Monday, July 9, 2001

Falun, Sweden

Friends: Unlike Norway and Finland, Swedish towns post signs to the "Bibliotek," making it quite easy to track down the local library. But I've had much less luck finding an open library in Sweden, as they have much more limited summer time hours than those in its sister Scandinavian countries.

Lakes with somewhat warm water are much more plentiful in Sweden than they were in Norway and Finland. A swim a day makes crawling into my tent a much happier occasion than when I haven't been able to bathe and I'm plastered with several layers of grimy sweat. It has been warm, in the 70s, a bit above normal I'm told, and almost too warm for the locals. One day it was close to 90 and people were complaining about it for days afterward, as air conditioning is unheard of in these parts. I hadn't found a lake that night and it was the day of being severely bitten by flies. I had a hard time falling asleep that night itching all over. Fortunately I knew better than to wonder, "What in the hell am I doing this for?" I well know and accept all the less than pleasant episodes. Challenges and adversity, preferably in moderation, make it all the more satisfying.

My latest challenge has been biking an agonizing 30 miles with a barely functioning freewheel, hoping all the way it would hold together until I arrived in Falun, a decent city of 50,000. Even if I weren't in need of a bike shop, I would have made Falun a destination for a tour of what was once the world's largest copper mine. I instantly knew something was awry with my bike when all of a sudden I heard a loud clanking from the rear of my bike. My heart plummeted to my knees. I had never heard such a sound and could only guess what it meant.

My thought had been preoccupied the last few days pitying the German cyclist whose bottom bracket suddenly seized up on him, totally crippling it. I had no reason to think it could happen to me, but it reminded me how mechanical malfunction is an ever present possibility. Any and all parts on the bike can break, as I well know from bike messengering. The touring isn't as stressful on the bike as the messengering is, but my touring bike has many thousands of miles on it, way more than my messengering bike, and parts do wear out.

I have replaced many parts on both bikes over the years, and know at any moment I may have to replace another. I don't dwell on such matters, but the German cyclist's misfortune had been haunting me. It didn't help that I've had two flats in two days and a broken derailleur cable. With such a rash of equipment failure, I had to wonder, "What next?" And now I knew. I feared at first that the horrid clanking sound was a broken axle. I've broken quite a few as a bicycle messenger from hitting potholes and rough pavement at high speeds. But upon examination I could tell the axle was in tact and that something inside my freewheel had broken. The sound was less pronounced if I kept the chain on the middle on my chain rings and the middle of the freewheel rings, keeping the chain in a straight line, making my bike a single speed. I've suffered broken freewheels. Usually the catching mechanism breaks and the freewheel is totally useless. I feared that could happen at any moment, turning my bike into a skateboard, rather than a pedaling machine.

I limped to within 12 miles of Falun before stopping to camp, and managed to nervously finish off the ride the next morning, counting down each tenth of a mile. I arrived in town at nine. The tourist office was open but not much else. With it light late people stay up late and don't get going so early. I had an hour to bide my time before the library or the bike shop opened. I sat outside the bike shop eating muesli and milk. I had no doubts the bike shop would have a freewheel, but I feared how much it would cost, and feared, too, I might have to replace the chain. But the news was all good. The shop had a semi-obsolete five-ring freewheel similar to mine they were happy to get rid of and at a price cheaper than what it would cost in the U.S. And when I gave the bike a test ride there were no complains from my chain.

The mechanic was a friendly gent who had raced against Greg LeMond back in the early '80s before LeMond turned professional and began his conquest of the cycling world. He eagerly filled me in on the Tour de France, which started just a couple of days ago. We spent more time chatting than it took to perform the operation. The Swedes have been the most cordial and conversational of the Scandinavians, regularly expressing interest in my travels. Now that I've biked over 2,500 miles and been to the Arctic and back, I have plenty to share. I have yet to meet a single Swede who has been to Nordkapp, though just about everyone would like to. Many comment they have been reluctant to drive up because they've heard the road is bad and the weather not so good. Many are quite impressed that it can be done by bicycle. Guys have tipped their hat or asked to shake my hand.

I spent several hours yesterday in Mora checking out its museums. Two were devoted to Anders Zorn, the preeminent Swedish artist of the early 1900s. One was his home and the other a gallery. I most enjoyed a museum devoted to the largest cross country ski race in the world that finishes up in Mora. It was first held in 1922 and is a great national event. The race is a tribute to Sweden's fight for independence from Denmark in the late 1500s. One of the highlights of the museum was a fascinating 30-minute video with footage from the very first race and many since. An archway by the museum marks the finish line for the race. Right beside it are a pair of cross-country skis and boots and a bib number for people to put on, if they care to have their picture taken as if they are crossing under the Arch. I saw quite a few people do it. The museum offered a free sample of the hot blueberry soup the skiers are fed during the race instead of Gatorade. My half hour is up on the computer. This is the first library that charged for it, just a dollar. This library and the tourist office also charged for the use of their rest rooms. Home in a week.

Later, George

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