Friday, August 31, 2007

Euro Road Trip

The gateway to summer for me has been the same the last few years. It always involves hopping on a plane and flying to Europe sometime in the month of May to chase the Mountain Bike World Cup series around for a while. This chase has involved various forms of transportation over the years. Everything from hitching rides with random race people to being forced to purchase a last minute flight within Europe has been employed to get where I need to be. Where I really need to be is owning a villa on the Italian coast somewhere with an Italian car (complete with racks) awaiting my arrival to drive at gratuitous speeds to whatever event the Continent can cook up for us. Until then, we at the Giant Mountain Bike Team will resort to planes, trains and, in this case, overloaded Mercedes rental vans…

Before we get into this latest trip around Central Europe, let’s reminisce for a few minutes. You see, back in the day, I loved the challenge of getting myself around on a shoestring budget, flying by the seat of my pants. It was a nice change of pace from having things “planned” out all the time. I’d arrive in Frankfurt, Germany, sometimes alone, sometimes with someone I’d tricked into coming along for the adventure and some racing (these poor suckers include my current teammates Carl Decker and Kelli Emmett). The first step would always be to purchase a EuroRail pass and figure out how close to whatever town you needed to actually end up in you could get on the train. This was usually pretty easy, and you usually got pretty close. Sometimes you’d have to hitch a ride, take a taxi, or possibly a tram up a mountain. It always worked out though. Once settled, usually in some random tiny hotel room, your bike was your lifeline to the outside world. Need groceries? Ride to the market. Gotta make it to the team manager’s (which you are) meeting? Yup, another bike ride. Hopefully all that riding was good for the legs… The beauty of the low-budg travel was all of the bumps in the road and the satisfaction and education of smoothing them out. I loved it. But, it did make actually racing a bit more of a struggle. Oh well, you’ve got to cut your teeth sometime…

Fortunately, after a few World Cup Cross Country podium performances on my own support system, Giant has been gracious enough to start supporting my racing effort on the Continent a bit more thoroughly. This support has grown in stages. Initially I still had to get to the races on my own, but once there someone from the Euro Giant Team was there to help out a bit, from bike washing to handing up bottles during the races, it was great support to have. From there I grew into an honorary member of the Euro team, even getting the occasional massage.

Unfortunately, the Giant Racing Team in Europe is no more. This forced us on the US team to set up our own support once again. Fortunately, with the 2008 Olympics looming on the horizon, Giant USA was happy to send Kelli and I over with a mechanic, Tom Neb, and soignieur, Elke Brutsaert. We’d pick up the aforementioned Mercedes Vito van and spend three weekends racing around Germany, the Czech Republic and Switzerland. While it seemed like a plan low on adventure, I was sure we could entertain ourselves along the way, keeping the spirit of the initial Euro struggling alive and morale high for the group.

This time we flew into Zurich, Switzerland, which is a pretty darn central jump-off point for most racing excursions. This means that both Kelli and I were familiar with how to get out of the airport and headed in the general direction of Germany, where the Black Forest town of Offenburg hosted the second round of the UCI Nissan Mountain Bike World Cup Series. Under threatening skies, we made our auspicious arrival in Offenburg.

Now, one of the central hurdles to overcome while traveling as an athlete in Europe is finding an apartment to rent instead of Hotelling it. This gives you access to a kitchen and, usually, laundry, immediately solving the two biggest problems in day-to-day existence. Food and Sanitation. Fortunately, our soigny, Elke, is of Belgian descent and studied in Germany. So she speaks the lingo. This gave us (by us I mean her) the option of calling all of the random Freinwoerners (guest houses) in the area until we found a suitable booking for the week. And suitable it was, nestled in a steep valley just above the wine production village of Dorbach, across the valley from an ancient castle and surrounded by vineyards, it might just have been the sweetest place I’ve ever cooked dinner while watching the sunset in Europe. Awesome. Well, not as awesome as the fact that we were only lost for about 10 minutes before we found the one lane road leading to the place, nor as awesome as the nap we took, with shutters closed, as soon as we dropped our bags…

We later unpacked our bags and, while filling up some grocery bags at the Activ Markt, ran into some fell bike riders whom we invitied over to take advantage of our cooking facilities.

Usually German mountain bike race courses involve healthy dollops of dirt roads, riding across bumpy virgin fields and not much else. We were stoked to blunder onto the Offenburg course and immediately be riding nice flowing singltrack in the forest surrounding a vineyard. Nicely worn in, it had the feel of a trail that had been ridden thousands of times, not hastily thrown together the day before. To keep in theme though, something had to be hastily thrown. I figured my bike, down a totally blind fifteen-foot drop-in, was a good thing to sacrifice. For good measure, I threw my body down shortly after the bike, mostly on my feet, but not completely… I looked up at the root and stump laden drop and was glad to not have a red paint (which they organizers cleverly cover all obstacles in, to draw your attention, and front wheel, to) tattoo on my forehead or chest… As I took stock, I heard Kelli rapidly approaching the same trap I’d narrowly escaped. Figuring she’d suffer a similar fate, I yelled a couple warnings up the trail, but to no avail, she appeared at the lip going full tilt and proceeded to tomahawk down the drop, head, then feet, then rear first, landing in a crumpled heap at my feet. Shocked, I immediately started to help her up, but she jumped up with no problem, smiling and laughing it of.
“This is sweet, let’s keep riding.” was her first comment.
“Holy crap, you’re not dead.” Was mine…
Kelli was covered head to toe in clay based mud and had one of the aforementioned spraypaint tattoos on her arm where a stump had tried, unsuccessfully, to tear it off… Other than that she appeared to be fine, so we continued on our way. For about 100 meters… Then it became apparent to Kelli that something was wrong with her shoulder. Her first hint was that she couldn’t pull up on her handlebars. The second hint was the fact that she couldn’t raise her right arm above her stomach… Dang it. One and done, for the day at least.
A few more days of riding around in the Black Forest hills and sleeping ten glorious hours a night brought us handily to race day. Which handily came with torrential downpours just as I left the vineyard to ride down to the race start. Nothing like being cold and wet while trying to “warm up”… At least I would start the race prepared for the shitstorm that it was going to be. The poor women were had started under sunny skies and on dry conditions tires and bike setup, not a sweet finale for them in the rain. Kelli toughed it out like the trooper she is, regardless of not being able to execute a basic high five at the finish line…
The men’s race started fast and furious, as World Cups will, but calmed down markedly after a lap’s worth of carnage in the ridiculous conditions. My personal favorite was watching two guys battling for position on a 40mph paved road descent covered in muddy floodwaters. They obviously got tangled, high sided at full tilt and proceeded to slide about 50 meters into some metal fencing. Worth the position? I don’t think so… Which is why, after the first lap, I found myself in about 50th position. Where I would stay for much of the race as people dropped out or blew up in front of me, only to be offset by the steady stream of guys passing me whilst running their asses off, something I either refused or was unable to do… At least I finished in the “answer to the universe” position- #42… Welp, there’s always next week.
In an attempt to “keep it real” we hadn’t made a plan for the weekend off between the German World Cup and the round #3 in Swizterland. This kept our options open to to wherever looked good and do whatever seemed right. There were a few factors to consider on Sunday evening as we pondered our situation. One, the weather seemed to suck everywhere. Two, since we were in Europe racing bikes, we figured we should race bikes somewhere. Third, we had to consider the possibility of acquiring the ever-valuable UCI (union cycliste internationale) points, which were in high demand as the US of A trys to qualify for the maximum three start positions at the 2008 Olympics, and finally, we had to decide how much we wanted to drive the Vito around in the next ten days. Here’s how we made our decision-

1. The weather, for the first time in history, was better in northeastern Europe than in Italy, which meant ixnay on the coastal house shopping/wine drinking/pizza eating extravaganza we envisioned.
2. There were UCI Category 1 (lots of points and prize money) in both the Czech Republic (Saturday) and Austria (Sunday).
3. It seemed like we’d be clever, point laden, rich and either really in shape or really hosed if we did both races on the weekend.
4. The driving factor is what really made our decision though, 8 hours or so to Ceska Kamenice (in the northwest corner of Czech), then 5 hours to Windhaag (on the Austrian/Czech boder) then 10 or more hours to southwestern Switzerland for the world cup seemed a bit much for both riders and support staff.

We compromised and chose the Czech race essentially on the grounds that none of us had been to the Czech republic before and we might as well check it out…

To rubber stamp our decision to chase the sun north we left our humble Durbach apartment in a torrential downpour, good thing the Vito was loaded to the hilt with all of our stuff, it tracked straight and true in the wet… The combo of crappy weather, heavy stop and go traffic on the autobahn, and the fact that although we had a destination, we didn’t have a place to stay or even any leads had team optimism a bit low. Fortunately, I had brought a copy of SuperTroopers, which Kelli and Elke hadn’t seen, but Tom and I know and love, so the ladies fired the laptop up and watched in the back while we squinted into the rain up front and laughed our asses off. By the time the final scene had ended it was sunny out and we were nearing our destination.

Dropping into the Elbe river valley, which is flanked by both German and Czech National Parks towards sunset we made the call to start looking for digs while we were still in Germany and had our resident language specialist. Turns out the first place we pulled into, a little Frierenwonhung in the village of Bad Schandau (Bad means “on the water”) was happy to rent us a cozy apartment for the week. Cheap too. Perfect. I love it when a plan comes together. A nice evening spin on the riverside bike path to ease the travel stiffened legs, a late pizza and German beer dinner and we were feelilng great about our week ahead.

The next day Kelli and I set off to ride across the border into Czech to see if we could find the town where the race was and possibly the race course for some rudimentary inspection. I’m in a bit of a precarious position within the Giant team, you see, all of my life I’ve been going on road trips, big and small, so I’ve somehow (probably through my Dad’s subtle teachings) developed a system of always know where I am and how to get where I’m going. We put it to the test getting around in Czech for sure. Back roads immediately after the border and little signage, but I knew we needed to head east so we climbed up out of the Elbe Valley through beautiful sandstone formations on beautiful quiet little roads. After a couple villages we finally saw a sign for Kamenice, 12 kilometers. Perfect. Another half hour and we were there, blundering around looking for the senior citizens home where the race was allegedly going to be held. After some sleuthing around a sort of run down old industrial town of about 5,000 people we finally discovered a map of the town in front of the grocery store and figured out where we were going. Some surprisingly fun trails led us up through more sandstone formations into the park and eventually back into town. It was going to be a fun race.
And a fun race it was. Kelli started out strong and pinned it down a rocky drop that even I wasn’t riding out of prudence and was solidly in contention for a podium spot. Then, on the next lap, she pinned the drop a bit too hard and wadded it on her already sore shoulder. No matter though, in keeping with the theme that Kelli Emmett is tougher than you or me, she soldiered on to finish 5th, solid.

Instead of the normal M.O. of “get out of town as quick, tired and dirty as possible”. We decided to stay in Bad Schandau for an extra two nights. It was everything we thought it could be. Sleeping in the day after a race before making a nice breakfast and going for a nice ride (although it was raining) and finishing the day with massage and watching South Park is greatly preferable to sitting in a car all day or rushing to catch an early morning flight. Excellent.
We did have some driving to do, however, about 10 hours of it, we figured, to Champerey, in the southwest corner of Switzerland, nestled high in the Alps along the French border. The trip started off a bit sour with the telltale flash of a traffic camera recording the speed and presence of the Vito in the second village we passed through. German driving rule #1, if there’s a speed limit posted that’s less than 130kph and is within a town, it’s probably watched over by a speed camera. Hopefully Hertz Europe doesn’t have mail forwarded to the US… For Tom’s sake at least… After that, Elke and I took turns racing down the Autobahn at 160kph, much better… Except we, once again, were getting owned by Execs in Benzes and Bimmers going 200… Maybe next year…

Twelve hours later and some clever detour navigation, we rolled into Champerey at sunset. Good thing, I wouldn’t have been nearly as excited for daybreak and the exploring possibilities had I arrived in the dark (usual M.O.) and been unaware of how postcard perfect the scenery was. The Dents du Midi, a massive, craggy ridgeline covered in fresh snow (they got 40cm of snow the week before we arrived on June 4) separated from a vibrant green valley by a limestone cliff face, and, of course, dozens of waterfalls feeding the glacial creek tumbling it’s way down valley. I feel kind of out of place with such a storybook description, but it was awesome. Really.

The bonuses of staying at a Hotel, Le Rose de Alpes, run by some British mountain bikers were twofold. One, you could speak English to anyone you might need to speak to, whether it was about what time breakfast was or what kind of cake was getting baked for tea time. The other benefit was that they could tell you where to go for sweet bike rides. Of which there were obviously a lot.

Ride #1 was a trail that just happened to run through the 100 meter tall cliff across the valley. That’s right, blasted and terraced into the rock face was a pretty damn sweet singletrack. It was rooty and steep on the drop-in, then smooth and buffed into the wall with nothing but a rickety fence to keep you from going over the edge. Somehow, in addition to it’s shocking location, it was shockingly fun to ride, fast and flowy, with jumps and berms up onto the sides of the tunnel. Awesome.

Oh, and I checked out the race course too. Even more awesome. Flat and technical, just like the trails in Bangor, Maine, for the first 2k, then a steep fireroad climb for a few minutes, which delivered the oxygen deprived riders to a steep, slick and rooty, but somehow still fun, descent back to the creek and eventually the start finish. You had to know how to ride to be fast here. Good thing I’m from Maine, where you have to know how to ride to simply ride.

The next day the Brits tricked me into doing a huge sweet climb to an even huger sweeter descent. The Col de Cou sits about 1000 meters above Champerey, I spent an hour and a half climbing a mix of pavement, dirt roads and steep jeep trails to gain the Col. Where, after a bit of snowbank footprint deciphering, I found the ridgeline trail I’d been told of. I’d been told of it pretty casually, like it was pretty cool and I should check it out, but it wasn’t something to write home about. Well, see for yourself. I’m at home and I’m writing about it.

Ripping down a ridgeline on a ten inch wide cow track with clouds swirling over snowcapped peaks and playing tricks on your peripheral vision is my definition of a good time. So is continuing the party down below treeline on even more perfect ancient singletrack. People who live in the mountains sure know how to walk down out of them in style.
After that ride, I figured I’d take a day off , doing nothing seemed like a responsible race preparation strategy, surely more restful than more awesome riding… Nothing ended up being driving Elke up to the base of the Col de Cou and sending her on her way up to the best ridgeline ever. She wasn’t disappointed.

Race day came around quick. Unfortunately, my start didn’t… The triple threat of having gotten 100th place at the World Cup opener (during a sweet case of “black dot” poison Oak turned systemic infection), a lackluster 42nd in Germany and a narrow, steep start climb produced 60th position or so going into the first steep descent. Which was, apart from a crappy strategic standpoint, a pretty hilarious place to be. Lots of crashing. Lots of shockingly terrible bike riding. Even more bitching and moaning by the guys who were stuck walking their perfectly good bikes in the middle of it all. All in all, the only reasonable reaction was laughter and good-naturedly heckling the hecklers. Then, thankfully, hauling a bunch of ass the rest of the race whilst feeling awesome and keeping pace with the leaders from about 2 minutes back. I rode from 60th to 10th as the cheeky British announcer called out the “Impressive ride by the Big American” Thanks, buddy, that makes me feel way better on the climb every lap… Highlight of the race, other than feeling strong for the first time since Argentina in March: Passing convicted doper Filip Meirhaege and saying, in an even tone “Come on, jackess, let’s see what you’ve got now” minutes before hearing his tires slide out on the wet (did I mention it poored rain on the second lap, making a proper, awesome, mudfest) pavement and his drug-addled body crash into the metal course fencing as I rode away. Karma sure is tough…
A decently solid race and nice relaxing evening of more fantastic French/\Swiss/Alpine dining made the 6:30 wake-up and subsequent drive to the Zurich airport for our flight back to the states a bit more palatable. Not much, but it sure was nice to be on the way home… Wait a minute, this trip was awesome. Maybe I’ll do another one someday. By someday I mean in September when we go to Scotland for SingleSpeed World Championships, then the proper UCI Worlds, then over to Slovenia for World Cup finals, and, finally to Beijing for a Test Event on the Olympic MTB course. Might have to write that one up too. Although it’ll be more trains and planes than proper road tripping… It’s all point A to point B though, right?