Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Thanks Amtrak

Friends: Not only was my Chicago to Grand Junction, Colorado train eleven hours late in arriving, pulling into the station at three a.m., it arrived without my bicycle. I wasn't going to let the late arrival deter me from setting out on my bike to Telluride, as a near full moon was brightly illuminating the countryside, but without my bicycle I was reduced to throwing down my sleeping bag at the far end of the station platform not far from a couple of legitimate transients. I was granted permission by the Amtrak clerk on duty, who couldn't try to track down the whereabouts of my errant bicycle until later in the morning when he returned to duty at eight a.m.

I'd been napping on the train, but was still able to easily nod off, fortunately not deterred by the disappointment I felt about not being able to recover from 36 hours on the train with a bike ride, nor distracted by the worry that I might never see my bike again and also the concern of how I would get to Telluride, 128 miles away, if it didn't show up on the next train. I would have less than two days to get there in time to open up the shipping office for the Telluride Film Festival.

I'd had a premonition that this might happen. While I boxed my bike in the bowels of Chicago's Amtrak station, a couple of the baggage handlers made sniping remarks at me, thinking I was taking too long rearranging my gear, deciding what to put in my duffel that would go in the baggage car with the bike and what I would take on the train with me. Another reprimanded me for making a quick costume change from my shorts to long pants behind a post. He said there was a rest room nearby where I could have done that. I apologized as obsequiously as I could, knowing full well that my gear was fully at their mercy of getting on the train.

I was surprised though at their reaction, as I have performed this exercise quite a few times at that very spot, and on every other occasion the attendants had been most helpful and courteous and also curious about what it was like to travel by bike. I could only suspect that these rough economic times had frayed their nerves and maybe made them a little resentful of someone going off on a seemingly frivolous adventure when they and everyone they knew had heavy and burdensome worries. Maybe they'd just gotten news that some of them would soon be losing their job. Or perhaps I represented something they resented. Something had clearly made them surly.

I could sense the possibility of some sort of vengeance, such as people of their skin color have often been subjected to in the South. I knew either my bike or my duffel was in danger of being left behind. Before I left, I sincerely thanked the attendant in charge for what help he had given me in boxing my bike, but I still had reservations. When we pulled into Denver nearly 24 hours after we left Chicago for our longest stop of the journey, I made an attempt to check the baggage car, but was told it was off-limits. I had to wait until Grand Junction for the bad news.

At least the attendant in Grand Junction, a young immaculately groomed young man by the name of Byron, was as helpful and kind as could be. I thought I had been transported to a 1950s small town in America where everyone went out of their way to be neighborly to all and sundry. Not only did he say it would be perfectly fine to sleep there at the station, he carried my forty pound duffel to the end of the station platform for me.

The next morning he immediately called Chicago to check if my bike was still there. When it wasn't, he called a conductor on the train that had left the previous afternoon and asked if he could check the baggage car for my bike. He was nearby and had a positive answer within a minute. Hallelujah. And there was also the good news that the train was only six hours behind schedule due to the flooding in the Midwest and was looking at a ten pm arrival.

Then he printed out a small map of downtown Grand Junction showing me where the grocery store was and sites to see and the library. As I left the station, he offered me some yogurt. It wasn't the only food given to me during my Grand Junction lay-over. While I sat in the town park at a picnic table with a couple dozen homeless scattered around on the grass in the shade of the trees, an eight-year old girl accompanied by her parents rushed up to me with a bag lunch and a bottle of water. A while later a young man gave me another bottle of water and an invitation to attend his church the next day.

I spent the majority of the day escaping the near 100 degree heat at the library. It too was crowded with those on the fringes of society. The librarians were most cordial and I was able to spend a couple hours on the computer between browsing the magazines and newspapers and reading the travel book I had brought along, Thurston Clarke's "Searching for Paradise," about various islands he visited scattered around the globe, a follow-up to his book on following the equator.

When I returned to the Amtrak station at six p.m. I was thrilled to see on the chalkboard that the train had made up some time and was due to arrive at nine p.m. now. I was fearing it might have lost even more time and might not arrive until after midnight. The station attendant had said the previous night's three a.m. arrival was the latest it had been in the past two months since the flooding. It made his job difficult, but at least he was earning a lot of over time, as ordinarily he closes down the station at five p.m.

I hadn't had a great amount of sleep the past two nights, but I always feel a surge of energy once I can get back on my bike. I never have any problem knocking off 40 or fifty miles after my transatlantic overnight flights to Paris. Those are at least usually early afternoon arrivals. I've had some sensational full moon rides over the years, most notably in Baja with eerie shadows from the towering multi-armed saguaro cacti and across the Nullarbor Plain in Australia, the world's longest, straightest, flattest road that goes on for 700 miles, so I was looking forward to another moon-lit ride even in my somewhat sleep-deprived state.

The train actually arrived a little before nine and within half an hour I had it assembled and was on the road. Even though it was a Saturday night there wasn't a great amount of traffic. I had the city lights of Grand Junction for some extra illumination the first few miles and then it was out into the somewhat desert terrain of western Colorado with just me and the moon about 45 degrees up in the sky and rising. I was traveling a four-lane highway with a nice shoulder and a white line to help keep me on course. I was gloriously gliding along, my senses extra alive and attentive.

My range of vision wasn't what it would be in the daylight, nor could I see minor flat-causing debris, but I had no qualms whatsoever to be riding in the dark. My light was only adequate to let me be seen by others, rather than allowing me to see much. I was happy to be gobbling up the miles in the relative cool of the night and without the blazing sun baking my brains. The question was do I ride all night or stop for a nap. I wasn't able to ride as hard as I ordinarily would with my limited vision, so I was overly expending energy. I stopped after ninety minutes to eat a bit and rest.

I knew this road well as I had ridden it quite a few times on my yearly commute to the Telluride Film Festival when I hadn't flown out instead. I often would camp just beyond Delta behind a vocational school 43 miles from Grand Junction, leaving me 85 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain to Telluride. I arrived there at 1:30 and decided to get a few hours of sleep.

The forecast was for it to be ten degrees cooler on Sunday, promising less scorching conditions. And luck was with me. Not only was it cooler, but it was overcast. I wasn't as desperate at all, as I sometimes can be, for each and every mini-mart service-station oasis with cold drinks and an ice-dispensing machine. The only one I needed to stop at was in Ridgeway after 48 miles the next day, at the turn-off to Telluride 38 miles away, just before a steep 2,000 foot climb that would take me up to 9,000 feet. Its an immediate steep climb out of Ridgeway, a small town with a sign on its outskirts on some one's private property saying "What we lack in wineries we make up for with whiners."

After that climb the road levels off a bit for several miles past Ralph Lauren's Double R ranch with its infamous wooden fence with the cross pieces mounted aesthetically, rather than practically. If they were keeping livestock, they could push their way out. Half-way up the final steep five mile stretch I was beginning to feel the altitude and the minimum of sleep of the past three nights, not as severely as the RAAM riders, but I could relate. I didn't mind at all stopping for a rest and to gaze upon the 360 degree panorama of snow streak peaks.

After the summit I had a 12 mile, 1,500 foot descent to recover before turning at Placerville for the final 16 miles to Telluride, regaining 1300 feet. This time I had the San Miguel Creek as company for a fairly gradual climb until a last hump of 600 feet in two miles. That nearly did me in. From the summit just before Society Turn it was four miles of relative flat on in to Telluride. I didn't learn until I arrived in Telluride that bicyclists are no longer obligated to stick to the bumpy deteriorating bike path from Society Turn and can no ride on the recently repaved road. The signs threatening a $150 fine to bicyclists had yet to be taken down, as it had been just last week that the Town Council gave in to the bicyclist's demands to be able to share the road and not be treated as second class citizens.

I arrived in Telluride an hour before dark twenty-one hours after leaving Grand Junction, thoroughly depleted, but triumphant. I ordinarily take a day-and-a-half to do the ride. I wouldn't have been able to do it though without that full moon. Thanks to those baggage handlers I was spared the blistering heat and was granted another most memorable ride. My lay-over allowed me to gain a greater acquaintance with Grand Junction and also to see the better side of human nature.

As I so often have experienced in my travels, a seeming bad turn is in fact a fortunate break. It was hard to assure myself that that might be the case while I was awaiting my bike, but indeed it was. My recurring refrain as I was biking in the dark and then the next day was "Thank You Amtrak," not only to those baggage handlers with a chip on their shoulders in Chicago, but to the benevolent Byron in Grand Junction.

Later, George

Monday, August 1, 2011

Moret-sur-Loing, France

Friends: Foiled again, much to my regret, of gaining entrance to the bicycle museum, known as the "Conservatoire du VĂ©lo," in Moret-sur-Loing, fifty miles south of Paris, as it is closed today. I suspected that possibility, so I was hoping to make it by Sunday, but my circuit of the outskirts of Paris taking in the villages where Van Gogh and Monet lived out their lives made too wide a circle delaying my arrival at the museum until Monday afternoon, the usual museum-closing day in France.

Its not the first time I've arrived on a day its been closed. Several years ago I passed through Moret-sur-Loing on a Tuesday, the other day it is closed, on my way back to Paris after The Tour and could only peer in through the windows at its displays. I'll just have to make it my first destination when I return to France next year for Cannes and The Tour and make sure it's not the beginning of the week.

But my circuit beyond the outer-reaches of the Paris metropolis was not without a submergence into the realm of bicycling lore, as Ralph loaned me his copy of his fellow Scot's just published autobiography "Racing Through the Dark, The Fall and Rise of David Millar." Millar, who has won several Tour de France stages over the years, intimately details the pervasiveness of drugs in the peloton when he turned pro in the late '90s. It came as an initial shock to him. He was determined to race clean, but eventually gave in after being wiped out by the fifteen mile climb up the Madeleine in the The Tour.

After The Race he goes to the house of a veteran Italian Cofidis teammate, who he declines to name, in Tuscany for two weeks of EPO-taking and training before the Tour of Spain. It gives him a significant boost and allows him to do things he would not have been able to do otherwise. But he feels great guilt. He can no longer take pride in his victories, not even winning the World Championship Time Trial in 2003. He never failed a drug test, just like Lance, but rather was outed by a teammate he didn't get along with. His accusations were enough for the French police to ransack his house in Biaritz, finding two empty syringes of EPO hidden in a book.

He serves a two-year suspension and then returns with the Spanish Saunier Duval team. He is an outspoken transformed former drug-user and is chagrined to find no one else really supports his stance. He laments that there was no one he could turn to when he was a young pro to help keep him off the drugs. He wants to be that person now, providing support to those who face the temptation, as do those in Alcoholics Anonymous.

After two years with Saunier Duval, a team that was disbanded a year later when two of its riders tested positive for EPO at The Tour after finishing first and second on a mountain stage, he joins with Jonathan Vaughters to found the Garmin team with an ardent anti-drug stance. He helps recruit Christian Vande Velde to the team, who he heaps much praise on throughout the book. He tells of haranguing Lance at a post-Tour party for not being more out-spoken on drug use. He says he doesn't know if Lance was a drug-taker, but it is highly suspicious that three of his chief lieutenants, Landis, Hamilton and Heras, all tested positive after leaving Lance's team and became team leaders of their own.

Millar offers convincing evidence that it is possible to race clean and win, as he did before succumbing to drugs, and as he has since his drug-taking. His spiral downward makes for demoralizing reading, but his transformation as an athlete and as a person as well as the insights into the Garmin team revive the spirit. Tyler Hamilton is said to be working on a similar such book, and Landis should be as well. As in the Cavendish autobiography published a year ago, he confesses to being reduced to tears on quite a few occasions.

Reading this 350 page book somewhat slowed my riding down, but I can't fully blame it for denying me the bike museum. It was a long and convoluted twenty mile ride north through the sprawl of Paris to get to the small village in the country of Auvers-sur-Oise where Van Gogh spent the final three months of his life, after spending a year in a mental institution in the south of France. His brother Theo, living in Paris, thought the village would make a perfect retreat for him. It had a doctor who could look after him, and peace and tranquility and sites to paint. He painted 78 canvases in 70 days, but couldn't overcome his torments and shot himself at the age of 37.

Both he and his brother are buried in the small cemetery on the outskirts of the village, Vincent dying in 1890 and his younger brother a year later. Their matching head stones both read "ici repose." Throughout the village are replicas of his paintings at the site where he painted them--the village cathedral, its town hall, various homes and also portraits by homes of where his subjects lived. The home where Van Gogh lived in the attic is now a museum. The tourist office offered a fifteen minute movie in English or French on Van Gogh's time there that one had to pay a euro to see.

It was forty miles due west on a hodgepodge of tiny rural roads to Giverny, an even smaller village where Monet lived the final much less tormented forty years of his life. Those were a long forty miles, continually have to consult my highly-detailed French atlas, but also quite tranquil riding. It too was swarming with tourists. I couldn't understand why a woman was taking a photo of a plain pink house, until I realized it was Monet's home on the fringe of the couple acres of gardens where he did much of his painting.

Giverny put me so far west of Paris, it was nearly one hundred miles to get to the bike museum. The cycling though was excellent, especially on a Sunday with the roads dominated by bicyclists, many of them in clusters wearing matching club jerseys and sunny smiles and radiating that French spirit of bonhomie. It made for a nice wind-down to the 5,500 miles I have biked around France these past three months.

The Charles de Gaulle airport to the east of Paris will end my three-quarters circuit of the outer-reaches of the metropolis. The lone site to see is Disney Paris, south of the airport. I won't go in, but will simply give it a circle, and hang out at the entrance and share in the delight and eagerness of all the kids flocking in.

Later, George