Thursday, May 31, 2012

Riding bikes in Hungary

A few years ago, Judy and I flew with our CoMotion tandem to Budapest and rode a sweeping circle through south-western Hungary. We stayed for a night at the western-most end of Lake Balaton, in a small town called Keszthely, and now I am back here, with Sabine and two bikes instead of a tandem.
Lake Balaton, vineyards, and gentle landscapes
Last Saturday we drove from Sabine's home near Munich about 600 kilometers to this place, where I had arranged for a vacation rental ahead of time. We have a comfy apartment with all the things one would want, and we get to ride our bikes on a daily basis. During the days of Communism, this area was the playground of the East German elite as it was still behind the iron curtain but was more relaxed (and sported a nicer summer climate) than any other tourist destinations that people were allowed to travel to. Thus, many of the locals here speak more than just a smattering of German, which makes travel much easier than in other parts of the East Bloc where Russian and the local idiom were (and still are) more prevalent than English. Hungarian is as foreign of a language as it comes, more closely related to unwieldy Finnish than anything out of the Indo-European language pool. Just today Sabine commented that it is pretty pathetic that we don't even know how to say "hello" in Hungarian.
Hungarian: It might as well be cuneiform!
In the summertime, Keszthely is a booming resort that bustles with vacationers, but right now it is still quiet and totally laid back. The town (about 25,000 inhabitants) is located at the south-western end of Lake Balaton, which is the largest lake in all of central Europe (more than 40 miles long and about 10 miles wide). It has many small hotels and apartments (I used my time share points to book our week here), and there are lots of small restaurants and shops. We've found a mom-and-pop grocery store where we've been buying fresh veggies, bread, eggs, and meats, and cooking our meals in the apartment while sipping the local wine is definitely A-OK. Talking about wine: Hungary has multiple wine-growing regions, and we're in one of the important ones. One afternoon we "got stuck" in a family-owned wine shop that also happened to serve the best sandwiches ever, and for literally pennies we drank a few hours away while it rained. Actually, we've been doing quite a bit of that, coming to think of it....
Goose-lard-and-onion sandwich with local red—100% better than it sounds!
The riding has been outstanding. There are lots and lots of tiny roads, almost all of them with the smoothest asphalt you can imagine, and the traffic is extremely light. We have good maps, and every day we have been riding a different route. Along the lake things are, of course, totally flat. As a matter of fact, an asphalted bike path leads around the entire circumference of the lake. The northern shores are quite hilly with some volcanic features. Toward the south-west are areas that are relatively flat, with only light undulations, that are dotted with corn and sunflower fields as well as forests and marshes and lakes. The variety is amazing, and riding here is extremely pleasurable. In the five days that we have been here I have already clocked about 230 miles—a good thing since the beer is cold and we do have to occasionally sit out a thunderstorm.
Taking a break with a small beer ...
Almost every small village that we ride through has at least one resident stork. Yes, the bringers of babies live here, at least in the summer months. There's something very cool about those huge nests, with two storks clonking their beaks in a display of bird intimacy (or whatever it might be) while one can just barely make out a young one craning (or is it storking?) its neck toward the parents.
Stork and storkette
The villages are very clean, with tidy little houses that have small gardens with lots of flowers (mainly roses) up front and veggies in the back. Old men and seemingly even older women putter around, or just sit. It is very quiet here, no screaming and hollering, just pianissimo. Many of the streets are lined with fruit trees, especially cherries, which right now are just loaded with fruit.
Cherries are free for the picking
Overall, this vacation so far as been everything we could have asked for. The wine is good, the food (either in the restaurants or what we find in the stores) is yummy and very affordable, the roads are ideal for our type of cycling, the weather has been beautiful (every day with lots of sun, temps in the low 70s, and only occasional afternoon t-storms that make us drink more beer than we probably should while waiting out the tempest), few tourists, great accommodations—definitely a place to put on the short list for a rewarding vacation.

On Saturday we will leave Keszthely and start driving back toward Munich, but the plan is to stop for a few nights here and there on the way back. What fun!


Thursday, May 24, 2012


Judy loved the word: Urlaub. She never did like "krank feiern," the other way Germans get time off from work. Urlaub is legitimate—it's vacation (instead of calling in sick). On Tuesday, while riding my bike after returning from California, I suddenly realized that I won't have another race, another responsibility for a whole month. I know, y'all think that just because I'm retired I don't have a worry in my life. The reality is that I work more than I ever have. If you were to see the paperwork (OK, electronic paperwork, mostly) that comes with these races, you'd be amazed. I do have a lot of flexibility in my work, but I'm not just loafing all the time.
Busy, busy, busy—London's Heathrow, as seen from T5
But now I am. I am sitting in London's Heathrow, on the way to Munich where in a few hours I'll be picked up by Sabine. Right now she's putting in the last few hours of work at her job in the City of Munich's landscape architecture department—and after that, it's Urlaub for her, too, for two weeks. We've been planning a relaxing trip to Hungary's Plattensee region, and if AA and BA are reliable, we'll have bikes to ride as I hope they will be disgorged from the baggage conveyor belt in MUC in just a few hours.

My (upgraded) flight across the big pond was superb: The crew was extremely friendly, the steak dinner was truly outstanding, and the almost five hours of sleep I got were rather refreshing. And now I'm in the Galleries South in Heathrow's T5, my favorite lounge. After a rejuvenating shower (I love the six body jets that these showers have—when I redo my house I will have to make sure I update my own bathroom) I just had my favorite breakfast: kippers, poached eggs, bacon, baked beans, and toast. How much more British can it be?
Beats the hell out of cereal!
In a few hours I'll be in Munich and my Urlaub will start in earnest. Life is not just good, it is extremely good!


Monday, May 21, 2012

A one-week stage race is a bunch of work!

Start of Stage 4 in Sonora
If you have waited for another update after I abruptly finished my last post (because I simply had to get some sleep) and hadn't seen one so far, well, it's because I honestly could not find the time to write for an hour or so. Right now I am sitting in the Admirals Club in the LAX airport, and I have about two hours before my flight to Dallas.
Jens Voigt about to do the sign-in in Palmdale
Yesterday's eighth stage, which finished with six fast circuits in downtown LA, concluded this year's Amgen Tour of California, the premier stage race in North America. It was quite an experience for me, as it was the longest stage race I have ever been involved in and one that was as professional as it comes. The sheer logistics behind an event like this are simply mind-boggling. Take 16 teams, each with eight riders, plus all the team soigneurs, mechanics, and other staff, and you already have about 300 people running around. Add to that neutral support, the folks in charge of VIP services, catering, course and finish set-up and tear-down (every day!), the media guys, officials, doping control folks (yep, that's me), motorcycle drivers, medical personnel plus all those other untold positions, and you probably end up with 600 people who are traveling the entire time. In addition to that there are all those local volunteers (too many to count), the police contingent, and I don't know who else who are involved every day, but all on a changing basis. Man, to coordinate all of that is not an easy task. The race is run by Medalist Sports, and I have a new-found respect for this biggest name in race promotion in the USA. And then to think that the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia are a magnitude or two bigger! Wow!
GPS, orchards, and the Central Valley
Heading east across one of the bay bridges

Yoshua trees, not redwoods :)
For me, it was truly an amazing experience. Obviously, I had been to California before, but traveling the way we did, from the Wine Country all the way to LA, brought with it a much better understanding of the topography (and a few other aspects of this big state) than I had before. I drove about 1,000 miles in the process—that was part of the big time drain. For most stages we had to transfer either to the start or from the finish to a hotel, with distances that were sometimes Texas-sized. Generally, I tried to be at the start (which was not always possible because I had to be at the finish in time to set up the Doping Control Station and train the local doctor and volunteers before the racers arrived) to pick up the day's start lists and communiqué as well as exchange my race radio battery. I needed to know who might have dropped out, and I needed to have a lot of the same information that the commissaires had. In the car, I listened to the official radio channel, Radio Tour, which informs everyone in the race caravan on what is happening. Incidentally, I had very little contact with the officials as they would be done with their work when I started the testing, after the finish, and they always stayed in a different hotel than I did. Nevertheless, there was some contact with the PCP, Martijn Swinkles from Holland, as well as the occasional quick chat with our own Bonnie Walker from Austin, who is hoping to become an international commissaire before long.
The spoils of racing
The route for the tour was beautiful, with the only exception being the time trial in Bakersfield. I have to say, that ugly town (a mix between Clovis, NM, and Las Vegas, NV) was definitely the low point in otherwise spectacular scenery. The start of Stage 4 in Sonora, the finish of Stage 6 at Big Bear Lake, and of course the spectacular last five miles of the penultimate Stage 7 that climbed up all the way to Mt. Baldy will stay with me for a while. Unfortunately I didn't see any of the course between San Francisco and Santa Cruz (Stage 2), which led all along the Pacific coast. I saw the redwoods as well as the dry, rolling, yellow grass-covered hills of the East Bay area, the interminable orchards of the Central Valley, the Joshua trees from Palmdale until the climb up to Big Bear Lake, the LA metropolis and its smog—what a kaleidoscopic view of the state. The crowds were bigger than I had expected, but the race didn't faze all those homeless folks that I saw all week, with their shopping carts and meager possessions in plastic bags. The economic impact of such a race will surely not trickle down to all levels.
Fans photograph the riders' bikes in Sonora
At the start I had a chance to be up close to some of the biggest names in cycling. (Of course, I also did so when testing, but that information is verboten.) Tom Boonen (who had a stellar spring season by winning three spring classics), George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, and the affable Jens Voigt were all there. The two announcers (who had also worked Worlds in Louisville) did a fabulous job interviewing these racers during the mandatory sign-in before each stage, and the crowds loved it. For me the most memorable start was in Sonora, a quiet town in the hills east of the Central Valley that has a distinctly European flair and that made for the most scenic start that I witnessed.
Tom Boonen coming off the stage after sign-in
I didn't see much of the race on the road itself. For most of the finishes, however, I was there, right on the line (and I mean right on the finish line—my credentials got me anywhere I wanted to go) to see who the winner would be. It's pretty cool to see a world class sprinter like Peter Sagan take five sprint finishes at speeds topping 40 mph. On the Mt. Baldy stage I drove my car for the first part of the route in the caravan before turning off for the mountain top, and it was pretty cool to see riders who were struggling in the early stages of the climb hold on to a bottle that their team manager would hold out of the window in an effort to help them stay in contact with the tail end of the field. The crowds were amazing, and everybody was waiving and shouting. I really had a great time.

George Hincapie's left leg

Levi Leipheimer (l) and George Hincapie, all relaxed before a stage start

Yes, they really have a broom wagon

The caravan heads for Mt. Baldy
As you know, I had taken my bike along, and I did manage to squeeze in about 150 miles of riding in 10- to 30-mile segments, sometimes late in the afternoon, sometimes really early. I rode around Big Bear Lake, cursed the crappy roads in Bakersfield, and enjoyed the redwoods around Santa Cruz. I'm glad I went through the trouble of taking the Ritchey.

Boulder Bay at Big Bear Lake

Covered bridge close to Santa Cruz
I finished the Tour in a befitting way: After finishing my testing and paperwork yesterday afternoon I rode my bike from Culver City down to the ocean at Santa Monica and rode along the beach for a good 15 miles (for a total of about 30). Joggers, skaters, tons of tough-looking guys on fixed gear bikes (they call them fixies and try to look like old track racers, I think), and walkers were out, and I had to think: Wow, I'm truly a lucky dog to be able to do and see all of this!
Fixie rider in Santa Monica
And now I better close this chapter because my flight to Dallas is about to board. The next update will be from Europe, once again.


Friday, May 18, 2012

California dreamin'

The past few days have simply flown by. They start early, shortly after 6:00 a.m., and there hasn't been a night when I have hit the rack before midnight. Granted, there's a little bit of personal time, like right now at 23:35 hrs (that's the style we use to record times on our doping control forms) when I am updating the blog, or this morning at 7:45 a.m., when I dug out a 1-inch drywall screw out of my rear tire when I flatted on a rare morning ride. Essentially, it's been racing non-stop. And even though I see little of the race while it is progress, I have access to areas of the start and finish that even VIPs don't have.
Belgian super-star Tom Boonen passes by me after signing in for Stage 4
Let's see, my last blog update had been right after stage 1, I believe. The next day we ended up in beautiful Santa Cruz, after the racers had pedaled down HWY 1 from San Francisco on that beautiful coast. The entourage spent the night in the Scott's Valley Hilton, and before stage 3 I had a chance to ride about 20 miles or so in this beautiful part of the world before hopping into the car to do my work on the other side of the Bay area, in Livermore, where stage 3 ended. In the evening I had enough time for another fast-and-furious 10 miles. Interestingly enough, soigneurs from the teams and others from the entourage pull out the occasional bike, too, and try to sneak in just a little bit of exercise. I can tell you, my weight-loss program has been seriously hampered once again.It's not easy living on the road.
After my morning ride near Santa Cruz
Doing the doping control, I get to meet interesting people. There are the chaperones, whose job it is to notify the appropriate riders that they have been selected for drug testing, and there is of course always a local physician whose responsibility it is to literally watch the riders pee in the cup. Seriously. It's the full Monty, so if you're squeamish, you may want to think about a different career choice.They're all good people, excited to be involved and appreciative of the guidance I give them.
With two of my chaperones in Clovis

And at this point I have to apologize because I am simply too tired to continue writing. I will add more as soon as I can, with photos galore. But now I HAVE to sleep.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Amgen Tour of California

It's not easy to find time to write blog updates when being part of the largest and most important road race in the USA. Since arriving in San Francisco on Saturday, there has been very little downtime with computer access to write a few words. Right now it is early on Monday, and I am sitting in my hotel room in Santa Rosa before our transfer south to Santa Cruz.
The ATOC touches on most part of the state
For the past two days, the race entourage has stayed in the same three or four hotels here in Santa Rosa, where the first stage started and ended. Aside from the Stage 5 time trial, all other stages will be point-to-point, and the start generally is not in the same city as where the last stage ended. So, all of that requires careful planning of the transfers. I am here as the UCI's Doping Control Officer, and the testing is done in an RV that travels with us. The race organization has provided me with an assistant who drives the RV and helps with the set-up, while I will drive a car from point to point. Today, for example, the race start is just off Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco (55 miles south of here, in heavy traffic), but I won't see any of it because by the time of the race start I will be on the way to the finish line in Santa Cruz for set-up, chaperone training, meeting with the day's medical inspector, etc.
This is the set-up that will be used for the whole race—my HQ
Yesterday I did get a chance to ride my bike (I brought the Ritchey along) for 15 miles before the start of the day and another 23 miles at the end of the day. Most stages will end around 4 p.m., and by the time that the doping controls are finished (and I have found a UPS station to immediately ship the samples) it will most likely be too late to go out for a ride—especially since I will still have to drive to the hotel and get checked in. Paperwork comes afterward. Not all transfers will be as demanding as today's (having to cross through the entire Bay area after coming through Marin and then negotiating some of the tight roads in the Santa Cruz area will be challenging), so I hope to get to ride a few times.

I don't see much of the race, if any. There's the start, and yesterday there was the finish. In between, I won't see the race since I'm of course not part of the race caravan, and as DCO I have to be at the finish well before the race arrives there. Driving in one of the commissaire's cars is thus impossible. (In Philadelphia and also in Saguenay I was able to hop into the car for a few laps of the circuits that were used.) So, this is definitely a different type of ballgame.
Yesterday's Stage 1 sprint finish in downtown Santa Rosa
Nevertheless, is is extremely exciting to be part of such a huge event. The professionalism in the production is amazing. The Technical Guide and the Housing Guide (neatly spelling out where who is going to be accommodated every night) each count over 70 pages! We have all been issued GPS units pre-loaded with key locations for each stage, and gas cards make it possible for all of us to stay fueled up without a mound of paperwork or reimbursements.

We'll see what the next few days bring. Right now it is time for me to finish off this entry and start the day in earnest. I will try to write an update in a few days—maybe a few more photo ops come up along the way, but don't hold your breath hoping for some of those iconic race shots that you may have seen of this race in the past, with the peloton rolling down Highway 1.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What 1,082 miles while perched on a narrow saddle will do for you

April was a good month. Well, all months are good months, at least for me, but it was an especially good month for riding my bike. It started with my trip to Las Vegas, where on the day after Leadman I had a chance to ride 53 miles all over town (see my April 1 post). And from there it just kept going. Not having any races that required air travel and thus extended absences from home meant that I was able to take out the Seven on an almost daily basis. The three Texas-based races allowed me to go out for a morning spin on Friday and still leave town in the afternoon.

On April 30, I counted my mileage for the month, and I had racked up a solid 1,082 miles—more than during any other month since my racing days (when I churned out about 250 miles on a weekly basis, 75 fewer in the winter, 75 more in the summer). Mind you, in the four months prior to that I had tallied exactly 1,100 miles, just 18 more.

Not only did I enjoy riding the bike (OK, there were a few of those super-windy days that totally sucked), but the best thing about all the extra exercise was this:
1,082 miles equaled a weight loss of 6.8 pounds
When I am home, I record my weight every morning after rolling out of bed. Daily fluctuations mean nothing if one averages the weight on a weekly basis (in blue, on the right side of the calendar). I am still way too heavy, but having lost almost 7 pounds (without swearing off beer and wine and decent meals) has been quite rewarding. The big challenge will be to keep the momentum going with week-long (or longer) trips to California, Europe, and New York coming up. But I am planning to take along my Ritchey on each of these trips, and I will try everything I can to squeeze rides in as often as possible. We'll see what the scales have to say in a month!