Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Bataan Death March, or how much I enjoyed Provence and the Ventoux

At 1,911 meters, Mont Ventoux is threadbare at the top-thanks to unrelenting winds 
A week into our late-spring vacation here in Provence I can honestly say that I have never been as humiliated on a bike as last weekend. What has happened? I used to be able to ride up even larger hillocks without too much of a problem, and then there was Ventoux, and it took me more than 3 hours to ascend the "easy" side from Bedoin. My friend Tom K. from New Mexico did a triple ascent not that many years ago, and here I was sucking as badly as one can suck. But then, it is a 1,600-meter climb from Bedoin to the summit (1,911 meters), in 21 kilometers, without a single meter of flat terrain in between. That's hard, and I knew it going into this adventure. But there were so many riders who easily slipped by that I thought that I should just turn around and go home. Two ablations and a fat gut probably didn't help, either.
Tom Simpson died here in the '60s--I wasn't about to imitate him, so I slowly churned the 34/32
But I did make it up the Ventoux. I can't really say that this was a "bucket list" item, even though that would be a bit romantic, I suppose. Actually, when Sabine and I had started to talk about going to Provence instead of Tuscany for our somewhat ritualistic spring vacation, I didn't even think about this big ol' mountain that's planted smack-dab in the middle of Provence. I had seen the big old pimple about a decade-and-a half ago when Judy and I had ridden with our German friends  from Lac Leman down to Nice and we had to drive back up to Switzerland. Nope, the idea to ride up came after we had decided on our Airbnb domicile in the vicinity of the Ventoux, and then the thought started to get a life of its own. Nope, this was and is not a trip to only the Ventoux, but climbing it was a very exciting and satisfying highlight to a beautiful vacation, which is still evolving--even if my ride resembled the Bataan Death March.
This was one of the easier parts--seriously
Cold and windy up at 1,911 meters, and this was a really good day!
Our house that we are renting, here in Lagnes, just a bit south of Carpentras and east of Avignon, is perfect. That's the plain and simple truth. We have a generous living room, a nice, fully appointed kitchen, and a bedroom with a grand lit. The bathroom is brightened by early-morning sunlight and is modern and has anything one could ask for in a holiday home. We have a balcony that is bathed in sunlight that filters through leaves of wild wine in the afternoon sun, and we're having breakfast under pine trees, next to our swimming pool. Seriously, this is damn fine. It's about $90 a night, and we have already made arrangements to extend our one-week stay by an extra three days. I mean, how do you beat a place like this?
The Lagnes castle, as seen from our living room
Our hosts--Christophe, the local osteopath, and his wife, Natalie (plus two teenage sons)--are simply wonderful. On day two of our stay, Christophe guided us on a 30+ mile ride through the area; he rides a Look, is strong (and tall) as a horse, and loves wine just as much as we do. So, we've shared a few bottles, and as a result we know much, much more about the local area than we would have in a sterile hotel. And we get to practice our French, which is lots of fun.
La Petite Maison, on the left
Christophe, our host, towering over Sabine during our randonnee
A civilized breakfast starts a perfect day
Tuscany was very nice. Provence is nicer. Both places are scenic, but there seems to be more variety here, not just from a cycling standpoint but in regard to landscape and towns. Provence boasts many more tiny roads that connect towns and villages, and if you have a decent Michelin map you can design rides that are simply astonishing. You want to climb? Check. You want to ride in the flats? Check. You want to ride in vineyards? Check. You want to ride along crystal-clear rivers, cross pine forests, get lost in tiny villages, get floored by poppy fields like you've never seen? Check again.
It looks almost as if the poppies have been planted, but they appear to be just "weeds"
Ocher in the Luberon, near Rousillion
More poppies--they are everywhere
Unfortunately, the lavender is not ready to blossom yet
If this is not cycling heaven, well, good luck finding it. Of course, there's always a little drawback, and here it is the almost perpetual wind that we've been experiencing. It's a little bit like West Texas: There's that wind. We experienced the ferocious Mistral while driving down here (and overnighting in the tiny hamlet of Charavines on Lac Paladru, about two hours southwest of Geneva), and there's always wind coming from the north, or the south, or from somewhere. On today's ride through Les Alpilles, a version of miniature Alps, we fought some real headwinds while at other times we were blown along as if we had eBikes. On Saturday, when I rode up the Ventoux, I had made sure to check the weather forecast to have a bit of a tailwind on those exposed slopes. Not that it helped much, of course.
The strangest way to "fix" a sign to an old plantain tree
Quiet, cool city center in the tiny hamlet of Cucuron, in the Luberon
Wherever one looks, there's something spectacularly rustic to see
Our rides have mostly been in the 30- to 35-mile range. That may not sound like much, but by the time that we have had our leisurely breakfast it's getting close to noon. Sometimes we start from the house in Lagnes, at other times we load up the bikes and drive a little farther afield. For us, riding is a means to see things, so there are lots of stops for photo opportunities. There are the stops to figure out which way we need to go, there are the pee stops, and there are the occasional stops for a beer. In other words, we have not been setting any world speed records for human-powered vehicles. It was a good thing that I changed our gearing a bit before this trip: We're using our standard compact cranksets with 50/34 rings, but in the rear I was able to fit 32s even with our regular short-cage Ultegra Di2 derailleurs thanks to WolfToothDesign adapters that allow for such ratios. On the Ventoux, where the early sections to the treeline are steeper than the final run-up to the top, I hardly ever shifted out of my 34/32. Oh, what a big pussy I am!
Posing in front of the memorial for Paul de Vivie, apostle of cyclotourism

Anyway, the bikes are doing great and we're having a ball riding all over the place. So far we've covered about 220 miles of some of the finest cycling country I have ever ridden in, and there's still more to come. The remaining hours of our days are filled with meal planning or preparing, lounging by the pool, route planning for the next day, relaxing, and most definitely drinking fine wine! Thanks to our hosts' Weber grill, I have been making decent meals at night (fresh meat and fish bought at the almost local Intermarche--Lagnes doesn't even have a bakery!), and we have been working on filling up the local glass recycling bins.
 Riding Les Alpilles
Plantains lead in and out of villages
Sabine just made a reservation for our two last nights in France up in the Burgundy area. As I mentioned, we have extended our stay here with Christophe and Natalie by three nights and will scoot out of here on Thursday morning. It's a leisurely two-day trip back to Freising, and we'll break it up with two nights in another Airbnb so that we get a chance to ride in a different region. We'll go from Cotes du Ventoux and Cotes du Luberon (we're situated on the west side of this rock outcropping) to Cotes du Rhone. Man, I tell you: France sure is fun!
Gordes, on the northern edge of the Grand Luberon
Roads all to ourselves, and other cyclists
Time for breakfast and another day in Provence. I'll try to write another update after we get back to Freising next weekend.


Friday, May 6, 2016

Of Dinosaurs and Gila Monsters (Or: Why I'm so glad I'm no longer a racer!)

That's what Gila Monsters look like
The past six days have seen me in two completely different locales: verdant Dinosaur Valley State Park close to Glen Rose, TX, and arid Silver City, NM, home of the Tour of the Gila, a 5-day road bike race. I traveled to both places to work at the bike races that were and are still taking place. At Dinosaur, I was the Chief Referee for the finals of our 5th season of the High School Mountain Bike Racing league, and here in Silver City I am a member of the crew for the amateur races of this UCI-ranked event. And both places have a strong connection to weird critters, one extinct and the other mostly invisible.
Not a T. Rex, but still a dinosaur of sorts
But let's not get ahead of ourselves: After my successful trip to Redlands, where I did indeed pass the A-Level road commissaire clinic, I stayed home for a few days and started to get back into a regular cycling routine. I have to tell you: The heart appears to be playing along! Being at home, riding, cooking, doing stuff around the house, and completing all those other domestic chores were quite nice after all the traveling I had been doing. Well, it didn't last long: High school race # 4 had been scheduled for the weekend right after Redlands but was postponed by a week because of insane rainfall in the Texas Hill Country. But postponed is not the same as cancelled, so a week later I was down in Comfort, just a tad north of San Antonio, to revisit a venue that was so dear to Judy and me when we were still working all those TMBRA races.
Tumbling competition at the HS Finals
The weekend was essentially a big homecoming for me: Flat Rock Ranch owners Jimmy and Terri welcomed me with warm and sincere hugs, like the old friends that we have been for so many years. I doubt that certain people in TMBRA who were behind the nasty politics that pushed Judy and me out of the circuit ever have or ever will get a hug like that. I spent a delightful hour with Milby, Jimmy's mother, in the old ranch house where we always stayed when we worked the races. Ah, sweet memories. And that wasn't all: Our old friend Christiane had invited me to stay at her place in Boerne on Saturday night, and she had invited David and Priscilla over, other dear friends with whom we had dinner and libations. I believe we finally went to bed well after 2 a.m. Thank you, my friends!

League director Vance McMurry and his darling daughter, Ella
The weather was perfect for the race, and we all had a good time. A week later, we repeated it all at Dinosaur. This time the "Homecoming" was a bit different in that it consisted of seeing old cycling buddies (Chad and wife Jennifer with their kids) and friends (Micki and Kent) while working the race wih all of our graduating seniors and some staff members who may not return next season. Once again we lucked out and enjoyed beautiful late spring weather in a spectacular setting. What a lucky guy I am to go to all these wonderful venues.
Starting one of the girls fields at Dinosaur
My drive to Dinosaur Valley and back was a bit on the sketchy side, though. I had changed the rear tires on the BMW just a few days earlier, and when I got on the road the car felt, well, just a bit different. It wasn't until more than 150 miles into the trip that I realized that the car simply didn't handle right, and what had seemed to be just "light" steering became outright dangerous once I got away from the arrow-straight four-lane highways into the twisty turns south of Eastland. In one easy turn it was the Beemer's traction control that kept me from going into the ditch, and from then on it was all just white-knuckled driving for the remainder of the weekend. Make a long story short: Once I was back in Lubbock on Monday morning, I went back to Discount Tire to change the front tires as well. (Discount had suggested in the first place to change only the rear tires--bad advice, as it turned out.) The car now feels normal again, and the 500-mile drive to Silver City later on that very same Monday turned out to be relaxed and enjoyable, the way the Dinosaur drive should have been. Thanks to everyone regarding the advice you gave me concerning the possible causes for the car's odd behavior, especially Patrick from San Antonio.
The long road from Carlsbad to El Paso, with El Capitan in the Guadelupe mountains
Here in Silver City most of our crew has been holed up in the illustrious Motel 6, where the most-touted guest amenity is "daily fresh hot coffee in the lobby." Wow, I don't think I've ever had the pleasure to be put up in such a place as a bike official. So, I am glad that I have brought my bike along so that after the day's races are completed I can escape the dungeon and exercise a little bit. I have a roommate, Michael, an official from Colorado, who is super-nice and makes it easier to stay here. The Tour of the Gila, a race in which I participated three times during my days as a racer, is a very tough event that sees lots and lots of climbing and is rightfully on USAC's National Racing Calendar for the amateurs and has been a UCI event for the Professionals for several years. It is exciting to be part of such a high-caliber race. Our chief, Steve, is an old friend and I am learning gobs on a daily basis under his leadership.
Have Beemer and Bike, will travel
So far I haven't seen any Gila Monsters on the side of the road. My driver on the first day, when I was Com 2 for the Men's 1/2 field, told me that this reptilian doesn't even live in this area of the Southwest but that one has to go farther south, close to the border with Mexico, to find them. I've seen them in captivity, and that's about all I have to tell you about these rather ugly-looking critters. My (almost) daily rides are punctuated by some of the country's worst road surfaces and the occasional red-neck in a big dualie diesel truck who enjoys "rolling coal" whilst passing. I suppose, Trump stands a good chance to win quite a few votes here.

New Mexico has some of the finest roads in the Lower 48, for sure--at the start of the TT course
Pre-riding the TT course and getting my bearings
Riding around here, on roads that I used to race on shows me how much has changed over the years. Just like at Dinosaur Valley (think steep hills, sharp rocks, scary downhills) I continually think about how glad I am that I no longer have a racing license. Oh man, even riding "easy" is hard! I have a lot of respect for my former fitness and stamina and wonder how I could have ever reached that level--or, in other words, I am trying to not think about how much I have managed to lose over the years! I will continue to ride, but if I ever had any secret ambitions and aspirations to return to racing, they have been stamped out in these past two weeks. Maybe not a bad thing--it makes it easier to enjoy the other side of life!
The view from my mobile office as Com 2 on Stage 1 to Mogollon
Today was Day 3 of the Tour. We held the Time Trial in at-times hellacious conditions. Maybe I shouldn't complain about the wind in Lubbock, after all. I worked various positions: Holder for the UCI Women's race, as well as starter, whip, and bike check dude for various amateur categories. After the race we all dug dust and gravel out of our eyes and ears. It all just confirmed my sentiment from the past few days: I'm sure as hell glad that I no longer race!
Amateur racers at the conclusion of Stage 1, a Cat. 1 climb to Mogollon
We have two more days in Silver City, the downtown criterium tomorrow and then on Sunday the much-dreaded Gila Monster queen stage that will decide this NRC and UCI event--103 miles with just shy of 10,000 feet of climbing. For my European readers, that's 166 kilometers and 2,853 meters of ascent. Yes, I used to do this, and no, I don't do it any longer, and yes, I'm quite OK with that! Let's see how I will feel about the Ventoux in Provence in two weeks' time. Hasta luego!