Thursday, July 1, 2010

Rotterdam, Le Grand Depart

Friends: Eelco couldn't switch his Thursday job interview, so he was only able to accompany me for fifteen of the fifty miles from Amsterdam to Rotterdam yesterday afternoon. His route out of the city, along the Amstel River, was so quick and painless I could have managed it myself, but being led out by a buoyant, fresh-faced, blond-haired Dutch cycling enthusiast wearing an Amsterdam cycling club jersey and Rabobank shorts made riding past the windmills and network of canals an even more authentic Dutch experience. My memory couldn't play any tricks on me here, making me think I was anywhere else.

It was a fitting finale to two days of an incredibly full bicycling immersion. Amsterdam is a city unlike any other with its abundance of bicycles. It is as thick with bicycles as a forest is thick with trees. There are bunches and bunches everywhere, locked up and being ridden.

Eelco took me to several of his favorite bike shops and a museum with a tribute to urban bike culture and introduced me to a handful of his fellow cycling devotees and joined me for miles and miles of bicycling with a virtual non-stop parade of cyclists on the narrow streets of central Amsterdam. Eelco rode about town on his three-speed, the dominant Dutch bike, though there were exceptions. The most obvious were nifty cargo bikes with a wooden wheelbarrow of a front compartment large enough for two or three kids or a load of stuff.

Bike messengers occasionally flew past on single-speeds, some in a DHL uniform. Not only does DHL use bike messengers in Amsterdam, but it also utilizes its many canals with barges of its own serving as pick up points for the messengers.

My farewell dinner was a barbecue picnic in a city park just a couple of blocks from Eelco's apartment. We were joined by three of Eelco's best bicycling buddies. One was a bicycle shop manager who was Eelco's drafting partner for the 21-hour, 320-mile non-stop competition they rode in from Amsterdam to Paris a couple of weeks ago that Eelco organized. He brought along his girl friend, a nurse who bicycle toured Costa Rica on her own and went off to Australia for six months when she was 18. The other friend had just returned from a couple week bicycle tour in Tuscany. He and Eelco have ridden the sportif Tour de Flanders the day before the professionals the past few years.

Our barbecue was on a disposable, one-time use unit (an aluminum tray filled with charcoal and covered by a metal grate) that we bought at the local supermarket for less then five dollars. It burned strong for an hour-and-a-half and cooked up four different sets of meat. The park was filled with picnickers when we arrived at seven p.m. scattered about on blankets. We found a vacant spot that Eelco knew would maximize the sun light.

We'd brought along beer and wine as well as an assortment of salads and snacks. There was a no-alcohol sign at the entrance to the park, but Eelso said it was only enforced if someone got out of hand. "Look around," he said, "Everyone is drinking." He was right. And not only were people imbibing, one could catch an occasional whiff of cannabis. That was no surprise. I had grown accustomed to its sweet aroma, especially when I biked past one of the many "coffee shops" dispensing varieties of the herb.

I asked Barbara if it was much of a shock going to Australia just out of high school and suddenly being in a bike-free environment after growing up in Amsterdam with bikes everywhere. She said she was somewhat prepared for it as she knew from all the tourists she saw as she was growing up taking pictures of clusters of old bikes locked up along the canals that they were an oddity to others, though not to her.

All four of my Dutch companions grew up speed-skating. Aart, the bike-shop manager, coaches speed-skaters in the winter. He asked if I could name any American speed-skaters. I came up with Eric Heiden and added that I knew there was a black Chicagoan who was an Olympic speed-skater, but I didn't know his name. "Shani Davis," Aart said, and added, "Everyone knows him in Holland."

A police car slowly drove through the park at one point, but didn't stop to apprehend any of those openly drinking. Holland is quite a nation of rule-breakers compared to Germany. Cyclists do not obey red lights, as they stringently do in Germany. Helmets are not a law in Germany, though many wear them. Absolutely no one, other than the occasional racing cyclist out for a training ride, wears a helmet in Holland. Eelco wore his helmet when he was on his Cannondale racing bike, but not on his three-speed.

Before we parted Eelco gave me detailed instructions on how to make it to Gouda, about 15 miles further on, and from there he said I could easily follow the bike route signs. Rotterdam is much more manageable than Amsterdam with few canals or old narrow streets. Once I reached the outskirts of Rotterdam I followed the President Roosevelt Boulevard for a good stretch until signs to the "Centrum" began to appear. I took them straight to the tourist office. In giant yellow lettering on its two-story front window was the Lance quote, "Pain is temporary, quitting is forever."

As I cycled about town I saw more such quotes from other Tour notables. One from Bernard Hinault outside The Tour press center in equally large letters said, "Quand tu veux, tu peux" (When you want you can). There was one from Dutch cycling legend Peter Post near the top of one of the taller buildings in Rotterdam along the Prologue course that I couldn't decipher at all--Rijen Motten Ze, Rijen. I had to ask several people before they could put it into English--They should ride, that's what they should do, ride. And one from Joop Zootemelk--Parijs Is Nog Ver. Paris is far.

Along the prologue route were banners with the profile of each of the 180 racers competing in The Tour with their national flag. The library had a display in its vast lobby of 200 jerseys of many of the greats from the collection of a Dutch fan all nicely framed. There are a couple of other Tour exhibits in museums about town I have yet to check out.

The library was right across the street from the youth hostel where my Australian friend Vincent is staying. I went there directly from the tourist office, half-a-mile away. And there was Vincent, just hanging out. He's been in town for three days and has everything thoroughly scouted out. We went to a nearby supermarket for our own little picnic. He was thrilled to learn about the disposable barbecues. Barbecues are such an Australian institution that parks have free electric barbecues, though Vincent said he's never used one, not knowing who its previous users might have been.

I had passed some forested areas on the fringes of Rotterdam on my way in, so after our dinner I retreated to find a camp site. In less than half an hour I had a nice secluded nook along a canal. Vincent had paid in advance for the hostel, but he's hoping he can get a refund for his next two nights and join me before we head out of town Saturday afternoon. At present he's in a room with six bunk beds, all full, though he's the only one in town for The Tour.

After two nights in Eelco's apartment, it was nice to be back in the tent, and actually safer from critters. Eelco has mice. He thought he had gotten rid of them, but a mouse helped himself to my bread in my open pannier my second night. That was no disaster, though previous guests of Eelco's lost a loaf of Turkish bread they had been greatly looking forward to taking with them. They were flying out at six that morning, and weren't able to replace it.

This evening is the grand presentation of all the riders. It will take place just below Rotterdam's signature bridge, the Erasmusbrug, that is one of the city's two great bridges and will be a part of Saturday's prologue course. The peloton will also ride over it in mass to start stage one on the way out of the city Sunday to Brussels. It has been easy to follow the prologue course as the sidewalk is marked with yellow prologue decals.

I'm wearing the Garmin Team blue argyle socks that Christian Vande Velde gave me this past October in exchange for a course maker. I'm hoping to cross paths with him, as I did in Monaco a year ago, and shake a leg at him. I told him I'd be debuting them here. They are quite distinctive and have already earned me a few admiring glances from some of the 10,000 cyclists who gathered at the Feijenoord Stadium this morning for a recreational ride. Everyone had a number on their back and was wearing Lycra and had paid fifty dollars for the ride. Eelco had been hoping to participate. If he'd made it to Rotterdam, I might have infiltrated the ride, but I have plenty of miles in my legs and prefer to explore Rotterdam on my own.

Later, George

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