you put them both together? Spaghetti ice-cream, that's what!

I never thought I'd go to an ice-cream shop to order spaghetti carbonara but jam a few scoops of ice-cream into a giant garlic press and this is what you end up with...



Sure beats the 'mix-ins' you get at cold rock. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Retro-tech

I'm a numbers guy so, consequently, I like having as much information in front of me when I ride. Speed, time, distance, gradient, cadence, heart rate, etc, etc, etc. 

Now days, getting all this info in one handy computer is simple with a plethora of choices on the market. They are all packaged in a small computer that conveniently fits on your handlebars. But what did people do before these devices were invented???

Well, on one of the bikes of the visitors from Hong Kong, I discovered an old school method of measuring the gradient of a hill. 

Strapped to the handlebars of his bike was a spirit level with markings indicating the gradient. 



It didn't really look like the most accurate way of measuring the gradient and whenever you hit a bump, the air bubble jumped around or even split in two.  

I can see how it works and it's usefulness... but I think it's validity ran out a few years ago. And how do you calibrate a spirit level that measures gradient? By using another giant spirit level?