Monday, June 25, 2012

Nijmegen, Holland

We've had two days of leisurely bike path/sidewalk riding in Holland, and two nights in campgrounds, helping us to recover from our four days in Belgium.  It is rather mindless cycling, almost as if we're riding through an extended neat and tidy suburbia.  But we topped it off with a visit to Holland's National Cycling Museum here in Nijmegen.   It had an extraordinary collection of old bikes, well-preserved and well-presented.  The overseer talked with us for over half an hour after our perusal.  He was preparing a special Tour de France exhibit and was excited to hear about our plans to follow The Tour.

As relaxed and pleasant as Holland has been we're looking forward to crossing over to Germany as soon as I send this off and heading back towards Liege for the presentation of The Tour teams Thursday night in the central plaza of Liege.

We also hope to meet up with a most eccentric 56-year old cyclist/artist who came to our aid in downtown Liege as we were puzzling over our map trying to figure out our precise location and the way to the library for an exhibit on The Tour.

Jack could easily direct us there, as he was a regular patron, but he wasn't sure if the exhibit was yet ready for viewing.  We wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't, as the Liege tourist office wasn't very well informed on Tour activities.  At one point the  woman trying to help us gave us a Tour de France telephone number for our more specific queries.  They had no brochure of events.  It was all available on line she said.  Evidently Liege had little budget to promote The Tour, unlike its sister Belgium Ville Etape Tournai.  One even had to pay 50 cents for a city map.  Brussels was equally financially strapped two years ago when it was a Ville Etape for The Tour.  The port-a-potties it supplied at The Tour finish cost 50 cents to use, the only Ville Etape to charge for such a basic necessity.

Jack couldn't tell us whether the library offered Internet for visitors, as he said the extent of his use of technology was the bicycle.  That was the first hint that we were dealing with someone who was slightly off-kilter.  We had it further confirmed when he told us he had biked to the North Cape in Norway, 300 miles beyond the Arctic Circle, back in 1996 setting out on January 31.  He carried 50 kilos of gear, but hardly camped at all, knocking on people's doors and asking for refuge each night.  The roads were slick and icy.  He repeatedly fell, but he was so bundled up, he didn't have to worry about injury.

He told us how much he envied us for being off on a bike trip, "the real life" he called it, knowing how "magical" every day on the road can be.  He was the first person  we'd encountered who recognized Andrew's bike as a classic French design and was enthralled by its every feature, even ogling its lugs.  He was impressed that it had been built by a Japanese who specialized in such bikes.

After half an hour of mostly letting him talk our ears off, he asked if we'd like to see some of his touring gear back at his apartment, though he warned us he didn't often welcome visitors and that his apartment wasn't all that much.  On the way there we stopped to see a 374-step climb up a steep hillside that had a 24-hour competition going on and also to take a peak through a window slash in an old cathedral.  He would have liked to have taken us to see Liege's new ultra-modern train station as well, but it was in the opposite direction.

It wasn't until we reached his apartment above an antique store that we realized he was an artist.  The photos he showed us were quite good.  He said two of his photos were in the tourist office.  Besides photography he also drew very intricate, symmetrical pencil drawings that could only be fully appreciated under a huge magnifying glass.  It was prolonged, tedious work creating them.  He had notebooks full of designs.  He hadn't sold any yet, but had a potential client in a wealthy Danish collector.

His apartment was remarkably tidy and orderly with just a few bike parts on a shelf.  Dangling from one wall was a row of climbing ropes tied in intricate knots.  Knots had become his latest obsession a few months ago when he happened upon a book of knot-tying.  He rambled on and on about his various knots, often ending a sentence with "blah, blah, blah,"' and adding, "Sometimes I talk too much." He'd only take a slight pause for breath and go off on another tangent.

He said he was presently preoccupied with trying to decide whether to return to Norway to accept the offer of being the caretaker for a friend's isolated cabin, where his mother had recently died.  He'd "disappeared" to Norway once before in 2003 for 1250 days.  He liked it very much, but he feared "disappearing" again, as it was on his record now in Belgium.  He showed us a list of 50 questions he had posed to himself to resolve before making his decision.

The stranger he got, the more interested we became.  We invited him to accompany us for at least a couple of days.  He couldn't tear himself from his art.  Though he barely eked out an existence, he offered us nuts and apricots and chocolate for our travels and wanted to send us off with a three foot length of climbing rope with any knot that we wanted.  When we realized we had to accept something from him, we accepted the chocolate and let him tie a knot with some cord I had to help hold Andrew's new panniers in place.

I offered him any of three books I'd finished reading. Andrew didn't need them, as he had 13 books on his Kindle, including the recently downloaded "Escape from Lecumberri" by my friend Dwight that had been featured on National Geographic's "Locked Up Abroad" cable series last month.  Jack gladly accepted a book on the Seine River and a book of food commentary by MFK Fisher, but hastily rejected a collection of essays on DeGaulle as if it carried the plague.  He was impressed though by the books I'd chosen to bring along.

Since Jack had no email, if we wanted to communicate with him again we'd either have to return to his apartment or give him a call.  He is a fan of racing, though not of any particular racer.  There was no photo of Eddie Merckx in his apartment, nor Stan Ockers either, another Belgian who'd wore the rainbow jersey of world road race champion for a year after winning the race in 1955.  He died a year later at the age of 36 in a six-day bike race competition.  Andrew and I stopped by a monument to him at the summit of the 11 per cent Cote des Forges ten miles from downtown Liege.

Trying to find it was an adventure of its own.  We received vague directions to it from the tourist office in Namur, but then fairly precise directions from a most friendly bike shop in a town five miles from it before one of those typical long, steep climbs of the Ardennes.  We had to ask a couple more people along the way, some who knew of it and some who didn't, even though they'd driven past it many times.  It was only slightly hidden by bushes that framed it in front of some one's home who had a very ferocious dog.  We were lucky to make the approach to it from the north, which was a gradual climb, avoiding the steep eleven per cent from the opposite direction that makes it the final selective climb in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a spring race that is one of cycling's monuments.  It was a Saturday morning and the roads were full of cyclists on high quality racing bikes wearing various team jerseys riding as if they were preparing for The Tour de France, just as one would expect in Belgium. 

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