Tuesday, August 19, 2008

2008: A Bicycle Odyssey

It seemed I should write something about what I've been up to this summer while I remember. Duncan has done some sterling work getting started on a Google Map record of our route, which you can also view in Google Earth. Here it is.

“I’m going to be riding across France with this man” said Duncan to his new housemate as I fell through his front door onto the living room floor and split the skin open my knuckle. Since moving to Canada four years ago my capacity for coping with the effects of fine British alcohol has apparently decreased. The following morning, up bright and early (4am) due to jet-lag and with the pub send off for our big adventure haunting me I wander downstairs to put my bike together worried that Duncan will be for the first time more organised than me. I needn’t have worried. “You’ve got mudguard and a triple chainset”, “I took my mudguards off to save weight” comments Duncan as we get somewhere close to leaving some six hours later. As Duncan fashions a mud-flap from sleeping mat and duct tape I start to have concerns over what we are about to do: ride from Sheffield to Chamonix, via as many mountains as possible. Less than two weeks before I stood on the starting line of the BC Bike Race, feeling only slightly out of place on a cross-country bike and looking forward to riding seven days of familiar trails from Victoria to Whistler. On the start line Nikki my race partner for the BCBR was probably feeling the way I did that morning in a living room in Sheffield.

Nikki picked the BCBR as her first mountain bike race. I was drafted as a replacement race partner as I was ideally qualified: freshly unemployed and easily led. Considering Nikki hadn’t really ridden a mountain bike much when we met a couple of years ago, the BC Bike Race was an ambitious objective. Fortunately a winter of training on the wet, dark and rooty trails of BC and a monumental level of encouragement from husband Marc had Nikki fully prepared for the task at hand. The seven days of racing quickly became a blur of massive meals, start-line nerves, long logging-road drags, and the welcome sight of course markers pointing us into another rooty BC trail. Spending a week eating, riding, and sharing a tent with your team mate was part of the BCBR experience I had looked forward to most. Getting up every day, gorging yourself on breakfast cooked for you, riding all day, gorging yourself on dinner cooked for you, and falling in asleep in a tent put up for you isn’t such a bad life. You would think that after seven days of dehydrating, bone and bike braking (not our bones or bikes, thankfully) riding the finish line would have been the light at the end of the tunnel, but I almost didn’t want to cross the line that marked the end of our journey. Nikki’s bike apparently felt the same way as the chain wrapped itself into a series of dramatic loops and jammed solid just meters from the finish.

As Duncan and I rolled off the ferry in Bilbao into the refuse of the last night’s street festival I seriously doubted our ability to make it to France, let alone to the Alps. I had already broken one spoke in my back wheel on the canal towpaths of Birmingham and Duncan’s odometer was proving reluctant to stay turned on. Perhaps it was the nerves, the frustration of not knowing enough Spanish to communicate, or the lure of French croissants, but two great things happened on the first day: we rode 200km and hit 80km/h on a descent. If there are prescidents to set on a bike road-tour I think there were two pretty good ones. Spurred on my our success in riding, and lack of success in finding shops to sell us food and ability to understand Spanish we crossed the border into France the following morning and immediately applied ourselves to the boulangerie and coffee shop. A daily routine of eating cake, drinking coffee, riding fast, and climbing “Hors categorie” mountain passes soon fell into place. Among our conversations (mostly about the quality of cake and croissants) we started trying to define what exactly it was we were doing. After all, what are a couple of mountain bikers doing on road bikes, carrying camping gear, and taking just about the most difficult route possible between two places? Despite endless analysis and the invention of the genre “debit-card touring”(a kind of budget version of lightweight credit-card touring) we never really came to a conclusion on why we were there or what we hoped to achieve. We did seem to be having a lot of fun though. The feeling of hurtling down an alpine road on a heavily laden bicycle with dubious brakes and clothing that provided fairly poor protection against insect bites, let alone road rash, was addictive. The memorable moments came thick and fast: drafting a truck laden with lavender, descending from 2600m in the freezing dark, sleeping in the ditch by the road, riding downhill for 30km, eating expensive family sized cakes with our hands in the supermarket car park, the pain of dragging my weary body and 60 pound bike up to over 2700m for the second day running, the cake, the croissants, the coffee, the cake, the cake, the cake. Arriving in Bourg-St-Maurice I was sad to feel we were about to lose our daily routine. Why did we have to stop here? We’ve been doing this every day for 2000km, so why stop now? Duncan had a mountain bike to ride and I had a date in Chamonix, so we sipped our last espresso and went our separate ways. Riding on my own over two beautiful alpine passes and along the valley to Chamonix felt strange solo, especially when yet another spoke snapped in my back wheel and a thunderstorm loomed ahead. “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it”, and after a couple of days in Chamonix with Luisa I got back on my bike and we set off for Geneva. Back on the road it felt good to be moving again, the end of the journey had another reprieve.

I stepped out of the airport back in Vancouver after another epic train journey across France and the UK with my bike in tow and my mind turned from the end of my time as an itinerant cyclist in Europe to the start of the summer’s most intimidating ride. When Jacek suggested racing in the TransRockies I think my response was: “No, I don’t think I would ever want to do that”. A few weeks later I was typing my credit card details into the TransRockies website. Whilst I’m not naturally someone who likes to define things you do for fun by their dimensions, bike touring had got me thinking in terms of meters of elevation gained and lost and kilometres travelled. TransRockies has some fairly terrifying numbers and my apprehension of how I would measure up against these impressive figures was not helped when we found the elevation change in the course had been increased by 50% since we signed up. This was going to hurt, a lot. Jacek was visibly excited, I was wondering what I was doing there. The first day of TransRockies was a challenge in itself. Having blown up my car on the way from Vancouver to the start, getting towed home by an over-caffeinated tow-truck driver, renting a car and starting all over again 10 hours late and missing a nights sleep I did not feel we were seeing many auspicious omens. We had however managed to find a patch of dirt in the car park to camp and met a couple of other budget-conscious racers there, apparently we were the only 4 people thrifty enough not to shell out for a pre-race hotel. Things picked up quickly and in much the same style as the BCBR the days merged into a haze of food, riding, collapsing into bed, food, riding, collapsing into bed. The numbers started looking less frightening: another 1000m climbed, another 100km ridden. Whilst the trails were sparse and the logging road bountiful compared to the BCBR, the experience of hurtling along in the draft of a pack of riders with the backdrop of the jagged ridges of the Rockies was quite awesome. Of course the race was not without riding challenges. The memorable “rock garden”, apparently a favourite of TransRockies regulars, was an amusing twisting chute filled with large, pointy rocks and racers wiser than us carrying their bikes.

As we started TransRockies Day 7 riding into Fernie, I was drawing close to the end of two months which I had anticipated and to be honest, feared, for much of the year. On each of the BCBR, Sheffield to Chamonix, and TransRockies I had ridden, eaten, and lived every day with friends; sharing the fun, frustration, in jokes, AC/DC on the start line, and need for “private ass time” that come with riding bikes all day, every day. Jacek and I rolled across the TransRockies finish line, enjoying the announcer’s struggle with the pronunciation of Jacek’s name, receiving our medals, and finding the friends we had made over the week to compare stories of the day’s heroic feats. This really was the end of my bicycle odyssey of over 50 days, 3500km, and who knows how many thousands of meters climbed. It was time to return home to Vancouver, rain, bills, my broken car, and to plan the next trip. Nikki, Duncan, and Jacek: any time you want to go biking… just let me know.

Marc’s BCBR pictures are here, my Sheffield to Chamonix pictures are here, Duncan's are here, and Jacek's TransRockies pictures are here. Nikki also wrote her account of the BC Bike Race, which is on the Fig Rolls Blog.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Cheffield to Chamonix

Duncan and I have returned, triumphant, from our road tour of the patisseries of Europe. In short: we rode about 2500km, getting from Sheffiled to Bourg St. Maurice via Bilbao... then I carried on to Geneva via Chamonix. There were sheep, cakes, lemon Yop, new friends, old frields, darkness, sleeping in ditches, mountains, croissants, coffee, broken spokes, pain, joy, and overall a lot of enthusiasm for bikes. It was all kinds of fun and I will no doubt write about that at length, but for now, here's a taste.