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!


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