Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Abu Dhabi, UAE

Another of the amenities that have made Oman and the UAE such a pleasure to travel is the regulation that bans trucks from the road during the morning and afternoon peak traffic hours.  I took full advantage of that this morning being on the road during that full two-hour window from 6:30 to 8:30 as I made my much dreaded entry into Abu Dhabii.  I knew that if Abu Dhabi was anything like Dubai and Muscat I was in for a blizzard of vehicles. The fewer I had to contend with the better, especially with the many exit and entry ramps the urban environment would deal me. 

I had camped twenty miles from the city, as close as I dared, in a cluster of bushes that formed a barrier between the desert and the busy coastal highway connecting the UAE with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The traffic hardly let up all night, but I was so accustomed to its roar, being a part of it all day, I had no problem sleeping.  I set my alarm for the first time, rising at six a.m. before the sky had lightened.  The sun was just nudging the horizon when I hit the road at 6:30.  Even with no trucks there was still lots of traffic.  After five miles I made the turn off the four-lane coastal highway onto a six-laner towards Abu Dhabi.  It was even more thronged with traffic, but not as thick and frantic as it would be when the trucks joined the fray.  I had a wide smooth shoulder all to my self with no debris, as is the norm on this region's exemplary highway system, 

The exit and entry ramps started coming at mile intervals.  Few vehicles were exiting and those entering were staggered enough that I only occasionally had to stop and wait for a gap before I could resume riding.  At 7:30 the traffic began backing up at a major merging point.  I was happy to see it,  as I could cut through the gridlock across two lanes of traffic to the bridge I wanted to Abu Dhabi, which is an eleven mile by eight mile island.  Three bridges connect it to the main land from which I was entering.  

I didn't know how perilous those bridges would be for cyclists.  As I approached the one I had choosen, it appeared as if there was still a shoulder.  And then I noticed an actual sidewalk.  It wasn't a towering bridge and before I reached it I saw a cluster of domes and four towering minarets of a mosque.  It was so striking I knew it had to be the Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosquep, the Grand Mosque of the city.  My friend Dudley, frequent commenter to the blog and an inveterate world traveler from Australia, who I met in the Philippines a year ago, had told me it was the one must-see sight in Abu Dhabi.  Lonely Planet agreed.  I didn't realize it was on the outskirts of the city.  I was happy to have it fall right into my lap.  

It was eight a.m.  I had knocked off eighteen miles and had another ten to the other must-see sight--the corniche (coastline) on the far end of the island.  Those next ten miles would still be hectic, but I would have options.  I was greatly relieved to have crossed on to the island with a minimum of hassle and peril.  I could relax for the first time of the day.  I had been dreading getting into Abu Dhabi for days, and it had turned out to be not so bad.

The closer I got to the mosque the more magnificent it looked.

The mosque was conceived by the late Sheik Zayed, known as "the father" of the UAE.  It was completed in 2007, three years after his death and eleven years after its construction had begun.  It is one of the largest and most striking mosques in the world with eighty-two domes and space to accommodate fifty thousand worshippers, ten thousand inside.

I had to wait until nine before I could gain entry, giving me time to have another breakfast and change into long pants.  While I sat in the shade by the entrance, cars began backing up.  Two women got out of one to give me a query.  One was fully covered in black, other than a slit for her eyes, while the other let her hair flow for all to see and wore slacks and a sweater.  The one dressed Western-style was from Toronto visiting her mother.  They had driven from Dubai, over one hundred miles away, this morning to see the mosque.

A strict dress code was posted at the entry to the grounds of the mosque.  

Those who weren't in compliance were provided with approved attire--men a white robe and women a black robe and scarf.  Free hour-long tours were offered.  The tour was as much an introduction to the Islamic faith as it was a commentary on the mosque.  Everyone removed their shoes before entering the mosque and its carpet--the world's largest Persian rug.  It took two planes to fly it over from Iran.

The mosque is also noted for its seven huge chandaliers.  The largest weighs twelve tons.  It is cleaned twice a year.

The mosque and its grounds were mobbed with tourists from all over the world. Tours are only given in English, but there were head sets providing commentary in eleven languages.  

It was distant from the urban center and its handful of skyscrapers.  Even though Abu Dhabi is by far the largest and most affluent of the seven Emirates, it hasn't gone skyscraper-crazy as has Dubai.  A minimal scattering lined the highway along the cornich, in contrast to the multiple forests of skyscrapers in Dubai.  

As those of Dubai many were exotic.

Dubai had nothing to compare though to Abu Dhabi's string of beaches for several miles along its central district.

A bike path ran for five miles along the waterfront from the ultra-opulent Palace Hotel, that did not allow bicycles on its grounds, to the harbor and an array of wooden fishing boats. Across the bay from the beaches were a few more tourist attractions--a huge mall, a theater and a Heritage Village with small museums and craft shops and the opportunity to ride a camel.

Arriving so early to the island I had time to soak in its offerings and get a good enough sense of it to know it was a place I would much prefer to return to than Dubai. I had arranged for a hotel, but felt I had gotten an adequate dose of the city, that I needn't linger and could make an escape back to the desert, which I was already missing.  But I was also committed to making another attempt on talking to Janin?  We had been thwarted all too many times since I'd left Chicago, so had to resist the lure of the sand.

But once again FaceTime failed us, even though I had proved it was viable with the Afghanis several days ago.  I emailed Janina and told her I would go in search of a phone card as my hotel room had a phone.  I learned that those sold here only worked with moble phones.  When I reported the discouraging news to the concierge he offered his.  When I returned to the store that sold the cards, they said they only sold cards for India.  I continued my search stopping in at half a dozen more stores, being sent from one to another, before I found one that sold cards for the US.  By then it was well after dark and ninety minutes since I had emailed Janina that I would resort to the phone.  I had wandered through a warren of streets and through a couple of malls that were modern-day souks and had Plost my bearings.  I feared I would have to hail a taxi to find my way back to my hotel.  But after a couple of blocks I recognized a landmark.  By now Janina had been waiting for two hours and would soon have to leave for Columbia to play professor.  

I caught her in time and all the effort to track down a phone card was rewarded, except that the card didn't even last ten minutes. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Moreb Hill, UAE

Moreb Hill, one of the world's highest sand dunes, nearly one thousand feet high, resides at the end of a twelve-and-a-half mile road with no other destination.  The road is a spur off the main highway through the Liwa Oasis.  It deadends within twenty miles of Saudi Arabia.  This is where the Empty Quarter begins.   It was the first road I'd been on over here that didn't have camel high fences or vegetation projects keeping it company.  At last, I truly was penetrating the desert.  The blowing sand and no traffic made it feel all the more so.  

The dunes were so high and so majestic all around me, I wondered if this dune was truly so exceptional as to warrant my present battle with the winds and the hills to go all the way out to the end of the road, only to have to turn around and repeat the battle. The wind was mostly from the side, so the return would be no easier than the ride out.  I couldn't imagine that Moreb could be any more breathtaking than anything else I had seen.  I wasn't really sure if I wanted to go out of my way at the expense of all the energy I was expending to see some "tourist sight," rather than sticking to my usual style of just enjoying the sights on my way to wherever I was going.  That was too much like being a tourist, rather than a traveler.  

As my conscience debated the issue as I pushed up one steep, wind-blasted climb after another in my lowest gear, the scenery ahead kept drawing me further and further down the road.  I knew this was a ride without compare to the edge of civilization.  I could hardly take advantage of the descents, as I feared hitting a patch of sand around a bend, not being able to brake in time to avoid it.  The sand was gathering at the road's edge.  Soon I was halfway there and then within a couple of miles.  I had no worries about food or water, as I was fully-provisioned, and the half-day I was sacrificing for this wouldn't put me under pressure to get back to Dubai in time for my flight home over a week away, so I couldn't use logistical considerations as justifications for turning around.  

After nearly two hours I reached road's end.  It was in a horseshoe of three large dunes.  I didn't know which was Moreb.  I was right that Moreb wasn't any more spectacular than countless other dunes I'd passed, just somewhat higher.  A cluster of buildings at the base of one implied that it was Moreb, as did the three lines of rope two-thirds of the way to its summit for sight-seers to pull themselves up with. The amenities came as a surprise,  especially since no one else was making the trip out this way even though it was Friday, the first day of the Islamic weekend.

The huge parking lot at the base of Moreb was empty.  The whole place seemed deserted.  I was happy to discover the men's room was unlocked and that an electrical outlet outside of it was on.  I could do some wash and some charging.  After several minutes someone peeked into the washroom and pleasantly asked, "Where are you from?"

I could recognize him as a guest worker, probably Indian.  I told him I was from the US and didn't realize anyone else was out here.  He asked, "Is that your iPad out there?"

"It is.  There wouldn't by chance be WIFI here?" I replied.

"There is.  Come around to my room when you're done and you can use it?"

This was too good to be true.  It had been three days since I'd last come across WIFI.  To find it at this distant outpost was well nigh a miracle. 

He was part of a crew of half a dozen workers who looked after the complex out here.  The month before was a huge annual week-long car, motor cycle, horse, falcon and camel racing festival on the surrounding flats.  It attracted thousands from all over.  And throughout the cooler months people came out to climb Moreb, though not today.

He shared a room with his brother.  They weren't Indian, but rather Afghanis.  Their English was perfect and they both had iPads to stay in touch with their families back home.  They were here on their third one-year contract, returning home for a month after each year.  They grabbed a chair from another room for me to sit on, but I told them I preferred the floor, as did they.  They put out a bowl of dates and offered tea or coffee.  After chatting for a while and sharing photos on our iPads they let me at my computer and they returned to theirs, as they largely spent their free time.  When the call to prayer sounded, they both left the room.  

When they returned,  they brought me a plate of rice with a chicken drum stick, my usual lunch at the local trucker cafes.  They felt fortunate to have the opportunity to work here, though of course their separation from their wives and children wasn't so easy.  It was hard to say was more boggled, they having an American sitting in their room, or me sitting in the living quarters of a couple of Afghanis at the base of one of the highest sand dunes in the world just a few miles from Saudi Arabia.  Such is the marvel of travel.  Moreb may not have been anything special, but this experience more than vindicated the ride out to it.

They used Apple's FaceTime to communicate with friends and family in Afghanistan and asked to add me to their directory.  I will be delighted to hear from them when I return home.  They invited me to spend the night, but with the wind blowing sand over the road as I came in, I wished to be on my way lest the road truly get buried.  And it was well that I did, because during my two hours out there the road had begun to disappear.

I also came upon a cluster of nursing camels being shepherded back to their encampment.

The shepherd offered me a can of Mountain Dew, my second soda of the day.  The Afghanis sent me off with a can of coke.  Never have I enjoyed such hospitality.  So it has been since my arrival, from one and all--locals, ex-pats and guest workers.  Everyone looks after everyone else here.  The environment is harsh and water so scarce it is brought out in huge trucks.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Liwa Oasis, UAE


For nearly one hundred and fifty miles, with another hundred ahead of me, I've had endless miles of wind-sculpted sand to gaze upon. This is the Arabia of Thesiger and one's imagining.  There may be a four-laned band of asphalt penetrating it, but it is an inconsequential trickle amongst the ocean of sand that goes to the horizon, to eternity and beyond.  One's thought is drawn to the imponderables--time, space, why, what for.  But I know better than to dwell upon the unaswerables.  Instead I let the wonder of it simply fill me with joy at my good fortune to be able to intimately experience this world. 

I've had incomparable campsites among the dunes, down in gulleys just off the road.  The soft sand and vast expanses has provided the best sleeping of the trip.

A fence runs along both sides of the road to keep the camels from becoming a road hazard.  Many come to the fence lusting after vegetation that has been planted along the road, beginning a slow reclamation of the desert and also as a barrior against the blowing sand.  Rubber piping runs through the bushes bringing water all the way from the desalinization plants along the sea.  The wealth of the nation isn't being entirely spent on roads and skyscrapers.

In time this stretch may become as lush as the one hundred mile corridor from Abu Dhabi on the coast to Al Ain in the interior--a somewhat incongruous deluxe six-lane highway with greenery sparing motorists from the barren countryside about them.

Motorists now stop and tell me they saw me the day or days before and wonder who I am and where I am from and what I'm doing.  An hour before sunset a couple nights ago a motorist who'd seen me in Al Ain earlier in the day stopped along the road to invite me to his home for the night twenty kilometers up the road. "We'll have potatoes for dinner and you can have a shower and we'll wash your clothes," he said. He drew me a map.  Unfortunately, it wasn't as precise as it could have been and his estimate of twenty kilometers was much less than the actual distance.  It became too dark to continue and I missed out on his exuberant hospitality.  I wondered if his wife would dine with us.  She was with him and was fully veiled even in the safety of the car.  He was the first person to stop me holding up a couple of bottles of water.  When he handed them to me I dropped a candy bar I didn't realize he'd included.  

Lately among the ex-pat workers, I've met a series from Bangledash, including one who asked someone to take a photo of the two of us that he said he'd post on Facebook. With half the population in the Emirates out of country workers from India, Pakistan, Bangledash and the Philippines, it is safe to speak English with anyone.  They may not speak much, but they will speak some.  The vast majority of cafe and shop workers are of these nationalities.  A few miles off the main coastal highway when I began this loop out into the desert I passed a huge complex that housed "Guest workers."  It was a long distance from anywhere.  For several miles as I closed in on this walled-in development a steady stream of the white buses that transport these workers to their work sites had been flying past me. If it hadn't been so far off the road, I would have ridden in to see if it was as much of a prison as it looked from the distance, if they'd allow me in.  There was an advertisement along the road for a hypermarket, so most likely they would have.

The winds have been kindly these miles through the desert.  If they turned adversarial, I could be thrust into a survival situation.  The whipping sand can be perilous, limiting visibility and possibly leaving me all alone on the road and in the desert.  A sand storm and extreme heat caused the cancellation of the fifth stage of the Tour of Oman a few days ago, making me feel glad I didn't make the effort to return to Muscat after the Green Mountain stage for it.  The riders attempted an abbreviated version of the stage despite the blowing sand, but the better than one hundred degree temperatures was causing the glue that held their tires to the rims to melt and was making their brakes ineffectual as well.  Usually early season races are altered due to snow and cold.  The fifth stage had a bit of climbing to it that could have helped Van Garderen overcome his nine second deficit and take the race lead.  The final sixth stage was too flat to effect the standings so he had to settle for second overall just as he did last year.  Still a good indication that he is on form and could improve on his fifth place finish in the Big Race in July.  Its four months away, but I'm already looking forward to being back in France for it. I know I will have this marvelous desert still somewhere on my mind.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Al Ain, United Arab Emirates

The rocky, desolate terrain turned into sandy, desolate terrain as I headed northwest out of Oman back to the United Arab Emirates.  I was on the fringe of the Empty Quarter that extends into Saudi Arabia.  There was some scattered, straggly vegetation that provided food for a few stray camels.  Signs warned of camels before I began seeing them.  Signs also warned of cross winds.  Maybe motorists needed to be alerted to them, but they were no secret to me.  They blew waves of sand across the road. The sand stayed low, but when a truck or car passed it would disrupt the air flow and lash me top to bottom with the particles.  My left ear was soon filled with grit.  I was buffeted all over the road, struggling to even go nine miles per hour.

Fortunately it was a cool wind.  For the first time in three weeks I needed my windbreaker.  When an Australian couple gave me some chocolate, I didn't have to worry about it melting.  If I had been battling such a wind when the temperature had been in the 90s I would have been pouring sweat and worried about running out of water.  

For the first time I had stretches over twenty-five miles between sources for food and water.  I turned off the road to go a kilometer to one small town.  There was water at its mosque, but not a store to be found nor a person to be seen.  Every home had a wall about it.  After a half hour rest as I headed back to the main road a car pulled up alongside me and a white-robed young man asked if I needed anything.  I told him I had come looking for food and water. He invited me to his home.  I told him I had found water and had eaten my fill of dates and cookies that I had in reserve.  

It was tempting to accept his offer but If I had gone to his home I wouldn't have had the appetite to eat anything.  A few minutes down the road I regretted I didn't think to ask him if he had WIFI.  Earlier in the day I had unsuccessfully spent half an hour  stopping at coffe houses and restaurants and photography stores seeking it in Ibri, the last city for one hundred miles.  I would have liked to have known if Van Garderen had been able to overcome his nine second deficit and taken the lead in the Tour of Oman. It could be a couple of days before I would find out.

For the first time in days I had to put the rain fly on my tent, not out of concern for dew as along the coast, but to protect me from the blowing sand and also for warmth.  The temperature fell to fifty.  There had been nights when it barely dropped below seventy.

Though I could ponder the majesty and barrenness of the Empty Quarter, I didn't have any sense of the solitude or isolation that accompanied me when I've crossed many another desert--the Kalahari in South Africa, the Nullarbor in Australia, the Atacomba in Chili and even route 50 across Nevada (known as America's loneliest road), as rarely did more than a minute pass without a vehicle flying by, some mistaking the 120 kilometer per hour speed limit for 120 miles per hour.  

Oman has too many people with cars wishing to go somewhere making it hard to find a lonely road.  Maybe I'd have to head to Salalah, 600 miles south of Muscat near the Yemen border to find such a road, either the costal route or the route through the interior.  Both are said to be very scenic.  I didn't allow enough time for such a loop this time. The winds have been very negligible until the last two days.  I'd have to allow quite a bit of time if I were to make such a circuit accounting for the possibility of harsh adversarial winds.

Crossing back into the UAE took a little more time than crossing into Oman with an official in a back room approving my passport rather than the woman up front and then an official at the next check
point taking fifteen minutes to draw up papers for my bicycle while all those in cars were given just a perfunctory check.  In the cool I hadn't been able to give myself much of a wash.  I hoped I didn't look too derelict to be allowed into the country.  Oman was said to be picky about letting unwashed cars into the country and would even ticket dirty cars in the larger cities.  

From the border it was fifteen miles to Al Ain, a sprawling city of half a million.  Along the way I passed several mini-caravans of camels out near the daily camel market.

I also passed a huge cement factory and then some smaller ones.  Before I knew it, I was on the fringe of Al Ain even though I had taken a bypass around it, as evening was approaching and I didn't care to be caught in the city.  A hotel was out of the question, as Lonely Planet said the cheapest to be found was one hundred dollars, more than I had spent in Oman the past sixteen days, other than my Valentine Day night in a hotel in Muscat. I thought I might be able to camp behind the wall of a mosque, but it wasn't secluded enough.  Nor was some vacant land behind a large car dealership.  I was tempted by a cluster of bushes besids a prison wall, but feared being spotted by the guard tower.  A little further I came upon the zoo with thick enough vegetation along one of its walls to disappear into.  It was a quiet night with no howls or grumbles from those on the other side of the wall.

The next morning I ventured into the city for some site seeing.  First was the Sheik Zayed Palace Museum. It wasn't particularly palatial.  Its prominent feature was a large courtyard with a tent and some vegetation within its walls.

Just beyond the Palace was a huge oasis of some 150,000 date palms, a collection of cultivated plots owned by individual landowners, each farming thousands of date palms.  A narrow cobbled road wound its way amongst them. I stopped and talked to a gentleman returning to his car after an early-morning stroll.  He asked me that question that is becoming a refrain, "Do you need anything?"  I told him I had hoped I might be able to buy some dates.  He said they wontbe ready for harvest until June. Then he opened his car door and reached in.  I thought he might have a bag for me, but when he turned back he was clutching two 100 Dirham notes, more than fifty dollars, and presented them to me.  "No, no," I said.  "I've no need for that."

Also near by was the Al-Jahili Fort, one of the largest in the country built in the 1890s as a royal summer residence for a Sheik who lived in Abu Dhabi, which got steamy hot in the summer.  

It houses a large permanent exhibition of the photographs of Wilfred Thesiger, the English explorer who made two unprecednented explorations of the Empty Quarter between 1945 and 1950, that earned him a knighthood. He had spent time at the fort in his travels. The exhibit included a fifteen minute video of he and his two Bedouin companions reminiscing about their perilous trips that totaled ten thousand miles, staving off thirst and hunger.  They'd go days without water.  They never knew when they awoke in the morning if any of their camels might have died, which could have meant the death of them as well.

Now its off for my own small taste of the Empty Quarter to the most picturesque and prominent of the dunes of the UAE along the Saudi Arabia border.  I have better water carrying capacity than a camel with all the water bottles I've accumulated from the two bike races that brought me over here--two atop each of my panniers and plenty more buried inside.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Tour of Oman, Stage Four

I was a little concerned when after sixty miles the Stage Four route left the main arteries it had been following and ventured off on a network of smaller roads in mountainous terrain.  It was sensational cycling, but I feared getting lost if any of the course markers had gone missing.  I was in desolate countryside with no one to ask the way.  This was the first of the four stages that I was able to ride from start to finish, and easily the most scenic, despite the first twenty miles through Muscat's sprawl.

I couldn't afford to go astray, as I had no time to spare to reach the finish line before the peloton. Plus I wanted to allow ample time for the super-steep four mile climb to the finish.  Christian Vande Velde, who finished fifth in this tour one year, had just written, "Wait until you see the climb. That thing is nasty."  The heat and the preceding 115 miles would make it all the nastier.  

Though there weren't as many course markers as I would have liked to assure me I was on course, partially because there weren't many objects to attach them to, I need not have worried.  There were markers at all the crucial points and then an occasional one on a straightaway as well. As always there was mosques here and there and an oasis of date palms.

Starting around noon every intersection on the route was monitored by a police officer, just as at The Tour de France, though none of these officers had a satchel of supplies with them.  They were left all alone in the burning heat with no shade for up to four hours until the peloton passed and there duties were done for the day.  None were wearing a hat and all were in short sleeves.  But these ninety degree temperatures are mild compared to the 120 they'll be facing come summer.

When I finally reached the climb at one p.m., Christian was right, it began with a wallop, steeper, and  more intimidating than the initial ramp of L'Alpe d'Huez. One could see its sudden rise from a mile away. The stark, rocky terrain made one want to turn around and head the other way.  I paused after a couple hundred meters to take advantage of what I feared might be the only patch of shade up this brute.  It had been over an hour since my last rest.  I knew it would take an all-out effort to keep the pedals going on the series of steep switch-backs I could see in the far distance.  During the fifteen minutes I sat and ate and drank against a cliff wall only two cyclists passed, a couple of guys on mountain bikes who were just barely staying in motion.  Hardly a car had gone by when I returned to my bike.  Just as I mounted a car stopped and the driver shouted out, "Hello Chicago."  It was an Omani cyclist I had met at the first stage.  He asked if there was anything he could do for me.  I was tempted to give him my gear, but much as I trusted him, I didn't  care to risk us getting separated.  

A quarter mile up the road around a bend the two mountain bikers were perched on a guard rail by the five-kilometer to go sign taking a rest in the shade.  One was an Australian geologist working for a copper mining company and the other a South Africa working at the large port of Sohar.  They don't get to bike much and weren't sure if they had the energy to push on.  After several minutes of conversation they didn't care to be shown up by the American on a loaded bike and continued on with me.  The road flattened as we came upon a parking area and also a check-point.  Two guards were administrating to cars ahead of us, holding clipboards and taking notes.  

If I didn't welcome another rest, I would have just kept riding around the cars, assuming we'd be waved right through. But when it came our turn, we were told we couldn't continue.  Their English wasn't good enough for us to plead our case.  Stephen, the Polish cyclist, had told me cyclists weren't ordinarily allowed up this steep, narrow road, but an exception was made on race day.  Evidently not this year.  We could have left our bikes and hiked the three miles to the summit or tried to get a ride, but there was no shade to be seen.  We knew we had a nice shady vantage back where we had met, nearly a mile into the climb, where the peloton would begin to start thinning out, so we didn't feel too let down, especially the others guys, who weren't sure if they wanted to keep climbing anyway.  

It was 2:30.  The estimated finishing time for the peloton at its fastest pace was 3:17.  That meant they could be upon us in half an hour. As we chatted, we kept our ears perked for the sound of the helicopter coming up through the canyon, announcing the arrival of the peloton.  Another indicator would be the roar of a bevy of officers on motorcycles clearing the way.  Three o'clock came and went.  So did 3:30.  Evidently the peloton was being held back by the headwinds that had besieged me the day before. I didn't mind the wait, as it allowed me to learn about expat life in Oman.  Both guys had wives and children.  The blistering summer months were known as bachelor time, as most of the wives and children returned to their home countries.  The guys would be truly lonely, as they both hung up their bikes in the extreme heat, and spent as little time as possible outdoors.

I was in no rush to be anywhere after this stage, so I need not fret over the peloton's delay.  The expats though had a two plus hour drive home and they hoped to be back before dark.  But the next day was the second half of their weekend, so they didn't have to feel much stress.  Finally at four the helicopter peeked around the bend and the peloton shortly followed.  Van Garderen's BMC team was on the front.  Van Garderen had finished second last year to Froome, and if he could win this stage, that could put him in good shape to win the overall.

The pace was steady with no attacks.  After the initial bunch, the field was strung out, taking a couple minutes to pass.  Many of the riders still had two water bottles on their bikes, though most had already discarded theirs.  If we'd been greedy for a bottle we could have jogged along side them and asked them to lighten their load.  I stood beside my loaded bike.  One racer may have recognized I was a man in need of fuel, as he dropped two energy bars beside me.  They were soft and mushy, but would harden up over night.

The team cars were parked three miles back up the course.  After the racers reached the finish, they would turn around and bike back down.  The awards ceremony would be held nearby by an old fort in the small town.  After the last cyclist passed, holding on to a car, the three of us headed back to the town, where the expats had parked their car.  Immediately around the bend the road was strewn with water bottles.  We each picked up a bunch, though none that I was looking for--BMC, Astana, Sky, Orica.  I hardly needed another, but couldn't let them go ignored, figuring I might be able to trade for ones I wanted or else to redistribute them to kids in the village.  The South African got an Orica bottle, but he wouldn't trade it even for five of my bottles.  When I saw a kid in town with a Sky bottle, I doubted it would have any significance to him.  He gladly traded it for three of my bottles and I gave a bunch more to kids who came running when they saw me giving out bottles.

It wasn't long before the riders came swooping into town.  Their soigneurs were awaiting them directing them to their team cars.  I had to ask four of them before I could find one who knew where the podium had been set up, and none knew who had won the race.  Valverde passed with a smile on his face, so it might have been him.  It wasn't until the awards ceremony that I learned Rafeal Valls of the Italian Lampre team was the surprise winner over Van Garderen and Valverde.  Valls is now first overall with Van Garderen second nine seconds back and Valverde third with two stages to go.  Sorry I'll miss them.

I had the best vantage of anyone at the awards ceremony, right over the shoulder of Tour de France director Christian Pruhomme and Eddie Merckx.

This was the first time I had seen Prudhomme in Oman. I was hoping to meet him, to tell him how much I loved The Tour, and also to ask him if there would be a Fête du Tour again this year, that he had introduced two years ago to celebrate the 100th Tour.  A month before The Tour every Ville Étape has a Fête du Tour to celebrate their stage with a ride of a portion of the route, and giving out t-shirts and food. I regretted I hadn't brought along my t-shirt to catch his eye and authenticate my devotion. That initial Fête du Tour was such a success, Prudhomme repeated it last year.  I hadn't gotten word of it and missed it.  So I was exciting to learn from the very man that I could experience it again this year.  While I was talking to Christian, the official photographer I met on stage two came over to say hello and shoot a few photos of us.  He asked where I was from.  I told him, "Chicago, home of Christian Vande Velde."  

"Ah yes, he's an announcer now for The Tour."

He wasn't the only Frenchman I spoke with today.  While waiting for the awards ceremony to begin I asked a guy, who looked like he might be an official, if he knew who won the stage.  He didn't, but called over his wife, who was circulating with a big-leansed camera, to ask if she had heard.  She hadn't.  They were a couple of fifty-year old tourists who had stumbled upon the race. They didn't care about racing and knew little about The Tour de France, but found this fascinating.  They were an intrepid pair,  driving around Oman in a rental car camping off in the desert every night, just like me.  They were stranded here until the road was reopened, so were simply giving this event a look, something they wouldn't necessarily do back home.  They had no race heritage, as their grandparents had never taken them out to see a stage when they were little, as is customary with many French.  

They didn't know this race was put on by The Tour de France nor that it had such a world-class collection of teams and riders.  When I rattled off a few teams, including the French teams Cofidis and FDJ, none registered with them.  But when I pointed out Merckx, they both were impressed and the woman dashed off to get his photo.  When she returned to show what she had got she was giddy with glee and so was her husband.  When I noticed Prudhomme, I asked if they knew who he was.  They did.  I tested them further and asked if they knew Henri Desgrange, the founder and first director of The Tour.  They passed that test too.  "Don't tell me you don't know anything about The Tour," I scolded.  

"Ah, but everyone in France knows those things," they said.  But they couldn't kid me. They do care a little about cycling and have a respect for the sport.  They will certainly be sending their photo of Merckx to everyone they know.  When they return home, their encounter with Merckx could well be the first thing they tell everyone of their time away.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Tour of Oman, Stage Two

The nearest shade to today's finish was half a kilometer beyond the finish line in a small park.  There weren't even a hundred of us, including staff and press, gathered under the scattered trees awaiting the arrival of the peloton.  If an Australian racing enthusiastic, who taught at a private school, hadn't brought a bunch of students, there wouldn't have even been fifty people to witness the stage finish.  The kids were rambunctious and full of energy.  The teacher let them ignore a sign forbidding soccer.

Those not kicking a ball around descended upon me when they learned I had bicycled all the way from Dubai, more than five hundred miles away.  It was a feat totally beyond their comprehending.  They had never heard of someone riding their bike such a distance. They were full of questions and were encouraged by their teacher to keep them coming. One asked, "Don't you get tired?  I get tired whenever I ride my bike."  

Eddie Merckx was standing less than thirty feet away under another tree, but my bike and I were getting all the attention.  The teacher was followng the progress of the peloton via twitter on his phone.  When it closed to within thirty kilometers he assembled his students to go out and brave the sun along the barriers at the finish line.

Before I could join them a French photographer with the race organization came over for a chat and a few photos. She said she was having a difficult time finding interesting shots.  It was her first time in Oman and also the first time she had ever photographed a race.  Graham Watson, the legendary English photographer is also here, but I've only seen him moments before the peloton arrives, as he's been out on the race course getting distinctive desert photos.  This woman had been hired to capture the non-racing side of the race and was having a struggle.  She thought I was quite lucky to have the freedom to be cycling around the country and camping wherever I chose.  

I could point to where I had spent the previous night just a mile away around the bend off in a cluster of trees shielded from the road by a chest high hedge.  She wondered how I bathed.  This very park, I told her, had a rest room with water.  I simply filled my water bottle at its sink and poured it over my head several times and wiped myself down with my soaked neckerchief.  I do that several times a day when its this hot at the frequent gas stations.  Fortunately,  she didn't ask what I eat, as I know my basic default evening meal in my tent of ramen and baked beans would have been an affront to her French palate.  The French usually gag when they learn I eat their favored causolette stew, when I'm in their country, cold out of the can.  Ah, but that all adds to my freedom, not compelled to search for different foods, content with the easy and simple.

Rather than stationing myself right at the finish line in the shade of the arch as I had been doing here and at Dubai I backed off a bit so I could capture the winner with his arms fully in the air. Several climbs in the final kilometers thinned out the peloton, so it was just down to a select group of eighteen strongmen including Valverde, Van Garderen, Sagan and Cancellera but minus Nibali and Rodriquez.  And the strongest of this day was the man known as Spartacus, Cancellera, who had won the inaugural Tour of Oman.

It was an uphill finish that left all the riders bent over their bikes and gasping just beyond the finish.  Cancellera whipped off his helmet and squeezed what fluid was left in his bottle down his throat. 

In the park where the podium had been set up a group of Omani musicians played traditional music.  There were almost as many of them as there were spectators.

I needed to get down the road, but I lingered for the awards presentation for the rare opportunity to be in close proximity to one of the great cyclists of our time, a man so strong that he was seriously accused of having a motor in his bike when he rode away from everyone at Paris-Roubaix one year.  Plenty of people were convinced that a flick he made with his brake lever at the time of his acceleration activated the motor hidden in his bottom bracket, a story that some still hold to be true.

It would have been nice to start riding as soon as the race finished as the road along the coast had been blocked to traffic and was still blocked as some late arrivals straggled in.  I had to ride twenty-five miles on the six-lane super highway through Muscat to just beyond the airport before I could turn inland away from the urban sprawl out into the desert.  By the time I started I had a little more than two hours before dark.  This would be my third time along this nerve-wracking, less than desirable route.  

Though I could fly along on a nice wide shoulder, I had to contend with regular on and off ramps that were sometimes two-lanes wide with surging virtual non-stop traffic.  It can literally take several minutes before there is a break in traffic to dart across.  Leana, the South Africa, had to be rescued by the police when she was stranded in the middle of the highway entering Abu Dhabi, unable to cross a couple of lanes of traffic.  I suffered that fear mysefl a couple times in Dubai.  There is no alternative to the super highways at times, and since so few ride bicycles here, they don't bother with forbidding bicyclists on such roads, though they easily could.

It felt good though for the first time in several days to be riding hard at the end of the day, trying to get as far down the road as I could. I had fresh legs after a couple of twenty mile days of minor meandering.  Ever since my night in the hotel on Valentine's Day I have been camping in pre-selected campsites on the fringe of Muscat, waiting until dark until I could retreat to them. I pedaled on right to dark this night and was able to set up my tent tingling with the exhilaration I had lately been deprived of.  And I could go to sleep happy to know I had a full day of cycling ahead of me the next day.  I wasn't upset at all that I would be skipping the day's third stage way out by the team hotel, as I continued heading inland seventy-five miles to Green Mountain, the stage four finish.  

I didn't have the most isolated of campsites, but it was perfectly adequate.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tour of Oman, Stage One

Twenty-one course markers indicated the way for the peloton over the final two miles of the first stage of the Tour of Oman thanks in part to three sharp turns before the finishing straightaway.  I was hoping to appropriate at least a couple of them after the conclusion of the stage.  Miraculously, I was the only one with an interest in these little treasures.  I could have had all of them.  I grabbed a quick three before the awards ceremony and then a few more afterwards.  It was hard to pass up the rest, but I can only strap so many to the back of my bike, and whatever I gathered, I'd have to transport a thousand miles over the next twenty days before I return home.  Though I have lots of friends I'd like to share them with, as I've done with those from The Tour de France, I'll only be able to please a few.

Just as with the water bottles at the Dubai Tour a week ago, this was an unprecedented windfall.  In Europe course markers are immediately pounced on as a prized souvenir by fans. And if they aren't quick  about it, a clean-up crew will soon remove them.  I'm lucky to return from my three weeks of following The Tour with five or six.  I didn't expect much fan competiton here in Oman, but I didn't know how much priority  the race organizers would give to removing all evidence from the roadway that a race had just come through. At The Tour de France the authorities are highly efficient and eager to clean up one stage and be on to the next, what with twenty-one of them. And since The Tour de France sponsors this race, I feared they'd bring such efficiency with them.  But not in that respect.

A half dozen French-chattering officials with a strong Gallic suavity were overseeing a crew of Omanis and Indians preparing the finishing stretch when I arrived at noon, three-and-half hours before the peloton was due.  I was disappointed to learn that there would be no screen, large or smal, televising the race for fans as is customary at The Tour and any high level race, even at Dubai.  Nor was there to be a VIP tent where there is ordianarily a screen that the riff-raff might be able to glimpse.  This was quite a small operation.  Crews were just starting to set up the finish line barriers.  Ordinarily they go on for several kilometers.  Here it was just 250 meters.

There wasn't a single other spectator when I arrived.  I meandered around a bit exploring the adjoining police academy and the two large stadiums with lights, then plopped down in the shade of a palm tree and read for a couple of hours until another fan showed up, a Scottish woman by the name of Linda, whose husband was a pilot for Omani Air.  He had lost his job with a small British Air line less than a year ago.  He was offered jobs in Kasathan and Oman.  At the time the temperature in Kasathan was minus thirty Centigrade, while in Oman it was plus thirty.  That made the decision easy for them.  So far they have been very happy with the choice.  They very much like the Omanis, but she said they aren't very hard working or ambitious, as the country is so wealthy everyone is guaranteed a government job.   

Her husband is home every night, as he just does short flights to Iran and the United Arab Emirates.  They are cycling fans and have attended The Tour de France three times.  They went to the team hotel the day before and were amazed at the access they had to the riders.  They were just hanging out and were most relaxed and approachable.  It was a stark contrast to the frenzy of The Tour and the hoards it attracts. She was shocked how skinny the racers were, even Tom Boonen, who she had the impression was a hefty, solid guy. 

She'd read many of the books on cycling that I had, including the biographies of the two most prominent Scottish riders, Robert and David Millar, both retired.  She'd also  recently read the autobiography of the French rider Bassons that I hadn't realized been translated into English.  He quit racing early in the Lance era largely because he was a strong advocate for clean racing and Lance hounded him out for his accusations that just about everyone was doping except him.  She said I could have the book and would give it to me when we next met.  She doesn't much like driving in the hectic traffic here, so wasn't planning on going all the way to the stage two finish, as I was, rather seeing the intermediate sprint, as it was near where she lived, so we couldn't make the transaction then, but hopefully on one of the later stages. 

After half an hour or so Stephen, the Polish cyclist, arrived with a couple of Polish friends and his daughter.  He was crestfallen that the hotel the teams were staying at was so distant this year.  He and each of his friends had Polish flags they were hoping to get autographed by the three Polish riders in the race. As we chatted, I scanned the handful of arriving fans hoping to spot a cyclist I had met the day before, a fifty year old South African who had been touring the world for the past eight years.  She wasn't  in Oman for the race, but rather to visit a friend before she continued on to Sri Lanka, but there was a chance she'd show up for this cycling event.  We'd had a sensational two-hour conversation we both wanted to continue.

We happened upon each other as I was pushing my bike down the sidewalk in Mutrah looking for a place with WIFI.  I noticed a tall Western woman with a shawl covering her head coming towards me.  When our eyes met, she smiled and veered over to me.  She wasn't with her bike but I noticed what appeared to be a handlebar bag strapped over her shoulder.  As we neared one another,  I asked, "Is that a handlebar bag?  Are you a cyclist too?"

Indeed she was, the most well-traveled cyclist I have ever met and most of her miles on her own, making her all the more extraordinary. Her name was Leana  and her website is http://leananiemand.org.za  She'd only taken up touring less than a decade ago.  She was won over after joking up with a group of thirty others riding from Cairo to Cape Town with support--an annual event that she thought she would do for the hell of it despite having no touring experience.  She loved it so much she quit her job and has been traveling the world since, starting with riding back up to Cairo, except this time on her own.  

I've read a few accounts of those who have done it, but had never met anyone who had.  They all dramatize the desert terrain of the Sudan, having to push one's bike for miles through the sand and getting lost not knowing which tracks to follow.  She said she had to do some pushing, but not for long, and since the way followed the Nile, even when the tracks through the sand diverged, if one kept their bearings according to the river, one didn't have to worry about getting lost.  She was aglow like Andre in "My Dinner With Andre" with only positive energy.  I couldn't get a complaint out of her.  When she said she biked South America from bottom to top, opposite to what I had done, I asked how she had coped with the notorious head winds of Patagonia that have defeated many a cyclist.  "That's something I don't like to remember," is all she would say.

She knew she had had many extraordinary experiences thanks to the bike, but she was most humble and matter-of-fact about all her accomplishments, saying anyone could do them. There was no boasting or any attempt to impress, just a joyous sharing.   She admitted there were moments when she asked herself, "What am I doing this for?" but she knew they would pass and she'd have no doubt why she was persisting at something that wasn't always so easy.  She wild camped and had never been robbed or ever felt threatened.  She thought it was an advantage, not a disadvantage, to be a woman.  Her favorite country is India, where she is headed after Ski Lanka, and then on to Myanmar, which has just recently been opened up to cyclists, and then to China, another of her favorite countries.  She was thrilled to have acquired a visa good for a year, giving her time for Mongolia as well.

This was like meeting Bettina Selby, the English cyclist who wrote nine books about her solitary cycling tours, mostly in Africa and Asia, and didn't start touring until she was forty and her children were grown.  Leana didn't know of her. Bettina mentions being driven to tears at times, which has gotten her out of some tough scrapes.  Leana has yet to have such an experience.   She doesn't read much travel literature.  She prefers to do it herself and make discoveries on her own.  Nor did she know of the two other prominent women cyclists who've written quite a few books--Dervla Murphy of Ireland and Josie Dew of England--whose experiences also mirror hers.

This was a conversation for the ages. At first we dwelled on places we both had been and how much we loved them--Brasil, the Philippines, Australia--then we tried to pick the brains of each other on places only one of us had been and the other wished to go.  Leana was able to give me encouragement on cycling Taiwan and South Korea, while I was able to fill her in on Japan, Iceland, Morroco and Uganda.  This was a conversation that had no end, but she had to meet her friend to get a ride back to her house. At least we had each other's blogs to peruse, which could keep the converation going indefinitely.  Plus there was the chance she'd show up at this race, but it wasn't to be.

Not many did show up, explaining why there was no need to give any extras such as a broadcast of the action for the few gathered.  Even before the helicopter appeared overhead indicating the imminence of the peloton, Linda and I noticed the soigneurs heading over to the finish line with their bags of cold drinks for the racers.  We had no problem finding a spot right at the finish line.  I was able to catch the winner, the Italian sprinter Amdrea Guardini riding for Astana just as he surged past Boonen and began lifting his hands from the handlebars to celebrate his victory.

Five minutes and three course markers later I was at the modest podium with the finishing arch in the background as he was given flowers and the red leader's jersey.

Just a few feet away Eddie Merckx was providing commentary and wondering if he knew the white-bearded guy crouched down taking his picture.

Yes, we had passed at The Tour, but never in such a casual manner as this.  It was hard to believe the Yellow, Green and Red Polka Dot Jersey winners from The Tour were all here along with quite a few of the other top riders in the world and hardly anyone was paying them any attention.  This was the sixth year this race had been held in Oman and it wasn't winning many converts.  But at least it provided some good solid early season racing for the peloton while Europe was still engulfed in winter.