Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Trying a Triathlon

What challenge for 2013? A triathlon. To be more specific, the London Triathlon 27 July 2013. A 1.5 km swim in the Thames docks, 40 km cycle through the center of the city finished up with a 10 km run around the docklands.

Why? Basically because I feel unfit, have just turned 30 and want to to drag myself back from a slow physical decline into middle-age. It is all good and well to say I will get fitter this year, but without a set goal I know lethargy will get the better of me. I did a marathon a few years back, practically destroyed myself (marathon blog - my celtic body shape is not designed for 26.2 miles of pounding) and certainly do not want to do that again. A triathlon seems the natural thing.

A good idea? It certainly seemed so when I paid up the hefty entry fee after a few beers a week or so ago. In the light of day, perhaps less so. Having just got in from my first quasi training run, almost certainly not. Half an hour running across, up and down the streets which criss-cross Mount Penteli on the outskirts of Athens and I am beat. The calves ache and the chest is pounding. Perhaps I am not built for this either! Then again, somewhere at the top of a steep rise about half way through my run, I caught a glorious view across the forested norhthern suburbs of the city to the snow-capped mountains beyond, paused, took in a few deep breaths and felt the best I have for ages.

Take the rough with the smooth I suppose (the rough undoubtedly including learning to distance swim, 400 m is pushing it for me, let alone 1.5 km). A lot of pain, the odd injury and adventure awaits. It's all in the journey I suppose.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Route III: The Wet Windy Low Countries

Part 2, day 2: A long way to Maastricht (continuation from Deutschland to Dutch)

Just under two days to get to Brussels, we wheeled our way out of the picturesque town of Venlo to meet the river Maas for the first time. A wide brown mass of the wet stuff running steadily north to the North Sea. Crossing river after river on this trip bought home how the Netherlands is, geographically speaking, a giant river delta draining northern Europe.  Funny, I had never thought of it that way before, but it is the Bangladesh of our part of the world, masked by the ingenious way in which the locals have crafted and tamed the land. Our brief stay in this country would follow the Maas 90km or so south to Maastricht for an overnighter.
After the delectable lunchtime beers in Venlo it seemed such a nice idea. Gently follow the picturesque river past sail boats and windmills all the way to our beds. Instead we got PAIN. OK, a touch of exaggeration, but certainly significant discomfort.

The wind had picked up and was blowing hard into our faces, south to north. There is a reason cyclists go so much faster when tucked down behind each other in tight formation peloton. Simple aerodynamics and I can tell you that for similar reasons it is at least twice as tough to pedal your way into a strong head-wind hour after hour.               

Yes the river and surrounding greenery were pretty, yes there was at least one Dutch windmill, but at the time I didn’t really care. Just head down, body tucked in and follow on the wheel of the guy in front. Fortunately the uber fit Uwe was happy to lead out most of the way, but we all took our turn.

To make it worse cold, driving rain kicked in. Two thirds of the way to Maastricht Erik decided enough was enough and, on passing a rail station with trains heading back east, bid his farewells. After briefly considering curtailing the day’s ride ourselves we fuelled up with cake and decided to push on with the original plan.
Leaving the river to the west, we hit out on what looked like a fast straight road. All good until it started to bend away from our destination. Running out of time, we cut back towards the river until we reached a canal, pushed our bikes up the steep grass bank siding and pushed on. Just at that bit of the day when saddle sore kicks in, we had managed to find a degraded, concrete/dirt path that rattled the teeth and rumbled the posterior.
Predictably the rain came down again, bringing with it a touch of self-induced misery. After an hour of staring down at the path in pot-hole avoiding concentration, we took a break from the downpour under an overpass, chomped some salami, checked a map and got ready for the final push.

Eventually the rain alleviated and we approached the outskirts of Maastricht. For the final couple of kms I was in a bright enough mood to take in some of the scenery and was positively buzzing by the time we found ourselves pedalling into the historic old town. One of the nicest things about cycling is that extra bit of energy the creeps in with the last squeeze of adrenaline at the end of a long day. Here it was accompanied by the quite beautiful combination of the river, the townhouses which lined it and the setting sun.
After a bit of a wild-goose-chase trying to find cheap accommodation around windy back streets, we ended up staying on a funky hostel boat. Not the most river-worthy of vessels, but it sold beer and seemed fitting after we had spent so much of the day cursing the river.

Predictably, a feast of a dinner and local bevies ensued followed by a tipsy tour of the city’s squares and alleys and some chilled out late night conversations on the high banks of the Maas. Then head first onto my rickety bunk, being lulled into a deep sleep by the rocking of the boat and mild exhaustion.

Part 2, day 3: Back to Brussels

Sore, very sore, but in good spirits. As always, Dave and I disappointed the Germans with our slovenly slow getting up. In my defence, my Celtic physiology requires a fair deal of talc’ing and vaseline under all that lycra to keep the chafe away. Not a pretty thought I know, but neither is turning those legs for hour upon hour in the rain with rubbed raw bits.

The sun was out and the road was flat as we cycled out of town.  Across into Belgium and it quickly took a turn for the worse. The rain burst out of the sky cold and almost horizontal. Doing the trip in late April was a risk, but this was a joke. We resorted to huddling behind a bus shelter (not for the only time that day) until it dried up. With pretty pissed off muscles I jumped back on the bike to immediately encounter a long, straight, slow hill. I thought Belgium wasn’t meant to have any of those. Were we not in the low countries? Our plans to take the scenic side roads dissolved with the wet weather as we unanimously chose the boring direct route to Brussels.

To the Belgians’ credit, the road was lined with a beautiful cycle path. As I have found in France, Germany, Holland and now Belgium, the people in the north-western part of the continent have a real respect for cyclists. Such a juxtaposition to the UK where cyclists are barely ever taken into account by road users or road makers.
In between the relative drudgery of the straight road, we passed through one small town after another. Names like Tongeren, Borgloon and Tienen. Alongside the odd bit of ugly dilapidated industry these were pretty enough places. Tongeren particularly stood out with an iconic statue that resembled Asterix in the town square. Some Gaul who stood up to Roman invaders.

Succumbing to the boredom we eventually took a detour through the countryside, finding tight winding roads, nice rustic views and small villages. All well and good, but we made little progress and jumped back on a straight road to Leuven, thirsty for our final night celebrations. The last time I was in this medieval town was as part of a school “economics trip” with my one lasting memory that of being nauseatingly hung over during a morning tour of the local Stella beer factory. Giving it a miss this time we instead found our way to the medieval town square, the Grote Markt. The highlight of the day. Multi-story guild-houses, a grand gothic town hall and an imposing church.

Our departure hastened by some annoying giggling teenage girls (the world is at times reassuringly homogeneous), we jumped back on the bikes and pointed our the wheels in the direction of Brussels. Some more rain, hiding in a bus shelter and hills later we were in the outskirts of the Belgian capital, freewheeling our way to the centre. It had been a fair bit tougher than expected, but we had made it. After last year’s multi-puncture shenanigans, not one between the lot of us…. bugger, spoke to soon, 350 km without a single bike issue and I get a flat on a steep downhill with the end in sight. I had to laugh.
Me and my bike were back where it all started 3 trips before. We rode into the centre basked in uncharacteristic sunshine. High funfs and the odd homoerotic but slap later (if highly charged NFL lycra wearing alpha males can do it, so can we!), we were in a bar with a giant, strong, cold Belgian beer. Then another bar, then another…
Good times. Paris to Hamburg complete and lesson learned about wet northern European springs. Dave and I have since decided to extent the Grand Tour to Lisbon to St Petersburg, so 1,100 km down, a long, long way to go.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

San Francisco, CA

Like most people who have the travel bug bad I do relatively pointless things like repeatedly making lists in my head, in discussion and, when particularly bored, on paper, of the 5 most [insert country/adventure/city…] I want to experience. For the last few years San Francisco has inexorably clung to the must do city list.

I note such tasks are “relatively” pointless rather than simply pointless as they do occasionally spur me on to go to such places and do such things. This then has the added bonus of opening up room on the aforementioned lists, triggering a whole lot more thought and discussion.

This is a drawn out way of saying I was excited to land in San Fran earlier this year.

Intercontinental travel over, I woke up with vicarious baby jet lag (7 month olds and 8 hour time difference are a sub-optimal mix) and stumbled out of our beat generation period ex-brothel hotel into a gloriously sunny morning in the hip suburb of North Beach. All laid back cosmopolitan cafes, retro book shops and the odd bit of red light district.  Nestled in between Downtown and the northerly bay facing docks and beaches, it is a perfect place from which to explore the city. 
A big pile of heart-attack inducing pancakes and multiple all you can drink coffees later, we wander off to see what the city has to offer. The answer is one heck of a lot. Like the best big cities, as you meander around you find yourself in one distinct and interesting neighbourhood after another. From the most extensive and “Chinese” China town I have seen outside of China (streets and streets where you would never know you were in the Americas – a product of gold rush immigration), via the affluence and beautiful views of Pacific Heights to the guide book stated “no-go” we stumbled into south of Market and 5th.

It is often the more gritty areas of a city that appeal to me, but I have to admit that the latter of these neighbourhoods shocked me. Walking through the not especially interesting Downtown (I am yet to go to a US city outside of New York with a standout downtown - a bunch of samey work buildings and shops only saved by the odd grand public building gem) we suddenly, without barely realising it, find ourselves in a different a very depressing world. Abject poverty. Boarded up shops, gangs on corners, shifty looks. We had entered the bloody projects only a couple of blocks from Gucci. OK, I’ve seen worse neighbourhoods in Bogota and Jo’berg, but these are in developing countries, not the richest county on earth. From a European’s perspective it is something very hard to understand.
Where is the basic social safety net? If poorer European countries can afford it then so can the States. That a society should actively choose not to look after its poorest citizens gives cause for some serious introspection. Rant over.  Back to how nice the rest of San Fran is…

What is the archetypical image that pops into the head when you think of San Francisco? Verging on vertical streets giving way to the deep blue bay? Antique cable-cars? The Golden Gate Bridge? Alcatraz? We saw the lot of it and it was gorgeous.
Street after street of ridiculous out of breath steepness. We wandered up and down (occasionally on the odd aforementioned cable car for the uphill part), taking in view after view. A particular highlight was the panoramic views of city and bay from Telegraph Hill on the north-eastern tip of the San Fran peninsula.
Once passed the unbelievable tack of the theme-park old fishing wharfs (all McDonalds and Bubba Shrimp only relieved by the awesome sight of dozens of Californian sea-lions barking the day away below Pier 39), the north coast is delightful. Brown pelicans skirting the waves just off-shore from the beach, the maritime park and an old crumbling pier which gives fantastic views of the city’s crowning glory. The Golden Gate Bridge is just as impressive as it should be, guarding the face of the bay from the wild Pacific.

With Alcatraz so visible from the high points, it lured us in for a closer look. Now part of a National Park, the infamous prison has been turned into a top rate museum full of fascinating tit bits from its dark days as a hard-core federal penitentiary. I highly recommend it. It even comes with strange in bred tourists from Arkansas!
That vital extra bit of colour to our experience was added by a couple of old mates currently residing in the city. Their warm words only added to our impression that this is a very likeable city indeed. Sure it has its rough unsightly underbelly, but what American city does not. It attracts a relatively open minded, liberal and friendly crowd who make you feel welcome. A place I could live if only I could convince a local company to give me 30 plus days holidays a year (I think the US average is 11 days). 

Very satisfied and with the start of a Californian glow, we jumped into our hugely over-sized Chevy Malibu and headed out of town through those famous San Fran morning mists. Route 101 to San Diego ahead!