Friday, June 30, 2006

Strasbourg, France

Friends: I feared stiff legs this morning after standing for over three hours last night watching the grand presentation of the Tour participants, but they awoke with nary a complaint.

Greg LeMond one year blamed his poor performance in The Tour for having to stand for a couple of hours on the train he took to the start of the race. He was a former champion at the time and still a seat could not be found for him, nor did he care to simply find a corner to plop down in as I would have done. But he has always been a whiner and continues to be one in his on-going feud with Armstrong. It had been mere petty jealousy at one point, but its gone way beyond that now with accusations that Lance threatened him that if he didn't desist with his bad-mouthing he'd come up with ten people who would say he had taken EPO back in his day.

The drug specter continues to hang heavy over bike racing. The latest scandal involves a Spanish doctor who has just been indicted for supplying illegal performance-enhancing drugs to dozens of cyclists, including Jan Ullrich. Its already resulted in one team being ejected from the Tour and possibly another.

Still, there were thousands of fans cramming the streets opposite the stage where the team
presentations took place last night. They were already three deep two hours before it was to commence when I arrived. I was fortunate to find a spot in the shade right in front of the stage, though separated by a river. I sat on the curb of the sidewalk and read for an hour before the crowd started closing in, forcing me to take to my feet.

There were two large screens flanking the stage, carrying the cable feed of the proceedings,
making it easier for all of us to watch. An hour before the program started, we were treated to videos celebrating the Tour and also the city of Strasbourg, population about 500,000 and seat of the European Parliament.

Each of the 21 nine-rider teams were individually delivered to the stage by boat, unlike last year when each team bicycled on to the stage and then pedaled off to make a ceremonial three-mile circuit through the town past throngs of fans. Even bikeless the riders arrived in uniform, though not wearing helmets. It took over 90 minutes to introduce the 189 riders and two directors per team, with the announcer rattling off the accomplishments of each with the machine-gun rapidity of an auctioneer on EPO. The camera gave us a several second close-up of each rider's face as he was announced. All received generous applause, but there were extra jolts for a couple of the French favorites, Voeckler and Moreau, plus the Germans Ullrich, Zabel and Voights. There were many Germans in the crowd as Germany is right across the Rhine River from Strasbourg.

Fan favorite Vinokurov, the swashbuckling Kasathan, also received a great burst of applause
even though he is the leader of the Spanish team Tour officials are campaigning to disinvite. His Spanish teammate, Belocki, a former multiple podium finisher until he broke his femur three years ago in the horrific crash that sent Lance cross country, also received a little louder cheer than most from the appreciative and knowledgeable fans, even though he is a very conservative and dull racer.

There were a smattering of boos for the Discovery team, but none for any specific riders, not even its lone American George Hincapie. Each team has a designated leader. There was much speculation who would inherit that role at Discovery from Lance. There were four strong possibilities. The Portuguese rider Azevedo, who finished fourth at the recent Dauphine-Libere stage race was granted the honor of wearing a race number ending with the digit number one, though, of course, if he falters Hincapie, Popovych or Salvidori could all assume the role.

Two Americans are leaders on other teams--Floyd Landis for the Swiss team Phonak and Levi Lepheimer for the German team Gerolsteiner. They both finished in the top ten last year and ought to be considered contenders, especially based on significant victories earlier this year, but the official Tour program does not include their faces on its cover, just Basso, Ullrich, Valverde, Cuenogo and Vinokurov. That slight ought to give them a little extra motivation. I'd be most happy to see a Discovery rider or Landis win, but the results and the participants are incidental to the event. What draws me and matters most is the event itself and its celebration of bicycle racing and the bike. My biggest thrills aren't watching the racers pass, but riding the route with the non-stop array of tributes to The Race and the bike.

And that is how the French regard it as well. The most common signs along the race route are Vive Le Tour and Merci. One of their own hasn't won it, or barely even contended for the title, since Hinault in 1985, yet the French remain as devoted to it as ever. Local newspapers and publications regularly have a feature asking people from the common man to celebrities what the Tour means to them. It is a significant part of their culture and heritage. Some refer to childhood memories and others herald the bravery and courage of the riders. Others mention the camaraderie of family and friends and strangers gathering for an annual day-long picnic out
in the country along the race route. Everyone looks forward to it and any year it passes through their town is a momentous occasion to be treasured for as long as they live. The thrill and excitement is contagious.

Later, George

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Obernai, France

Friends: The lobby of the city hall of Obernai has been converted to a bicycle museum for a couple of weeks, and it was mobbed this morning, even though The Tour does not come to town until Monday, when it will make its start here for the second stage of the Tour. I paid an early visit, as I will be well down the stage route when the riders make their departure sometime after noon.

The exhibit was entitled a tribute to The Little Queen, as the French refer to the bicycle, tracing the evolution of the bicycle from 1869 to the present. There were memorabilia and mementos to match--jerseys, water bottles, magazines, plates, games, photos, and posters including the rock group Queen's album with all the naked women astride bicycles. There was a bike used by firemen with a long coil of hose wrapped in the bike's triangle. There was a tandem that allowed the two riders to sit back to back, each with handlebars pointed in opposite directions, though the chain was set up so that the bike only went one direction. There were also videos of the Tour's history. The exhibit was free, but the brisk sale of yellow Obernai-Tour t-shirts was generating plenty of revenue.

Most of the local businesses had their storefronts dressed up in tribute to the Tour as well. Many had decorated bicycles dangling from up high outside their stores. Its the same in every town the Tour passes through, but each town achieves its own individuality. There is no end to how creative people can be with the bicycle.

Obernai is just 15 miles from the large city of Strasbourg where the Prologue and the start and finish of stage one will take place. Tonight the 189 participants in The Tour will be introduced at a gala two-hour ceremony in front of the palace on one of the many rivers and canals that lace the city. Usually the presentation is done the day before the Tour starts, but with the World Cup conflict, it has been moved up a day.

Strasbourg is a most worthy starting point for the Tour, as it considers itself the premier cycling city in France with nearly 300 miles of bicycle paths. There were loads of cyclists out and about yesterday when I passed through after crossing the Rhine River from Germany on the very bridge that the peloton will ride over on stage one Sunday. The route will cross into Germany for just 20 miles. This year's route will also slip into Luxembourg, Belguim, Holland and Spain. Only one Tour in the 104 years since the first race has it included more countries.

Though I've enjoyed some superlative cycling in the past month, none can match the tranquility of the French roads passing through the compact villages that dot the French countryside, each with their own bakery and town hall. There is a decided difference in the demeanor of the people as well. People seem less harried and more content here. I will greatly enjoy the next three weeks, whether I am on the actual Tour route or on my way back to it.

I have backed off a bit on my mileage the past few days and my legs feel fully rejuvenated and ready for the task ahead of riding one hundred miles and more day after day trying to keep up with The Tour, putting as much time in on the bike as the daylight and the gendarmes monitoring the route will allow. I haven't had as much mountain training as the past two years, but I should be OK. With such excitement to look forward, the legs require little prodding. These are the days when it is so wonderful to be on the bike, it is hard to stop for the necessary food and rest.

Plotting my route, looking for shortcuts to save miles, is as daunting a task as trying to squeeze in as many movies as I can at a film festival. Each day's route is an intricate web of small roads. Rare is it for The Tour to stick to the same road for more than a few miles except in the mountains when it has no choice. It winds with a mind of its own seeking to include as many towns as it can and significant sites that have a strand of Tour lore, going out of its way to pass through the hometown of someone who has or has had a connection to The Race.

Later, George

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Pforzheim, Germany

Friends: From eastern border to western border Germany remains liberally sprinkled with generous pockets of deep forests providing easy, virtually on-demand, deluxe camping, often complete with a thick pine needle mattress. Now that I've learned how not to antagonize German motorists, retreating from their roadway when there are too many of them and there is a nearby cycling path, I can give the cycling here my highest ranking.

My only complaint is the mosquitoes. They have been a nuisance everywhere this year thanks to all the moisture and warmth. I have a wide assortment of bites, some that itch and some that don't, some that itch for a day and some that itch for several days, some that disappear after a day and some that linger for a week. Its been a season for ticks as well, my first ever battle with them. I feel like a cat every evening and morning, pawing my skin for new blemishes. I've found a new use for duct tape, suffocating the ticks, as I haven't figured out any other way to get them to release. Tweezers don´t fully extract them and pliers only crush them.

Its been an exciting time to be in Germany with all the Wold Cup excitement drawing legions of fans from all over the world. I passed through Stuttgart yesterday, one of the dozen or so cities hosting matches. I had missed by a day a first-round match featuring England. The English fans are considered the most demonstrative and feared in the world. I would have loved to have seen the extent and variety of their enthusiasm.

Stuttgart had gone much further than Nuremberg in dressing itself up and paying tribute to the Cup. A large sector of its downtown had been turned into a festival with vendors and exhibits making it a gathering place for the thousands of fans. There were hoards of energized young men walking around draped in Italian flags, as Italy was playing Australia that night, though in a different city. Cities hosting World Cup matches were similar to the host cites of the Tour de France decorating and dressing themselves up, paying tribute to the event. Many of the businesses do as well. If I had realized to what extent, I would have made an effort to visit as many of the Germany host cities as I could, just as I do during The Tour. There was a large gallery in Nuremberg filled with photos of soccer and videos that one could have spent a day at.

I watched the first half of the Italy-Australia match at an outdoor cafe before heading out of town at 5:45. An hour later I knew that Italy had won when I heard horn toots from cars flying the Italian flag. I found a small German flag along the road yesterday that had fallen off a car and strapped it atop my gear. I am now like a ship that flies the flag of whatever country´s waters it is passing through. It has earned me extra horn toots. I have a fair share anyway, along with waves and upraised thumbs from those who endorse and embrace the touring cyclist. Germans, more than any other people, relate to the adventurist, questing spirit of the touring cyclist.

In all my travels I have met more German touring cyclists than all other nationalities combined. I am more frequently taken for being German than any other nationality. The Germans can recognize that I am not of their blood, otherwise I´d have more conversations than I have had, but I am well aware of people here giving me a second and closer look, much moreso than anywhere else. They can relate.

Yesterday I had a host of people come to my assistance when I was in need of a bike shop to replace a tire whose wire bead had worn through causing an explosive flat. I was limping along on an under-inflated tire with a couple of dollar bills as a liner trying to protect the exposed wire from puncturing another tube. I was ten miles from a large city that I knew would have a bike shop, but stopped to ask in a small town hoping there might be a shop there. A man drew me a detailed map to a shop two kilometers away. But first we went into a bank to borrow their phone to make sure the shop was open early on a Monday morning. The bank manager happily
made the call. Then the man who drew me the map insisted on driving me to the shop. The shop-owner gave me a slide show on his computer of a recent bike trip he had taken to Egypt.

France awaits me just a few miles away. I am looking forward to Tour de France fervor, especially in the Prologue city of Strasbourg. I know it will be agog with bike frenzy. I am primed for following it the next three weeks. I have put some 2,500 miles on my legs in the month since Cannes. Some of those who I have told that I would be following the Tour assumed I meant to compete in it and wished me luck. One woman, who asked if I'd ever done such a thing before, asked how I had done. I told her that I hoped to do better this year not having to contend with

Later, George

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Nurnberg, Germany

Friends: One hundred miles into Germany and I have yet to be reprimanded or castigated by an irate motorist for intruding upon his roadway, as happened all too often two years ago when I made a run up the country´s western edge. But only a few of the miles I have ridden have had an accompanying bike path in this eastern sector of the country and there has been so little traffic, these country roads have been virtual bike paths.

It could be the Germans are on their best behavior as hosts of the World Cup, and in a good mood, to boot, with their team doing so well. There is most visible Soccer fever here. Ever since the Czech border town of Cheb, many cars with the D, for Deutschland, on their license plates, have been flying one or two of the black, red and golden striped German flags on little antennae attached to the driver´s and/or passenger´s windows, just like collegiate sport fans back in America.

Nurnberg is one of the dozen or so German cities with a stadium large enough to host the games. Portugal plays the Netherlands here tomorrow. The Portuguese are already aswarm on the downtown streets in their colors, waving their flag and chanting and cheering. No Dutch to speak of yet. With Germany playing Sweden today in Munich, the German fans are out and about as well, with painted faces and bottles of beer in hand, rowdy and rambunctious.

One can´t get within a half mile of the stadium here, even today, with auxiliary fences and guards all around it. Still, there were site-seers flocking to it to give it a look. I´m at an Internet cafe at the local train station, which is resounding with the clamor of arriving fans, banging their drums, tooting their horns and cheering.

I spent an hour or so trolling the downtown streets on my bike looking for a used book store. The people at the tourist office only knew of one new book store. It had no books in English and knew of no used book stores. I´m down to the last 50 pages in the last of the five books I brought along. Only in Serbia did I stumble upon a used book store where I was able to supplement my stock with a real oddity--a collection of Rex Reed profiles published in 1968. It had probably been sitting in that store for 30 years. It was surprisingly interesting with stories on Warren Beatty before "Bonnie and Clyde," Peter Fonda before "Easy Rider," Barbara Streisand before "Funny Girl," and Lester Maddox as governor of Georgia. They were all written in the mid-´60s, many for "Esquire," back when Dr. Pepper was the hot new drink and air-conditioning was so rare it merited mention when he sat in an air-conditioned office or car and pierced-ears were
a new novelty.

I failed to find a decent used bookstore in Budapest, Prague or Karlovy Vary. I never felt desperate knowing a large city that attracted international travelers was just ahead that I felt certain would have a worthy used book store with English titles. But now I was desperate. An English language school was finally able to direct me to a used book store which had eight shelves of English books. Three of the shelves were newer books going for five euros each. In the basement, however, were five shelves of books priced at five euros per kilo. I found four books of some interest totaling over 1,000 pages for less than a kilo that ought to hold me for a couple of weeks. That was probably a better bargain than anything I would have found in Eastern Europe. The best bargain over there was the Internet, never more than one and a half euros per hour, about a third of what it is here and will be in France. So my expenses return to ten dollars a day after three weeks of five dollars a day.

I thought I´d have an easy time finding English books in the Czech Republic when on my first full day there in a smaller city I came upon a store advertising "Second Hand Books in German and English." Unfortunately it was a Sunday morning and not open. For the rest of my time there I frequently saw "Second Hand" stores, but they were all devoted to clothes, and usually fancy clothes for women. The young women of the Czech Republic did like to dress up. One of the odder sites was seeing young teen-aged girls in small towns strolling along in stylish clothes and a pouty look, as if they were walking down a run-way with cameras flashing.

I spent the last of my non-euro currency on peanut butter at the Wal-Mart of Eastern Europe, Tesco, at the border town of Cheb. As I walked into the mega-store a couple of Germans were jauntily leaving with a shopping cart full of cases of the energy drink Red Bull. It has certainly gained a foothold over here.

I was always happy to come upon a Tesco, as they had little-used public washrooms, just what I needed. In addition to a communal set of urinals and toilets and sinks, there was always a separate toilet for the handicapped that I could appropriate for all my washing needs--socks and underwear, eating utensils and assorted body parts. The washrooms were a genuine luxury even my Western European standards.

Besides the Germans at the Tesco and all the stores offering change, another indication that Cheb was a border town were the women along the road on the outskirts of the town, with a fair amount of skin on display and a cigarette in hand, trying to look more attractive than they were.

The Germans at the border wanted to see a passport, but when they saw it had USA on it, they didn't even open it up. Its just a week until the Tour and I ought to arrive in Strasbourg a couple of days early.

Later, George

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

Friends, I am ten days early for the 41st annual Karlovy Vary Film Festival, which is in the top tier of international film festivals. I would very much like to attend it some year, but, unfortunately, it usually conflicts with the opening week of The Tour.

There is already a banner dangling from the top of the 20-story Thermal Hotel annoucing the festival. The hotel, whose name refers to the springs here, is the tallest building in this small city, and the headquarters of the festival. Among the venues are a screening room at the hotel and a yet-to-be-erected 450-seat outdoor theater in the hotel parking lot. There is no schedule available.

Based on my four days of bicycling the length of this country, I would assume it would be a very
efficiently run festival. I have been continually impressed at how orderly and sensible and livable the Czech Republic has been, probably in part to its having been part of Austria up until 1918. There are billboards promoting recycling. The larger supermarkets have easy-to-use machines for recycling bottles and give credit. I have seen solar panels here and there and wind turbines. The cities and towns have been clean and manageable.

And the cycling has been as fine as is to be found, and not purely by happenstance. A cycling
bureaucracy has posted signs for bike routes from village to village. I only occasionally took
advantage of them, as the more direct routes on more primary roads were so bicycle-friendly I didn't care to risk venturing off into the unknown, as such roads weren't shown on my map. But with a bike route map or a map with all the county-caliber roads one could spend weeks lost in fantasy-world cycling on such roads.

My entry into Prague was easy and painless and my exit equally so, leaving me no sour taste as did Budapest. I had a splendid half-day walking and cycling its blocks and blocks of pedestrian only downtown streets, dodging the packs of tour groups visiting the sites to be seen--the castle, Jewish quarter, the Franz Kafka memorial sites and the popular Museum of Communism depicting the "dreariness of communism."

One tour company offers a walk called "A path to nowhere," visiting sites related to the country's forty years of communism culminating with the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Their brochure states that period "destroyed nearly everything--our skills, our character, our self-confidence, our industry. Now we have freedom again. Do we appreciate it or not."

The Czechs have regained and appreciate all the more the same sense of freedom the touring cyclist feels as he travels about totally free, completely independent of buses and trains and cabs in getting him to where he would like to go,. And the wild-camping cyclist is freer yet, not dependent upon hotels or hostels or designated camping areas for a place to put his head
down at day's end. If he's an adept scavenger or dumpster-diver, he hardly needs money.

Some day there will be museums similar to the Communism Museum depicting the horror of the
automobile and how it nearly destroyed the planet and enslaved the masses while crushing their spirit. Future generations will be dumbfounded at how their ancestors were so dependent on the car, using them to drive a mile or two or less simply to go to work or to pick up a pack of gum or go to a movie or visit a friend, spewing fumes that fouled their nest and raised their planet's temperature rendering it virtually uninhabitable.

Even more appalling is that people knew this at the time, yet they persisted, all the while
growing fatter and unhealthier and lazier and more benign. The Automobile Age was the
darkest of ages, as cars grew bigger and gas more expensive and the environment more fouled and the people more blind and selfish and obese. Visitors to the museum will be further shocked to learn how the car was also a scourge, killing and maiming tens of thousands every year, while enslaving the masses who indebted themselves so they could have one of their own. A huge portion of their earnings went to support their car-dependency, while they bemoaned they didn't have enough money to live as they wanted.

Later, George

Monday, June 19, 2006

Zdar nad Sazavou, Czech Republic

Friends: Yesterday's Sunday ride through the Czech countryside was almost as good as it gets. Not only was it upon smooth roads with plenty of elbow room and no traffic to speak of other than fellow cyclists through rolling, varied terrain of primal forests and vast fields of grain with towns every 15 miles or so, the road offered the added bonus of cherries, as it was occasionally flanked by a row of cherry trees on each side providing shade and wind break and tasty, juicy morsels.

The cherries could be a minor hazard at times, as the trees were so close to the road there wasn't enough room for cherry-picking drivers to fully remove their cars from the roadway. But with so little traffic, it wasn't much of a concern to anyone.

The range of cyclists on all manner of bikes almost had me thinking I was biking the Netherlands, though the considerable climbing was anything but Dutch. Cycling regalia and quality bikes were a rarity. The cyclists were of all ages and shapes and sizes, riding in pairs and small groups and on their own. There were many moms and dads following a pre-teen, who ordinarily wore a helmet while the parent did not.

The Czechs have some world-class mountain bikers and one of Lance's teammates, Pavel Pardnos, the past few years was Czech, the lone Czech in The Tour. Both here and in the Slovak Republic bicycling is very much an accepted part of their lives. I have seen a few Discovery and Motorola jerseys on cyclists here in recognition of Pardnos and Lance. Two years ago, I met a Czech touring cyclist, who had biked to L'Alpe d'Huez, to see his countryman in action.

Today, Monday, verified that Sunday was a day for folks to go off into the country on their bikes, as the only cyclists I have encountered in 50 miles have been in the towns I've passed through. Motorized traffic is still few and far between, making the cycling just as pleasurable as yesterday.

I was a little uncertain when I crossed into the Czech Republic late Saturday afternoon after a final 25 miles of harried Polish miles if the cycling was going to be as good as in the Slovak Republic. There was a steady stream of traffic, including many 18-wheelers the first few miles, but much less than Poland. All it took was dropping off this road, the main link between Prague and Poland for the traffic to dry up. All was bliss, including the camping, better than any four-star hotel.

It has warmed up enough that I take advantage of the bright blue water pumps whenever I spot them in the small towns to soak my shirt and douse my head. If there is a long stretch between pumps and I am desperate for a cool down, its never more than a few miles to a creek or a stream.

WCs, as toilets have been labeled throughout Eastern Europe, are generally locked at the gas stations. I'll occasionally stop and buy a cold drink or ice cream for the privilege of using their WC, but since there is generally just one lone toilet and others in need I am discouraged from prolonging my time to do my daily laundry, as I otherwise would. Instead, I have been resorting to the creeks and streams, which allows me to pay homage to Robert Service and his poem "The Joy of Being Poor," longing for his simple days of poverty after he became a wealthy writer and had so many worries.

Among the memories he rhapsodizes from those days "when every dawn was like a gem so radiant and rare," was "washing beside a brook, my solitary shirt. And though it dried upon my back, I never took a hurt." I rinse and soak my shirt several times a day to cool down a bit, though it dries within a mile or so flapping in the breeze as I hum some more of the Service ode, "And though I had but a single coat, I had not a single care."

Later, George

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Bielsko-Biala, Poland

Friends: If all of Poland is anything like the first thirty miles I have come so far, I will be most happy to have only 25 miles remaining before I escape to the Czech Republic.

The roads have been narrow and rough and the traffic relentless, even on a Saturday morning. It has been survival cycling, the most dire of these travels. At least this city is an amiable oasis, with blocks and blocks of its downtown streets restricted to pedestrians and cyclists, giving me a chance to recover and regroup.

Yesterday evening when I crossed into Poland, traffic wasn't an issue. But I wasn't happy to be greeted by one village after another without any campable countryside between. It is universal throughout Europe when one comes upon a town for there to be a sign at its outskirts announcing itself and also a sign when one leaves the town with the town's name on it with a slash through it. They came simultaneously here, signs with a slash through it and also a sign with a new town. Poland was looking like Italy with the countryside fully occupied.

I wasn't regretting my decision to swing through Poland, but I was beginning to regret my decision to have so hastily left the Slovak Republic, as there had been the most inviting of pine forests right up to the border begging to be camped. But it was only six p.m. and I hoped these forests would extend into Poland. I wanted to get within 20 miles of Bielsko-Biala, a nice distance to start the day off with before my first break of the day.

I am constantly bypassing great camping and 99% of the time not regretting it. The lone notable time when it turned out to be a mistake was in Laos, when Laurie and I pushed on for an extra hour neglecting forest camping that looked so exceptional that we could have lit a camp fire. We found ourselves on a climb with steep terrain on both sides as it grew dark. I sped ahead to try to find a nook to retreat to before dark fully settled in. I found something flat and discreet, but we were invaded that night by thousands of stinging red ants. They were so voracious they ate
through my baggies to get into my food. When we awoke to their stings in the middle of the night and started fighting back, they sounded an alarm and retreated through the same small hole they had found in the corner of our tent. We put duct tape and mosquito repellent on it and slept off the night.

I've had other occasions when I've had iffy camp sites, but I am most often rewarded for not quitting early, and such was the case again this night. The homes and farms did not let up, but just as I reached my goal of 20 miles before B-B, I came upon a small forest behind a field of wheat that was camping of the highest order.

As is frequently the case, the Poland/Slovak border was at a high point. My final 50 miles north out of the Slovak Republic was a gentle climb past a series of ski resorts in thick pine forests. The highest peak was less than 5,000 feet, though the road never climbed higher than 1,000 feet.

There was no skiing on the Polish side however. It was an immediate steep three-mile descent into farm lands. There was no Slovak customs to go through, just Polish. The customs official took my passport into his small cubicle. I could hear him entering information into a computer and then a minute or so later there came the sound of my passport being stamped. I hoped it wasn't a big stamp, as my pages are filling fast, though it sounded like one of those heavy-duty, single-hit contraptions with the self-contained ink pad that can take up a full page.

I've passed through eleven countries so far on this trip and have three to go. After I send this, I will start heading west for the first time. It is 200 miles to Prague and then 500 miles to Strasbourg, where The Tour starts two weeks from today. It will be nice to arrive a couple days early to scout out the region. The Ville Depart always has an assortment of special exhibits and activities celebrating The Tour. It will also be nice to give the legs a bit of rest. Once the race begins, I will be pushing it hard to keep up.

I have no doubt that being at the epicenter of The Tour day-after-day for three weeks will be no less captivating than it has been the past two years. The Cannes experience has only grown more lustrous year after year. I am already looking forward to the next one, just eleven months away.

For now I'm counting on the cycling in the Czech Republic to be as idyllic as it was in its former partner, the Slovak Republic. I have about four days of it to look forward to all the way to Kalovy Vary. And I'll also be hoping that such good cycling will spill over into Prague and not be the nightmare that getting out of Budapest was.

Later, George

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Zvolen, Slovak Republic

Friends: At last I am in a country where the word for hello doesn't take countless repetitions to remember and slides right off the tongue with no worries of mispronunciation. The Slovaks greet each other with "ahoy," as in "ship ahoy. "

Even better is the quality of the roads here and the quality of the cycling. The primary highways actually have a semblance of a shoulder, so I don't have to cling to the jagged edge of the roadway for dear life when traffic passes simultaneously from both directions. And the secondary roads are wider than any I've been on, even in France. But there is so little traffic, it hardly matters. Yesterday evening, as I was gliding through miles of thick forest with the chirping of birds my sound-track, I grew alarmed that there had been no approaching traffic for so long I feared that the road ahead was blocked. A driver, who had slowed to wave frantically at me, seemingly in a friendly manner, added to my worries. It was the rare occasion when I longed for traffic to come along to verify that the road did go through. When at last a truck came by and no other passing driver reacted to me, I could settle in and fully enjoy the soul-satisfying, too-good-to be-true, cycling.

I camped in a meadow on a hilltop off a dirt road to a radio transmission tower that showed no tire marks in its cracked mud, camping as glorious as the biking. I know its going good when I discover myself whistling a merry tune. That's a true indicator that the cycling has become meditative and transforming, rather than merely an exercise in getting from one place to another. When conditions are less than pleasant, my peace of mind is often hijacked to concerns about surviving a rough road or surly traffic or nasty weather.

I was in need of the quiet, peaceable roads of Slovakia, as my final hours in Hungary were a minor horror with traffic bordering on Italian intensity and road conditions and hassles much worse. I had to ignore "No bikes allowed" signs for several stretches, as there was simply no alternative. I tried to be law abiding and even back-tracked four miles when I came upon one of those dreaded "No bikes, tractors or horse drawn cart" signs about eight miles north of Budapest.

I had the option when I left Budapest to follow the Duma River on a road along either its east or west bank. I selected the eastern side as there was also an autobahn paralleling it. Ordinarily such a road would draw all the traffic. That was not the case. This two-lane side road was as clogged with speeding traffic as the autobahn. When after eight miles I was inflicted with the "no bikes" sign, I didn't wholly object to having to abandon this treacherous route. It was four miles back before I came to a bridge that crossed the Duma, which at this point had forked into two channels. The mile-long bridge was just for trains and bikes and pedestrians.

I was crestfallen to discover the road on the west side of the Duma also forbade bikes. It was six pm and the rush hour traffic was thick and ferocious. I took a dinner break to let the traffic thin, and then planned on making a run for it. I had seen an occasional racing cyclist riding the road. I thought possibly the sign posters had run out of signs forbidding just tractors and horses and had falsely posted a sign that included cyclists as well, though they weren't meant to be forbidden. Whether or not cycling was legal, it looked treacherous.

By seven the traffic had hardly thinned. I was down to two hours of light to escape the urban sprawl and find a place to camp. Rather than following the river north, I decided to find a road heading west into the hills. According to my map one should have been near, though I had seen no signs for it. I noticed a 60-year old man with a bike on a train platform across the street. Miraculously, he spoke English. His advice was to hop on the train with him and to take it to the end of the line in suburbia. Before he could go into further detail the train arrived and I reluctantly followed him aboard. He showed me where we were on a map of stops posted
in the train. There were about seven to go. He said that a conductor would get on in three stops and ask for tickets. He said to tell him I got on the stop before and to absolutely refuse to pay a penalty, which he can demand, since passengers are on the honor system to have purchased their tickets before boarding. That was a hassle I didn't care to endure. After two stops I noticed the six-lane highway along side the train had narrowed to just two and there wasn't all that much traffic, so I exited the train and resumed my biking. I came upon a road that climbed into the hills and left the urban sprawl. It didn't take much more than an hour to find a most suitable campsite on the other side of some train tracks, hidden from all.

There was considerable more morning traffic, however, and about six miles from the Slovak border the road once again forbade bicyclists. I studiously ignored it. I could understand why the authorities wouldn't want casual cyclists cluttering up the busy, narrow road, but I survived. I crossed the Duma one last time to leave the country. On the Slovak side there was a plaque stating that the bridge had been destroyed in 1944 and not rebuilt until 2001. There was as much foot traffic on the bridge linking the small cities of Esztergom, Hungary and Sturovov, Slovak Republic, as motorized, and plenty of places to change florints for koruns.

Besides the quality of the roads, another indicator that I am in a country of some affluence is that rags, or scraps of cloth, are not in short supply along the road. I had been in need of a rag for a couple of days to give my chain a cleaning and wipe all the spattered dirt and dust from my frame and panniers.

Later, George

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Budapest, Hungary

Friends: Hungary had been flat for 100 miles from Serbia to Budapest, but not any more. Budapest has hills within and even higher hills as a backdrop. The city is bisected by the wide Duma River. My route here passed through authentic forests and around a lake or two, features of Finland, perhaps providing some explanation why Finnish and Hungarian bear a mysterious similarity that is unique to the two languages and no other.

I was warmly welcomed to Hungary at the border by an official wearing a Lance yellow wrist band, who rides a Trek as do Lance and I. This was my first border crossing where cars were backed up with trunks open and luggage being checked, but not mine, maybe thanks to the wrist band. About ten miles further I was greeted even more warmly by a voluptuous young woman in a mini-skirt standing at a side-road that led into the forest. As I approached, she dropped her blouse and waved me over. Behind her was a dilapidated mobile home.

If I had been Richard Burton, 19th century British adventurer, who made a point of studying first hand the sexual mores of the populations wherever he ventured, even making a trip to the US to investigate the Mormons, I most surely would have heeded this woman's beckoning. But I hadn't had a proper bathing in a couple of days, and having had enough rejection over the years, didn't care to being ignominiously sent on my way, so I just waved and pedaled past.

It was another 15 miles before I came to a town with a bank to change money. Though Hungary is creeping into the EU, it has yet to do away with its forints for euros. I sped through Serbia so fast (two days), and with prices so cheap, I only spent half the 1,700 dinars that 20 Euros brought me. The teller at the bank reacted in horror at my dinars, shaking her head no. All she would take were euros or dollars. Only after asking was I told a large supermarket I had passed a mile outside this city had an exchange service. I suspected as much, and looked closely as I passed it to see if there was any advertisement of exchange, figuring Serbs would make a run up to this hypermarket for shopping, but one had to know. Doubling back was no great disaster, as the prices at the market were better than any I would find for miles and I needed to restock.

It was a relief to be out of a region where road signs were cluttered with letters that were just gobbledygook to my eyes. Other than that, the Balkans were a pleasure that merit much more exploration. They are virgin territory, as I didn't encounter another traveler after the national park in Croatia. I was treated warmly and cordially by all. Hungary has been a good warm-up for Germany and its cycle paths that parallel the main roads, something that I am not looking forward to. There have been occasional stretches here, as in all too much of Germany, where cyclists are forbidden to ride the road because there happens to be a cycle path nearby. But cyclists aren't the only ones discriminated against. There is a common circular road sign with a red slash through it divided into three sections picturing a cyclist, a tractor and a horse-drawn cart. Even when there aren't such signs and there happens to be a cycle path, motorists don't care to share the road, blowing their horn and angrily waving, pointing at the bike path, just as Germans are prone to do.

If the bike paths were smoother and wide enough to pass all the grandmas poking along carrying bags of groceries or rakes or hoes, I wouldn't be so loath to be relegated to them. Fortunately, I am in no big hurry and can poke along myself, as I had to do for about 20 of yesterday's miles.

The going was so flat yesterday, my maximum speed for the day was only 16.47 mph, about half of what it usually is. That meant not even an overpass to descend or a tail wind nor any sprints to flee a frothing canine. With the regular patches of forest, for the first time since leaving Cannes two weeks ago, other than my first night in Croatia, I didn't have to sweat to find a more than passable campsite. I could push on a little later than usual, not having to seize the first desirable site.

The first I tried last night stirred up a swarm of mosquitoes, as the temperature has finally warmed up enough to bring them out. They were thriving with all the stagnant water. For the first time since Cannes I found a spot well enough off the road, that I wasn't woken early by the passing traffic. Instead I had the rising sun warming my tent as my alarm at 6:30. My early start allowed me to finish off the 49 miles to Budapest by noon. I had my choice of a variety of parks and plazas for my picnic lunch. Rather than asking where I could find the Internet, I roamed the
city streets for 45 minutes or so before finding one, as has been my practice lately, a fine way to explore a city. There is a pleasant bike path along the Duma. It is so wide there are bridges across it only every mile or so. There are huge government buildings and museums highlighting the cityscape and monuments atop the hills. The main boulevards are thick in traffic, but the side streets are like those of a small town. Bikes are prevalent here as they have been through most of the small towns I have passed through. I am sorry once again that this is a country that I will only spend a couple days in this time. But its nice to sample a taste of it. It wouldn't take much effort to cover this country by bike. Budapest is not much more than 125 miles from any part of the country. My next destination, the Slovak Republic, lies just 40 miles to the north.

Later, George

Monday, June 12, 2006

Subotica, Serbia

Friends: Serbia is the sixth country I've passed through on this journey and the first to add a stamp to my passport. The border official was looking at my many stamps so closely I feared he might be looking for a visa, which wasn't supposed to be necessary. But he was just the curious sort at a quiet border.

Serbia also provided me with my first egg since my daily quiche of France. It was sunny-side up atop a thick slice of pizza, peering at me from behind a glass case at a bakery in Sibobran. I hadn't planned on pizza, but this one couldn't be resisted. I had intended on another burek, as advertised on the shop window, to see if it would be cheesy, rather than meaty, as had been my first Serbian burek. That one had been served with a cup of yogurt. I don't know if that is the style in Serbia or if the cook was being kindly to me, as I arrived at his small cafe rain-soaked. I looked around to see if anyone else in the restaurant had a cup of yogurt along with their burek, but the half-dozen or so other customers in the restaurant were only drinking.

My burek actually came from the adjoining small cafe. It wasn't the first time I had mistaken a bar for a restaurant here in Serbia. This bar and restaurant somewhat adjoined each other, though they had separate entrances from the street. The guy preparing the food in the cafe was actually over in the bar sitting at my table watching England playing Paraguay in the World Cup.

Its only the first weekend of the month-long competition, but it has already taken over. In the big city of Novi Sad most of the outdoor cafes along the main boulevards had TVs tuned to Eurosport, some even providing English commentary. I'm looking forward to biking through Germany where it is all taking place.

There was so little traffic on the roads here yesterday, Sunday, I feared I might be violating some curfew. There were a couple of racing-garbed cyclists out for a spin and a lot more cyclists puttering along on clunkers that Working Bikes, the Chicago cooperative that sends used bikes to third world countries, would reject. More than a few of those riding bikes were smoking a rancid cigarette that would force me to speed up as I approached them to escape the fumes.

Tractors are a common enough site on the roadways that the larger towns have to have signs forbidding their entry. Every once in a while I'll encounter one going slightly faster than my solitary speed that I can latch on to and draft. The roads here are the worst I've encountered so far, with lengthy stretches of patched potholes. I've also had to contend with cobbles. Repaving is going on. Sometimes only one side of the road has been repaved. If it is the opposite side of the road from what I'm on and is upraised, traffic passing me isn't inclined to hop over on it, sometimes passing me a little too close for comfort.

Men's and women's washrooms in these parts are indicated by a high-heeled and low-heeled shoe on the door. The service stations have offered some of the best toilet facilities I've encountered in Europe, better than most public toilets even in France, complete with hot water and mirrors and toilet paper. These bathrooms have been my chief source of water. I have yet to find a park with a drinking fountain. The weather has been so wet and cold, my park sitting and people watching has been very limited.

Unlike France, where most stores are closed on Sunday, Sunday seems to be the big shopping and market day in Serbia. There were throngs on the street in Novi Sad and at the large shopping center on the city's outskirts. There was also a huge outdoor market rivaling anything I've seen anywhere with everything from puppies to bike parts and flowers and food for sale.

On to Hungary, George

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Bijeljina, Bosnia

Friends: Pizza Bosnia-style comes with a knife and fork and a ladle of ketchup, but it tastes like any pizza you'd find down the block. The biggest surprise was the one dollar slice I thought I ordered turned out to be a whole pizza--easily the best bargain of this trip. That was no problem for this ever fuel-greedy cyclist.

The pizza was in lieu of a burek, a doughy sausage concoction of three long, tight swirls that at first glance looks like a pretzel. The cafe adjoining the Bingo supermarket offered nothing but pizza. I'd prefer sticking to local fare, but it was nice to have my curiosity satisfied as to what a Bosnian pizza might be. Many of the small cafes and fast food joints advertise hamburgers and hot dogs and pizza along with the local fare of bureks and such. The burek for a dollar is a meal for most. Two bureks is usually more than I can manage, leaving me a few bites for further down the road.

Bosnia has not only provided the best eating of this journey, but the best cycling as well. The three hundred miles I have cycled across its northern tier have been along one river after another through rich agricultural valleys with minimal traffic and no amenities catering to tourists, not even decipherable road signs. I was fortunate to meet someone early on who decoded the main cities of my route for me so I could stay on track.

The grades have been minimal except a climb of ten miles or so that gained a couple thousand feet to cross from one valley to another to pick up another river. The camping hasn't been as easy as I'd prefer, as the countryside is one succession of small farmsteads, each with a giant three-story house with floors designed for NBA-players. Another of the difficulties has been how soggy the ground is from all the rain. And with the highs barely 60 degrees and only occasional peeks of the sun, the fields haven't had a chance to do much drying. It gets down into the 40s at night, making early starts not so easy.

My route has included a couple of frighteningly decrepit nuclear plants that I was happy I didn't have to camp anywhere near. The one in Tuzla had four smoldering smokestacks surrounding by a vast network of rusting infrastructure. Tuzla was a warren of decaying Soviet-style apartment complexes. The light towers on the stadium were horribly rusted. The city was like the set for a post-apocalyptic movie. It was just another of the many sites along the way that let me know I was journeying through a land unlike any other I've encountered.

Serbia is just a few miles away. With twenty days to cover about 1500 miles to get back to France before The Tour starts I won't risk continuing further east for a quick swing into Romania. Instead, I'll be heading north to Hungary and the Czech Republic. It's tempting, however, just to keep going east to Greece and Turkey and beyond, but that will have to await another time.

Later, George

Thursday, June 8, 2006

Banja Luka, Bosnia

Friends: There is an extra element of excitement to the wild camping here in Bosnia, as there are occasional stretches with skull and cross bone signs warning of land mines, as I last encountered in Cambodia. There were no such signs in Croatia, just lots of skeletal remains of still standing bombed out farm houses. I thought I might end up camping in one of them, but they were generally right beside a recently built new home.

Even more ubiquitous than the bombed out buildings along the roads of Croatia were discarded cans of Red Bull, the energy drink. There were also lots of homes with signs advertising "zimmer\rooms." I actually took advantage of one of them, the first time in my past three summers here in Europe that I have paid for indoor accommodations. Two days of near non-stop cold rain was to blame. One day the rain kept me in my tent until noon, a not so unwelcome semi-rest day. The corner of my tent was in a low spot and a pool of water gathered before I realized it, soaking the end of my sleeping bag. Plus I hadn't adequately secured one of the waterproof panniers I had left outside on my bike, so it had leaked a quart or more of water
into it.

I only had 82 kunas, about 13 dollars, left when I stopped at a house ten miles from the Plitvice National Park, my final destination in Croatia before crossing into Bosnia. I was hoping that would be enough to cover my entry into the park. After giving me my choice of two upstairs bed rooms in his house, the owner quoted me a price of 100 kunas for the night. He was willing to take one of my stash of ten euro notes. I was soaked and shivering. His wife gave me a cup of hot tea and brought out a heater to dry my clothes. They also supplied me with a pair of slippers, so as not to smudge their spotless floors.

They were one of many kindly souls I met in my time in Croatia. A shop owner let me use his Internet without fee and offered a beer to go with it. When I left, he gave me his card and said if I had any problems to give him a call. His only time out of the country was a pilgrimage to Lourdes a couple of years ago. He, like several others, asked me if I came by boat or plane, a question I have never been asked before.

It was still raining when I left my Croatian hosts, and it hadn't let up when I reached the National Park. I had to dig out my wool cap for the first time and add every layer I could to regain some warmth before I began my hike around the karst, limestone pools and caves and waterfalls of Plitvice. The entry fee was 85 kunas. I had 40 centimes of Euro currency left that the exchange office gave me 3 kunas for. With all the rain, the waterfalls were raging and the streams connecting the 16 lakes of the park were overflowing or surging up through the slats of the wooden pathways linking and crossing and surrounding them. There were still bus loads of tourists under umbrellas and wearing cheap plastic ponchos the gift shops were selling. There were packs of Japanese and I heard a few Aussie accents as well. There were four hiking options, ranging from two to eight hours, except with all the water, the lengthier hikes required some wading, something I wasn't prepared to do. The lush blue green waters in the tiered lakes were similar to those of the Havasupai Reservation in the Grand Canyon and the Agua Azul waters of southern Mexican. And the karst formations were similar to those of Vietnam and Laos. The raging waters had a suggestion of the dramatic falls that border Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

It took pushing hard on the pedals to fully warm up after my two hour stroll. It was about 15 miles to Bosnia and a descent of nearly 1500 feet, where the temperatures were a little warmer and the rain reduced to a bare mist. From the city of Bihac I had the option of sticking to the primary road to Sarajevo or taking the northerly, less traveled route across the country. I was glad to have opted for the northerly route, as it followed the swollen Una River rushing downstream for 40 miles, much of it through a lush tight canyon with railroad tracks that I was continually criss-crossing. It was cycling at its best.

After I reached Bosanski Novi I had another river valley to follow, this one gently upstream. I shared the road with an occasional horse drawn carriage. There were farmers with scythes cutting back the tall grass. Bosnia is much less developed and affluent than Croatia. Small mom and pop stores with piles of soft drinks out front, characteristic of third world countries, are a common site. Many of the road signs are in an alphabet that is Greek to me, making it a bit complicated at times. Restaurant food is nearly as cheap as buying it at the supermarket. The Bosnian currency of marks is two to one to the euro, so euros are easily accepted by everyone. If I had known, I would not have needed to use an ATM. The ATM I used spat out a single 100 mark note. The store I used it at for ten marks of groceries gave me change mostly in euros. At least I won't have to worry about using up all my marks when I cross into Serbia in a couple of days.

Later, George

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Senj, Croatia

Friends: Road signs to Rijeka along with the rugged Adriatic coastline and a pleasant chill in the air momentarily diverted me and my reveries to Iceland, but once my radar registered the thick growth of trees on the steep embankments flanking the road, I was promptly transported back to my present reality of Croatia, which wasn't a bad reality at all.

This was cycling as it should be--little traffic of the internal combustion virus that plagues the planet, countryside little marred by the humanoid virus and what evidence there was of man had order and sense. The vegetation was lush and thick and allowed to flourish unhindered and unfettered in this hilly, semi-mountainous terrain. Such was my introduction to Croatia at its westernmost extremity.

It was a most welcome and marked contrast to Italy, where the terrain had been fully subjugated and strangled, every inch occupied. Here there are signs warning of deer, and bears still roam. The human occupation of Italy is so complete, there is hardly space left for insects. Further evidence of the optimum cycling were the Germans on their motorcycles, who roam far to find scenic roads of little traffic. There were Sunday bicyclists out enjoying the roads my
first full day in Croatia as well.

I crossed into Croatia Saturday evening after about 90 minutes in Slovenia. I followed a well-marked bike route from the Italy/Slovenia border, the bicycle emblem complete with a head light. It was a great relief to immediately have breathing room on the roads and all about me. Croatia barely seemed inhabited. I had my first truly secluded camp site in a week and didn't need to be off early.

I also could end my day a little early, which I somewhat needed to, as I could see, as I approached Croatia's prime port of Rijeka, a well built-up coastline for miles, limiting my wild camping possibilities. The final 15 miles to this bustling, thriving city were packed with homes and businesses and even a few campgrounds. Rijeka's main walking mall was packed with pedestrians and its outdoor cafes packed with coffee-drinkers at 9:30 in the morning. My first chore was to change money, as Croatia has its own currency. That was easily accomplished with ATMs everywhere.

Then I had another 45 miles following the coast before turning inland to a UNESCO World Heritage Site national park. There was more traffic on this main route than yesterday, but still mild compared to Italy. While sitting outside the Internet cafe in Senj awaiting its opening, I encountered my first Americans since Cannes, a couple from Sacramento who had flown into Split, about 200 miles down the coast, rented a car and were exploring the country. They had just come from the national park and raved about its beauty. The waterfalls were flourishing due to heavy rains. The park is on the border with Bosnia, my next destination, so I will only have three days to enjoy Croatia.

Later, George

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Saturday, June 3, 2006

Triest, Italy

Friends: I have completed my crossing of Italy. Slovenia is just eleven miles away and then Croatia. Triest is the eastern-most point of Italy, an old port city on the Mediterranean. I have come 450 miles across the wingspan of Italy, from its virtual western-most point over on the Mediterranean. I am looking forward to Eastern Europe and the promise of less traffic. Italy is about half the size of France and has about the same population, 60 million, though judging by the traffic I would have guessed it was three or four times as populous. Italy is what I feared cycling Europe would be like when Cannes and The Tour finally lured me here after years of bicycling in third world countries and regions with vast open spaces like Australia and Scandinavia.

Along with the density of traffic, the countryside is dense with development. Though there are fields of corn and grains and legumes and vineyards, they are mostly small patches with habitations near by, not conducive at all to wild-camping. It hardly seems rural. It is a marked contrast to France and its large plots of land with not a dwelling in sight and lots of little forests and overgrown, undeveloped parcels of land, as if the authorities knew enough to keep a cap on development, mandating a certain percentage of the countryside must remain as is. It's not only pleasing to behold, it's all a wild-camping touring cyclist could ask for. Although I was able to camp wild here each of my five nights, it took a little ingenuity. Several times I had to hop a moat-like ditch to find a place to pitch my tent. Even finding a place to take a leak along the road was a challenge.

Italy is a cycling-crazed country. I saw many many more cyclists on the road than in France, so the non-stop flow of traffic was accustomed to passing cyclists with enough space not to cause alarm. But the din of the virtual bumper-to-bumper traffic did not make cycling here such a pleasant experience. All the traffic did provide a bit of a draft, however, speeding me along, and I was able to latch on to an occasional cyclist upping my speed a few miles per hour.

I provoked more horn toots here than anywhere I've biked except India and Vietnam, but these were all of welcome or affirmation rather than the "get out of my way" or "look out I'm coming" mentality. The Italians have enough of an urge to use their horn to applaud a touring cyclist, that they'd frequently give a delayed toot of acknowledgement on curvy mountain roads when they'd be suddenly surprised to see me and they'd already passed. Once, when I stopped to have a little picnic at an enclosed three-sided bus-stop, my loaded bike poking out provoked occasional toots from passing cars, which reverberated along with the din of the traffic to add to my head's lament. I'd also provoke toots, even when I tried to be discreet off in some bushes, when I'd stop to take a leak.

One night in the mountains, I camped between an embankment and an orchard on a steep slope. The top of my tent was barely visible and could only be seen by motorists who just happened to be glancing that way. A few who did had to acknowledge me with a "gotcha" of a horn toot. Such are the Italians. Just as I was relieved to cross into Nepal after a month-and-a-half of being blasted by horns from every passing vehicle in India, I am looking forward to escaping Italy. I have four weeks of Eastern Europe (maybe as far as Romania) and Germany to explore before the Tour starts, exactly 28 days from today in Strasbourg on the France/German border.

The Italian road signs could be exasperating too. They were woefully inconsistent in giving distances. A sign would give a distance of 40 kilometers to a town and then five kilometers later give a distance of 42 kilometers. This happened time after time after time. But I had my cyclometer and map to let me know such things.

In France it is often exasperating to find one's way out of a city. Signs will list towns, but not all of them. Very very rarely do the French road signs give road numbers. Italy did much better in this regard. Only once did I have trouble finding the right road here in Italy. That was yesterday as I by-passed Venice. Italy had been most considerate in giving directions to the next city via both the autobahn route and the non-autobahn route in blue and green, something that France rarely does, instead directing all traffic to the autobahn.

Around Venice, however, I ended up on the autobahn not once, but twice, and had to struggle to find the correct alternate route. Autobahns paralleled much of my travels here. They ordinarily siphon off the majority of traffic, but not in Italy. There was simply too much traffic to go round. There was simply no escaping it except for my twelve-mile, two-hour climb over the mountain ridge along the Mediterranean, and then the lengthy descent before I reached the flat lands and development. I had considerable climbing my first three days along the Mediterranean and then away from it, but none to speak of, other than over railway tracks and autobahns, the past three days. If I wanted to be reminded of climbing, all I need do was glance to the north and there the snow-covered Dolomites loomed.

Yesterday granted me a reprieve from the traffic for the first half of the day, as it was a holiday. I wasn't forewarned, but fortunately had a day's reserve of food, as all the grocery stores were closed. When I saw closed supermarkets even at mid-morning and not much traffic, I thought it was a sign of a bad economy in the region. I presumed the glut of cyclists I saw were all unemployed. They were all in clusters of from two to twenty, often with matching jerseys, smoothly-pedaling, demonstrating cycling as their birthright and heritage. Few wore helmets. The head gear of choice of the older set was a cycling cap with the bill turned backwards, looking like their childhood heroes Coppi, Gimondi, and Bartoli. It was nice to have a few hours of my time in Italy sharing the road with such compatriots, little distracted by the motorized villains. I finally realized it had to be a holiday when I noticed a team time trial competition, groups of five cyclists all wearing the same uniform spaced a minute or more apart all pedaling furiously in formation.

Later, George

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Montova, Italy

Friends: One can count on picnic tables or a rest area with regularity along the roads of France, but so far, 300 miles into Italy, the only such oasis I've come across here for the weary cyclist has been an occasional chapel about the size of a phone booth crammed into a tight space with no surrounding vegetation or inviting amenities.

I had beaches to retreat to my first 180 miles along the Mediterranean to Genoa and beyond before I turned inland and climbed over the 3,000' ridge of mountains that hugged the coastline. The road clung to the coast line winding in and out and up and over one bay after another, each with a town or city of sun-bleached pinkish and yellowish stone buildings. It was a little early in the season for many sun-bathers, but still the beaches were all lined with battalions of lounge chairs in neat formation as if they were awaiting a drill sergeant for morning calisthenics.

It was a popular route with non-stop traffic, not all of whom were content to glory in the vistas. Many were in a hurry, including one trucker who passed me on a blind curve and clipped a car coming in the opposite direction sending him spinning over into my lane, stopping less than a bike's length in front of me with a shattered windshield. The driver of the car climbed out and plopped down at the side of the road, more shaken up than injured. The truck driver was clearly at fault, though he might have harangued me for being in his way, making him swing out into the middle of the road. I continued on my way, letting them sort it out.

Later, George