Friday, February 27, 2015

Traffic observations in the Dominican Republic

A rather light load, by Dominican standards
I am now about halfway through my trip in the Dominican Republic (actually, I have just added more text and pics after the finish of the race), and I have had ample opportunity over these past six days to observe the behavior of drivers (and other users of streets and roads) from the vantage point of the passenger seat. Let me tell you, it's interesting.
Compared to many of the moving wrecks, this car is virtually off-the-lot
Like any large Latin city, Santo Domingo has a traffic infrastructure perfectly suited to its needs—if this were 1950! But since this is 2015, and everybody now drives a car, the streets are hopelessly clogged. To get from my initial hotel to the offices at the cycling federation—maybe a distance of three miles, four tops—took an easy 45 minutes every time I was picked up or taken back. The arteries have traffic lights, and it is here that things really get messy: The lights are timed for very long cycles (up to 90 seconds), meaning that already slow traffic comes to a complete standstill. And restarting a traffic jam takes much more time than keeping traffic flowing, even if it is slow. (BTW, I know about the 90 seconds since many of the traffic lights have a second countdown timer so that the honking can start with about 15 seconds to go until "green.")
Safe passing on a two-lane highway
Regardless of whether an intersection is controlled by a traffic light or by stop signs (or no signage at all, which is mostly the case), the first rule is to enter the intersection and claim one's spot. Since some people go right, some go left, and most go straight, that means that there is this Gordian knot of immovable traffic right in the middle of the intersection, inching forward, never giving up one's position unless there is an obviously much bigger vehicle positioned to take it. To avoid such a scenario, the cars are packed tightly so that there is no angle of attack by the big fish. Oddly enough, this dos-a-dos is relatively honkage free.
Motorcycles, the pick-ups of the DR
In those areas where the traffic is more free-flowing, different yet similar rules apply:

1. If you have a red light, simply ignore it.
2. If you have a green light, most definitely slow down and proceed with a modicum of caution.
3. If there is a stop sign, ignore it as well and slow down only minimally; chances are good that the non-stop sign controlled driver will do the same, or so you hope.
4. All other rules regarding a clogged intersection apply—see above.

In other words: It's all a big, gooey mess. Thrown into the mix of cars, mini vans, and trucks of all sizes and states of disrepair is an inordinate number of small motorcycles that have just outgrown the cc standard of a moped. These motos weave in and out of tight and extra-tight spaces, claiming the extra square inches that the cars are hoping to utilize in their quest for advancing position. These guys really know how to handle their bikes! Oddly, their shenanigans practically never draw the sound of the klaxon. In the city that's reserved to alert others that a red light is still red but everybody needs to get ready, and to communicate general dissatisfaction with life, I presume. It's a wonderful system!
They all mingle well, cars and motos
So, that brings us to highway driving. My driver, Juan, and I covered a few hundred kilometers of dual-carriage (four lanes) toll roads as well as a private dual-lane toll road and lots of normal highways, both two-lane as well as four lanes. While the toll roads were more or less access controlled, the free roads were not. But that did not really matter much, since similar rules applied: On a four-lane, dual-carriage way, you drive in the left lane, regardless of how slow you are. As a matter of fact, the slower you are, the more imperative it is to drive as long as possible in the left lane, despite the many signs that admonish that the carril izquierda is for passing only. But if you think that the fast cars start passing on the right from the get-go, oh no, that'd be too easy: They start to tailgate whatever obstacle is in front of them and patiently wait for the move to the right, which, of course, never comes. But if you think that now the honking starts, you are mightily wrong. After a short while behind the offender one starts to initiate the right pass, after all. No need to use the blinker—obviously anybody behind you will expect this move and first start tailgating you.
Prime example of proper blind-turn passing etiquette
Of course, it can happen that whoever passes the slow vehicle is pretty slow too, so now things are clogged up (we're still talking about four lanes here). In this case it is necessary to judiciously create a third lane, between the two slow-pokes. To create such a lane requires a lot of honking, or not; in that case, keep your arms inside the vehicle and feel the enlightenment when you realize why there is no longer a right-side mirror.
There are a lot of rules—it's just that nobody really gives a damn!
On regular two-lane highways things are simpler because there is more honking involved, especially when one passes motos and bikes; cars that are being passed somehow know that you're approaching, and at the last moment they will scoot over far enough to the right (without hitting that moto, which they have already alerted to their coming) so that you won't lose the left mirror as well.
Speed bump that slows traffic to a crawl—the racers tried to hop them if possible
Just don't think that everybody honks all the time. That's just not so. Honking is used as a way to communicate that you are coming and that you will broadside that moto or pedestrian or car if there is any more movement toward your trajectory. Of course, if it is something large that is moving into your path, you don't honk but simply slow down and let that behemoth claim its superiority. To sum it up, you always honk at pedestrians, bikes, and motorcycles if their movement warrants it; they just don't stand a chance.
That's the little KIA in which I was carted around for 10 days
In addition to the horn there is that other communication device that's built into cars: the blinker or turn signal. Well, it's hardly ever used as truly directional indicator, except when taking a left turn from the rightmost lane or vice versa, crossing at least four virtual lanes. No, the blinker is used when sitting inches away from a totally overloaded, smoke-belching truck that is lumbering up a mountain road. It is used to indicate that you will start your pass in the next available blind turn and that you claim your spot. You also use the blinker (this time the right one) on a fast, straight dual-lane highway to show that oncoming vehicle that is within 15 nanoseconds of hitting you that you are going back over to the right after your successful pass. Left mirrors are often lost in these maneuvers as well, as are right ones, too.
The joy of grinding uphill ...
To keep the mortality rates in the small towns low, speed bumps (called topes or tumolos in various Latin countries) force traffic to slow down to less than 1 mph to avoid breaking an axle, or the entire chassis. I have never seen more aggressive topes in my life—in Santo Domingo I rode over some of them on the bike, and it was almost like hitting a curb. Preferably such speed bumps will come after a fast downhill section, after a turn. The bike racers absolutely hated them! They would try to hop them, but while the first ten riders would be able to so, the remaining 110 didn't have much success to time their maneuver just right. Another way to slow down traffic is to build very large and deep potholes, but they have the unwanted side-effect that drivers will also swerve, which then necessitates more honking to alert pedestrian or cyclist or moto alike that you're coming at them in an unpredictable way. To make sure that there are few escape routes, gutters are deep and curbs are high. Therefore, the two-wheeled vehicles often will travel against the traffic, just to see what will hit them instead of being surprised. That's pretty smart, I suppose.
Slow down, Buster!
Thanks to long transfers back to the hotel from a stage finish I also had a chance to observe night driving on a few occasions. That is fun! While cars and trucks are generally well lit, motos generally are not. Rear lights seem to be a fashion faux-pas, and front lights are really unnecessary because, after all, it is always possible to navigate by the light that four-wheeled vehicles provide. If there is a luxe motorcycle with a front light, it will usually attract others (sans lights) that make good use of the leader. More importantly, though, there are no animals on the roads at night, so one can really deem driving at dark a relatively  safe form of entertainment.
The lead moto actually had a front light; neither one had a rear light, but the lead (luxe!) had a reflector
If you think that driving in the DR is a lawless, anarchistic exercise, you're wrong. There are rules—it's just that they differ from the ones we use in the US. Driving in the DR reminds me of doing so in places such as Mexico City, Athens, or Teheran: Upon first sight it's all totally chaotic, but upon a bit of observation you will discern the unwritten rules of behavior. In all seriousness, I did not see a single wreck anywhere—no overturned cars, no burned-out buses, no gutted truck wrecks. Still, if I were to rent a car here I'd take out full insurance coverage, just so that the mirrors would be covered....


Thursday, February 19, 2015


Exactly two weeks back in the US, and what do I have to show for it? Well, there was a buffer day before I left for the High School Mountain Bike season opener at Bluff Creek Ranch in Warda (927 miles of driving); there was a fabulous Valentine's dinner with Tom, Trish, and Janet, breaking in my new raclette (OK, there had been a "soft breaking in" the Wednesday before when Janet and I had to make sure the thing actually worked); there was a gorgeous Saturday that I spent with my buddies Carl, Bobby, and Donna (and others) riding the off-road Southland Loop; and there was that mesmerizing Harpeth Rising concert at Melissa Grimes' house.
Longhorns at Bluff Creek, unfazed by the high school students and their bikes
262 students meant a new record for TX HS racing
Framed by my friends Troy on (left) and Carl
Taking off on a 30+ mile loop just 30 minutes from Lubbock
Donna crossing the creek with the help of her tongue
Tom and Trish on Valentine's, experiencing their first raclette
The taxes are done, I've ridden a good 300 miles, the house is fairly clean, and I have made all the travel arrangements to spend Easter in Thailand where my old friend Stu just bought a bike shop, to add to his general woes. I've been working on some upcoming races, and I have enjoyed just being at home. Is it any wonder, then, that I am all packed and ready to leave for the Dominican Republic tomorrow? Seems the natural and common-sense thing to do, n'est-ce-pas?


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Two weeks in and around the Alps

Arriving in the Geneva airport entails experiencing vivid wet dreams involving timepieces
Two weeks ago I arrived in Geneva to participate in a seminar with the CADF, the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation. Fallout from the various doping scandals over the years has led to the detachment of the UCI's anti-doping branch into a new, independent entity, the CADF. Our job is still the same, the faces are still the same, and those who assign us to races and read our reports are still the same–but the name, logo, and uniforms have changed. I am sure that occasionally I may still be tempted to talk about a "UCI appointment" because old habits die slowly, but as a matter of fact, I really shouldn't refer to any of my assignments as "CADF" missions because they are confidential.So, there you have it.
The UCI's World Cycling Centre, home of the CADF
But going to a seminar for our biannual re-accreditation is not a secret mission, and so I can tell you why I spent four days in Switzerland. It was interesting and, as always, enjoyable to get back together with old friends from all over the world. We had 26 participants at this seminar who represented 16 countries, I believe. The seminar was conducted in both English and French, which I found stimulating and effective, but that may have been my own bias since I speak both languages. Those whose mother tongue is neither of those two expressed frustration at the polyglot nature of the seminar.
The UCI has a BMX track on its premises, with a fairly spectacular background
The CADF continues to use offices that are now formally rented from the UCI in the swank World Cycling Centre, in Aigle, just a hop and a skip from Montreux and Lake Geneva. Unfortunately, for most of our time in Aigle the skies were grey and the mountaintops hidden behind low clouds. But when the skies finally broke open on Sunday afternoon, while we were taking out final exam, Switzerland suddenly was transformed into that special place that we see on postcards and in the movies. Wow!
Old friends (Hélène et Michel from Quebec) ....
... and new (Marlene from Greece)
I had been allowed to extend my stay in Europe by booking an open-jaw ticket that had seen me fly into Geneva but that would let me return a fortnight later from Munich. All I had to pay was the negligible price difference between the straight roundtrip to Geneva and the open-jaw flight (a paltry $15 or so) plus a one-way ticket from Geneva to Munich—the $114 price for the ticket on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) was ridiculously low, especially since there was no luggage surcharge and I even earned some Star Alliance miles. The only catch: Instead of flying straight from GVA to MUC I had to take the long route via Copenhagen. Oh well, just another few hours sitting comfortably in a plane.
So much for the natural beauty of Denmark!
I arrived in Munich last Monday, with a bit of time left to have a beer and a snack in the Munich airport's Airbräu micro-brewery. After Switzerland's sky-high prices (a dinner will set you back $40, and that won't be anything fancy) the Airbräu's 2.75 euro price-tag for a half-liter of excellent brew was, well, astonishing. So I had to have two before Sabine picked me after work, just an hour after I had arrived.
Low prices and yummy food and drink at the Airbräu in the Munich airport
For the next two days, I played "house-man" as Sabine had to work on Tuesday and Wednesday. Nothing wrong with washing the dishes and cooking for her and son Jonathan and getting to ride my bike (one day, when the streets had dried off for once). Then on Thursday, Sabine and I left for a four-day mini vacation in Austria. It always amazes me how nearby the Alps are. It's less than a two-hour drive (130 kilometers) to Kössen, in Tirol—two hours and one is in a totally different world.
At Walchsee, just around the corner from Kössen, we watched 15 balloons take to the air
Cool looking, but most likely really COLD!
We had vacationed in Kössen on two other occasions before, the most recent one two years ago with Martha and Alan. Just like during that stay we again had rented in advance an apartment, so we did not waste any time looking for a place to stay. I can't speak favorably enough of the Landhaus Alpengruss, which, incidentally, was located next-door to the Landhaus Landegger where we had stayed with M&A. We had a cozy living/dining room with kitchen and a bedroom with a big window to the east, so on two mornings we were awakened by the morning sun. A balcony runs around the east and south side of the apartment, and we looked straight upon the small village and its prepared cross-country trails. The place has a room for guests' skis and wet boots, but the most exciting feature was the state-of-the art sauna, the use of which was included. (BTW, the apartment was 65 euro a night for two people, plus a 30 euro final cleaning fee. That's less than $100 a night!) Now, I have been to a whole bunch of saunas before, always hidden away in the basement or somewhere out of the way. But not this one: It was touted as a "panorama sauna," and true to this moniker it was in the top story of a modern addition to the traditional house, overlooking the valley and the mountains. Guests can reserve the sauna for two hours of private use, and with the all-glass, totally modern interior of this fabulous facility we enjoyed steaming and then stepping out on the ice-cold veranda and then retreating to the inside and lying in a most-comfortable wicker hammock, looking at the lit ski slope and the full moon. La dolce vita.

The "panorama sauna" during the day, from the outside ...
... and at night, from the inside
Landhaus Alpengruss—our apartment was on the first floor on the right
Of course, the sauna didn't come until the day's "hard work" had been completed. Sabine had brought her cross-country skis, and I rented a full set of skis, sticks, and boots for 21 euros for two days—and got to use them on the evening of our arrival for a few test loops through town. We stuck to the blue trails, trying to avoid bruised ribs, cracked tailbones, or worse—and we were successful! Neither one of us crashed once, so that was a new one. Kössen and its neighboring villages claim more than 250 kilometers of groomed cross-country trails, and we have covered a fair share of them. This time around we explored one more small loop in the area that connects the trail system to that of St. Johann. The weather continued to improve, and on Saturday we saw nothing but glistening sunshine! Oh man, it was like a fairyland! All the trails are free, and all one needs is skis to play all day.
Sabine looks much better than I, so here she is
Winter wonderland
A new loop for us, in Greisenau
Well-deserved après ski

On Sunday morning we took out our snowshoes, which we had brought along. We had never used them (I had bought them last year as a closeout special from one of my wholesale suppliers) and were not sure how snowshoeing would work, but let me tell you: They are FUN! They are very similar to having super-low four-wheel drive gearing in your vehicle. Overnight we had received more powder, and we went into the hills behind the village, up and down, laying tracks and having way too much fun. And they are safe (unless you set off avalanches, I am sure). Only once in a while we stepped on our own feet and had to do a quick pole-aided pirouette to avoid falling into the soft snow. I can see myself doing way more snowshoeing in the future!
Following an old snow-shoe track

Panoramic view of  Kössen
They fall, they kill you!
The final activity of our trip to Austria came after a snowshoe adventure: We went to the horse races! Yep, horse racing in the snow. We paid a 5 euro entry fee and then stood with a few hundred others on a snow grandstand and watched various races where thoroughbreds (or almost) were expertly piloted by jockeys sitting on sleds. The young ones used ponies and a scaled-down version of sled. And the old-timers, who use Norikers as draft horses, mostly sit on wooden sleds. An announcer made sure that the program stayed on scheduled, exhorting the participants of the individual races (usually seven or eight, with numerous jockeys entering more than one race with different horses) to get ready for the parade in front of the spectators or to start the race in a slow fashion—"Langsam, ih hoab g'sagt laaangsam!"—to avoid a false start. It was hilarious, and seeing the horses huffing and puffing in the at-times heavy snowfall made it all so, well, "real." What a treat! And then you have another glühwein and a steak semmel and life is indeed very good.

Two more days in Freising after that closed it all down, with a good-bye, ice-cold 40K ride yesterday before I parked my steel Ritchey in Sabine's attic. We managed to get a few more needed chores out of the way (buy a washing machine for the new apartment, hang pictures, decide on a way to hang a curtain), so even those two remaining days carried some real meaning.
Enjoying a bit of nourishment while at the races

I swear he could have been my brother!
The Noriker class is run by large draft horses, and the sleds are wooden
And now I am sitting in Heathrow, putting the finishing touches on this long blog entry while waiting for yet another upgraded transatlantic flight. This weekend I'll be in Warda, in south Texas, for my first high school mountain bike race of the season, and life will continue to cascade along. The first month of 2015 is already passé, and I can only assume that things won't slow down much anytime soon. So long!