Friday, February 27, 2015

Liwa Oasis, UAE

For nearly one hundred and fifty miles, with another hundred ahead of me, I've had endless miles of wind-sculpted sand to gaze upon. This is the Arabia of Thesiger and one's imagining.  There may be a four-laned band of asphalt penetrating it, but it is an inconsequential trickle amongst the ocean of sand that goes to the horizon, to eternity and beyond.  One's thought is drawn to the imponderables--time, space, why, what for.  But I know better than to dwell upon the unaswerables.  Instead I let the wonder of it simply fill me with joy at my good fortune to be able to intimately experience this world. 

I've had incomparable campsites among the dunes, down in gullies just off the road.  The soft sand and vast expanses has provided the best sleeping of the trip.

A fence runs along both sides of the road to keep the camels from becoming a road hazard.  Many come to the fence lusting after vegetation that has been planted along the road, beginning a slow reclamation of the desert and also as a barrier against the blowing sand.  Rubber piping runs through the bushes bringing water all the way from the desalinization plants along the sea.  The wealth of the nation isn't being entirely spent on roads and skyscrapers.

In time this stretch may become as lush as the one hundred mile corridor from Abu Dhabi on the coast to Al Ain in the interior--a somewhat incongruous deluxe six-lane highway with greenery sparing motorists from the barren countryside about them.

Motorists now stop and tell me they saw me the day or days before and wonder who I am and where I am from and what I'm doing.  An hour before sunset a couple nights ago a motorist who'd seen me in Al Ain earlier in the day stopped along the road to invite me to his home for the night twenty kilometers up the road. "We'll have potatoes for dinner and you can have a shower and we'll wash your clothes," he said. He drew me a map.  Unfortunately, it wasn't as precise as it could have been and his estimate of twenty kilometers was much less than the actual distance.  It became too dark to continue and I missed out on his exuberant hospitality.  I wondered if his wife would dine with us.  She was with him and was fully veiled even in the safety of the car.  He was the first person to stop me holding up a couple of bottles of water.  When he handed them to me I dropped a candy bar I didn't realize he'd included.  

Lately among the ex-pat workers, I've met a series from Bangladesh, including one who asked someone to take a photo of the two of us that he said he'd post on Facebook. With half the population in the Emirates out of country workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines, it is safe to speak English with anyone.  They may not speak much, but they will speak some.  The vast majority of cafe and shop workers are of these nationalities.  A few miles off the main coastal highway when I began this loop out into the desert I passed a huge complex that housed "Guest workers."  It was a long distance from anywhere.  For several miles as I closed in on this walled-in development a steady stream of the white buses that transport these workers to their work sites had been flying past me. If it hadn't been so far off the road, I would have ridden in to see if it was as much of a prison as it looked from the distance, if they'd allow me in.  There was an advertisement along the road for a hypermarket, so most likely they would have.

The winds have been kindly these miles through the desert.  If they turned adversarial, I could be thrust into a survival situation.  The whipping sand can be perilous, limiting visibility and possibly leaving me all alone on the road and in the desert.  A sand storm and extreme heat caused the cancellation of the fifth stage of the Tour of Oman a few days ago, making me feel glad I didn't make the effort to return to Muscat after the Green Mountain stage for it.  The riders attempted an abbreviated version of the stage despite the blowing sand, but the better than one hundred degree temperatures was causing the glue that held their tires to the rims to melt and was making their brakes ineffectual as well.  Usually early season races are altered due to snow and cold.  The fifth stage had a bit of climbing to it that could have helped Van Garderen overcome his nine second deficit and take the race lead.  The final sixth stage was too flat to effect the standings so he had to settle for second overall just as he did last year.  Still a good indication that he is on form and could improve on his fifth place finish in the Big Race in July.  Its four months away, but I'm already looking forward to being back in France for it. I know I will have this marvelous desert still somewhere on my mind.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Al Ain, United Arab Emirates

The rocky, desolate terrain turned into sandy, desolate terrain as I headed northwest out of Oman back to the United Arab Emirates.  I was on the fringe of the Empty Quarter that extends into Saudi Arabia.  There was some scattered, straggly vegetation that provided food for a few stray camels.  Signs warned of camels before I began seeing them.  Signs also warned of cross winds.  Maybe motorists needed to be alerted to them, but they were no secret to me.  They blew waves of sand across the road. The sand stayed low, but when a truck or car passed it would disrupt the air flow and lash me top to bottom with the particles.  My left ear was soon filled with grit.  I was buffeted all over the road, struggling to even go nine miles per hour.

Fortunately it was a cool wind.  For the first time in three weeks I needed my windbreaker.  When an Australian couple gave me some chocolate, I didn't have to worry about it melting.  If I had been battling such a wind when the temperature had been in the 90s I would have been pouring sweat and worried about running out of water.  

For the first time I had stretches over twenty-five miles between sources for food and water.  I turned off the road to go a kilometer to one small town.  There was water at its mosque, but not a store to be found nor a person to be seen.  Every home had a wall about it.  After a half hour rest as I headed back to the main road a car pulled up alongside me and a white-robed young man asked if I needed anything.  I told him I had come looking for food and water. He invited me to his home.  I told him I had found water and had eaten my fill of dates and cookies that I had in reserve.  

It was tempting to accept his offer but If I had gone to his home I wouldn't have had the appetite to eat anything.  A few minutes down the road I regretted I didn't think to ask him if he had WIFI.  Earlier in the day I had unsuccessfully spent half an hour  stopping at coffee houses and restaurants and photography stores seeking it in Ibri, the last city for one hundred miles.  I would have liked to have known if Van Garderen had been able to overcome his nine second deficit and taken the lead in the Tour of Oman. It could be a couple of days before I would find out.

For the first time in days I had to put the rain fly on my tent, not out of concern for dew as along the coast, but to protect me from the blowing sand and also for warmth.  The temperature fell to fifty.  There had been nights when it barely dropped below seventy.

Though I could ponder the majesty and barrenness of the Empty Quarter, I didn't have any sense of the solitude or isolation that accompanied me when I've crossed many another desert--the Kalahari in South Africa, the Nullarbor in Australia, the Atacama in Chili and even route 50 across Nevada (known as America's loneliest road), as rarely did more than a minute pass without a vehicle flying by, some mistaking the 120 kilometer per hour speed limit for 120 miles per hour.  

Oman has too many people with cars wishing to go somewhere making it hard to find a lonely road.  Maybe I'd have to head to Salalah, 600 miles south of Muscat near the Yemen border to find such a road, either the coastal route or the route through the interior.  Both are said to be very scenic.  I didn't allow enough time for such a loop this time. The winds have been very negligible until the last two days.  I'd have to allow quite a bit of time if I were to make such a circuit accounting for the possibility of harsh adversarial winds.

Crossing back into the UAE took a little more time than crossing into Oman with an official in a back room approving my passport rather than the woman up front and then an official at the next check
point taking fifteen minutes to draw up papers for my bicycle while all those in cars were given just a perfunctory check.  In the cool I hadn't been able to give myself much of a wash.  I hoped I didn't look too derelict to be allowed into the country.  Oman was said to be picky about letting unwashed cars into the country and would even ticket dirty cars in the larger cities.  

From the border it was fifteen miles to Al Ain, a sprawling city of half a million.  Along the way I passed several mini-caravans of camels out near the daily camel market.

I also passed a huge cement factory and then some smaller ones.  Before I knew it, I was on the fringe of Al Ain even though I had taken a bypass around it, as evening was approaching and I didn't care to be caught in the city.  A hotel was out of the question, as Lonely Planet said the cheapest to be found was one hundred dollars, more than I had spent in Oman the past sixteen days, other than my Valentine Day night in a hotel in Muscat. I thought I might be able to camp behind the wall of a mosque, but it wasn't secluded enough.  Nor was some vacant land behind a large car dealership.  I was tempted by a cluster of bushes besides a prison wall, but feared being spotted by the guard tower.  A little further I came upon the zoo with thick enough vegetation along one of its walls to disappear into.  It was a quiet night with no howls or grumbles from those on the other side of the wall.

The next morning I ventured into the city for some site seeing.  First was the Sheik Zayed Palace Museum. It wasn't particularly palatial.  Its prominent feature was a large courtyard with a tent and some vegetation within its walls.

Just beyond the Palace was a huge oasis of some 150,000 date palms, a collection of cultivated plots owned by individual landowners, each farming thousands of date palms.  A narrow cobbled road wound its way amongst them. I stopped and talked to a gentleman returning to his car after an early-morning stroll.  He asked me that question that is becoming a refrain, "Do you need anything?"  I told him I had hoped I might be able to buy some dates.  He said they won't be ready for harvest until June. Then he opened his car door and reached in.  I thought he might have a bag for me, but when he turned back he was clutching two 100 Dirham notes, more than fifty dollars, and presented them to me.  "No, no," I said.  "I've no need for that."

Also near by was the Al-Jahili Fort, one of the largest in the country built in the 1890s as a royal summer residence for a Sheik who lived in Abu Dhabi, which got steamy hot in the summer.  

It houses a large permanent exhibition of the photographs of Wilfred Thesiger, the English explorer who made two unprecedented explorations of the Empty Quarter between 1945 and 1950, that earned him a knighthood. He had spent time at the fort in his travels. The exhibit included a fifteen minute video of he and his two Bedouin companions reminiscing about their perilous trips that totaled ten thousand miles, staving off thirst and hunger.  They'd go days without water.  They never knew when they awoke in the morning if any of their camels might have died, which could have meant the death of them as well.

Now its off for my own small taste of the Empty Quarter to the most picturesque and prominent of the dunes of the UAE along the Saudi Arabia border.  I have better water carrying capacity than a camel with all the water bottles I've accumulated from the two bike races that brought me over here--two atop each of my panniers and plenty more buried inside.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Tour of Oman, Stage Four

I was a little concerned when after sixty miles the Stage Four route left the main arteries it had been following and ventured off on a network of smaller roads in mountainous terrain.  It was sensational cycling, but I feared getting lost if any of the course markers had gone missing.  I was in desolate countryside with no one to ask the way.  This was the first of the four stages that I was able to ride from start to finish, and easily the most scenic, despite the first twenty miles through Muscat's sprawl.

I couldn't afford to go astray, as I had no time to spare to reach the finish line before the peloton. Plus I wanted to allow ample time for the super-steep four mile climb to the finish.  Christian Vande Velde, who finished fifth in this tour one year, had just written, "Wait until you see the climb. That thing is nasty."  The heat and the preceding 115 miles would make it all the nastier.  

Though there weren't as many course markers as I would have liked to assure me I was on course, partially because there weren't many objects to attach them to, I need not have worried.  There were markers at all the crucial points and then an occasional one on a straightaway as well. As always there was mosques here and there and an oasis of date palms.

Starting around noon every intersection on the route was monitored by a police officer, just as at The Tour de France, though none of these officers had a satchel of supplies with them.  They were left all alone in the burning heat with no shade for up to four hours until the peloton passed and there duties were done for the day.  None were wearing a hat and all were in short sleeves.  But these ninety degree temperatures are mild compared to the 120 they'll be facing come summer.

When I finally reached the climb at one p.m., Christian was right, it began with a wallop, steeper, and  more intimidating than the initial ramp of L'Alpe d'Huez. One could see its sudden rise from a mile away. The stark, rocky terrain made one want to turn around and head the other way.  I paused after a couple hundred meters to take advantage of what I feared might be the only patch of shade up this brute.  It had been over an hour since my last rest.  I knew it would take an all-out effort to keep the pedals going on the series of steep switch-backs I could see in the far distance.  During the fifteen minutes I sat and ate and drank against a cliff wall only two cyclists passed, a couple of guys on mountain bikes who were just barely staying in motion.  Hardly a car had gone by when I returned to my bike.  Just as I mounted a car stopped and the driver shouted out, "Hello Chicago."  It was an Omani cyclist I had met at the first stage.  He asked if there was anything he could do for me.  I was tempted to give him my gear, but much as I trusted him, I didn't  care to risk us getting separated.  

A quarter mile up the road around a bend the two mountain bikers were perched on a guard rail by the five-kilometer to go sign taking a rest in the shade.  One was an Australian geologist working for a copper mining company and the other a South Africa working at the large port of Sohar.  They don't get to bike much and weren't sure if they had the energy to push on.  After several minutes of conversation they didn't care to be shown up by the American on a loaded bike and continued on with me.  The road flattened as we came upon a parking area and also a check-point.  Two guards were administrating to cars ahead of us, holding clipboards and taking notes.  

If I didn't welcome another rest, I would have just kept riding around the cars, assuming we'd be waved right through. But when it came our turn, we were told we couldn't continue.  Their English wasn't good enough for us to plead our case.  Stephen, the Polish cyclist, had told me cyclists weren't ordinarily allowed up this steep, narrow road, but an exception was made on race day.  Evidently not this year.  We could have left our bikes and hiked the three miles to the summit or tried to get a ride, but there was no shade to be seen.  We knew we had a nice shady vantage back where we had met, nearly a mile into the climb, where the peloton would begin to start thinning out, so we didn't feel too let down, especially the others guys, who weren't sure if they wanted to keep climbing anyway.  

It was 2:30.  The estimated finishing time for the peloton at its fastest pace was 3:17.  That meant they could be upon us in half an hour. As we chatted, we kept our ears perked for the sound of the helicopter coming up through the canyon, announcing the arrival of the peloton.  Another indicator would be the roar of a bevy of officers on motorcycles clearing the way.  Three o'clock came and went.  So did 3:30.  Evidently the peloton was being held back by the headwinds that had besieged me the day before. I didn't mind the wait, as it allowed me to learn about expat life in Oman.  Both guys had wives and children.  The blistering summer months were known as bachelor time, as most of the wives and children returned to their home countries.  The guys would be truly lonely, as they both hung up their bikes in the extreme heat, and spent as little time as possible outdoors.

I was in no rush to be anywhere after this stage, so I need not fret over the peloton's delay.  The expats though had a two plus hour drive home and they hoped to be back before dark.  But the next day was the second half of their weekend, so they didn't have to feel much stress.  Finally at four the helicopter peeked around the bend and the peloton shortly followed.  Van Garderen's BMC team was on the front.  Van Garderen had finished second last year to Froome, and if he could win this stage, that could put him in good shape to win the overall.

The pace was steady with no attacks.  After the initial bunch, the field was strung out, taking a couple minutes to pass.  Many of the riders still had two water bottles on their bikes, though most had already discarded theirs.  If we'd been greedy for a bottle we could have jogged along side them and asked them to lighten their load.  I stood beside my loaded bike.  One racer may have recognized I was a man in need of fuel, as he dropped two energy bars beside me.  They were soft and mushy, but would harden up over night.

The team cars were parked three miles back up the course.  After the racers reached the finish, they would turn around and bike back down.  The awards ceremony would be held nearby by an old fort in the small town.  After the last cyclist passed, holding on to a car, the three of us headed back to the town, where the expats had parked their car.  Immediately around the bend the road was strewn with water bottles.  We each picked up a bunch, though none that I was looking for--BMC, Astana, Sky, Orica.  I hardly needed another, but couldn't let them go ignored, figuring I might be able to trade for ones I wanted or else to redistribute them to kids in the village.  The South African got an Orica bottle, but he wouldn't trade it even for five of my bottles.  When I saw a kid in town with a Sky bottle, I doubted it would have any significance to him.  He gladly traded it for three of my bottles and I gave a bunch more to kids who came running when they saw me giving out bottles.

It wasn't long before the riders came swooping into town.  Their soigneurs were awaiting them directing them to their team cars.  I had to ask four of them before I could find one who knew where the podium had been set up, and none knew who had won the race.  Valverde passed with a smile on his face, so it might have been him.  It wasn't until the awards ceremony that I learned Rafeal Valls of the Italian Lampre team was the surprise winner over Van Garderen and Valverde.  Valls is now first overall with Van Garderen second nine seconds back and Valverde third with two stages to go.  Sorry I'll miss them.

I had the best vantage of anyone at the awards ceremony, right over the shoulder of Tour de France director Christian Pruhomme and Eddie Merckx.

This was the first time I had seen Prudhomme in Oman. I was hoping to meet him, to tell him how much I loved The Tour, and also to ask him if there would be a Fête du Tour again this year, that he had introduced two years ago to celebrate the 100th Tour.  A month before The Tour every Ville Étape has a Fête du Tour to celebrate their stage with a ride of a portion of the route, and giving out t-shirts and food. I regretted I hadn't brought along my t-shirt to catch his eye and authenticate my devotion. That initial Fête du Tour was such a success, Prudhomme repeated it last year.  I hadn't gotten word of it and missed it.  So I was exciting to learn from the very man that I could experience it again this year.  While I was talking to Christian, the official photographer I met on stage two came over to say hello and shoot a few photos of us.  He asked where I was from.  I told him, "Chicago, home of Christian Vande Velde."  

"Ah yes, he's an announcer now for The Tour."

He wasn't the only Frenchman I spoke with today.  While waiting for the awards ceremony to begin I asked a guy, who looked like he might be an official, if he knew who won the stage.  He didn't, but called over his wife, who was circulating with a big-leansed camera, to ask if she had heard.  She hadn't.  They were a couple of fifty-year old tourists who had stumbled upon the race. They didn't care about racing and knew little about The Tour de France, but found this fascinating.  They were an intrepid pair,  driving around Oman in a rental car camping off in the desert every night, just like me.  They were stranded here until the road was reopened, so were simply giving this event a look, something they wouldn't necessarily do back home.  They had no race heritage, as their grandparents had never taken them out to see a stage when they were little, as is customary with many French.  

They didn't know this race was put on by The Tour de France nor that it had such a world-class collection of teams and riders.  When I rattled off a few teams, including the French teams Cofidis and FDJ, none registered with them.  But when I pointed out Merckx, they both were impressed and the woman dashed off to get his photo.  When she returned to show what she had got she was giddy with glee and so was her husband.  When I noticed Prudhomme, I asked if they knew who he was.  They did.  I tested them further and asked if they knew Henri Desgrange, the founder and first director of The Tour.  They passed that test too.  "Don't tell me you don't know anything about The Tour," I scolded.  

"Ah, but everyone in France knows those things," they said.  But they couldn't kid me. They do care a little about cycling and have a respect for the sport.  They will certainly be sending their photo of Merckx to everyone they know.  When they return home, their encounter with Merckx could well be the first thing they tell everyone of their time away.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Tour of Oman, Stage Two

The nearest shade to today's finish was half a kilometer beyond the finish line in a small park.  There weren't even a hundred of us, including staff and press, gathered under the scattered trees awaiting the arrival of the peloton.  If an Australian racing enthusiastic, who taught at a private school, hadn't brought a bunch of students, there wouldn't have even been fifty people to witness the stage finish.  The kids were rambunctious and full of energy.  The teacher let them ignore a sign forbidding soccer.

Those not kicking a ball around descended upon me when they learned I had bicycled all the way from Dubai, more than five hundred miles away.  It was a feat totally beyond their comprehending.  They had never heard of someone riding their bike such a distance. They were full of questions and were encouraged by their teacher to keep them coming. One asked, "Don't you get tired?  I get tired whenever I ride my bike."  

Eddie Merckx was standing less than thirty feet away under another tree, but my bike and I were getting all the attention.  The teacher was following the progress of the peloton via twitter on his phone.  When it closed to within thirty kilometers he assembled his students to go out and brave the sun along the barriers at the finish line.

Before I could join them a French photographer with the race organization came over for a chat and a few photos. She said she was having a difficult time finding interesting shots.  It was her first time in Oman and also the first time she had ever photographed a race.  Graham Watson, the legendary English photographer is also here, but I've only seen him moments before the peloton arrives, as he's been out on the race course getting distinctive desert photos.  This woman had been hired to capture the non-racing side of the race and was having a struggle.  She thought I was quite lucky to have the freedom to be cycling around the country and camping wherever I chose.  

I could point to where I had spent the previous night just a mile away around the bend off in a cluster of trees shielded from the road by a chest high hedge.  She wondered how I bathed.  This very park, I told her, had a rest room with water.  I simply filled my water bottle at its sink and poured it over my head several times and wiped myself down with my soaked neckerchief.  I do that several times a day when its this hot at the frequent gas stations.  Fortunately,  she didn't ask what I eat, as I know my basic default evening meal in my tent of ramen and baked beans would have been an affront to her French palate.  The French usually gag when they learn I eat their favored causolette stew, when I'm in their country, cold out of the can.  Ah, but that all adds to my freedom, not compelled to search for different foods, content with the easy and simple.

Rather than stationing myself right at the finish line in the shade of the arch as I had been doing here and at Dubai I backed off a bit so I could capture the winner with his arms fully in the air. Several climbs in the final kilometers thinned out the peloton, so it was just down to a select group of eighteen strongmen including Valverde, Van Garderen, Sagan and Cancellera but minus Nibali and Rodriquez.  And the strongest of this day was the man known as Spartacus, Cancellera, who had won the inaugural Tour of Oman.

It was an uphill finish that left all the riders bent over their bikes and gasping just beyond the finish.  Cancellera whipped off his helmet and squeezed what fluid was left in his bottle down his throat. 

In the park where the podium had been set up a group of Omani musicians played traditional music.  There were almost as many of them as there were spectators.

I needed to get down the road, but I lingered for the awards presentation for the rare opportunity to be in close proximity to one of the great cyclists of our time, a man so strong that he was seriously accused of having a motor in his bike when he rode away from everyone at Paris-Roubaix one year.  Plenty of people were convinced that a flick he made with his brake lever at the time of his acceleration activated the motor hidden in his bottom bracket, a story that some still hold to be true.

It would have been nice to start riding as soon as the race finished as the road along the coast had been blocked to traffic and was still blocked as some late arrivals straggled in.  I had to ride twenty-five miles on the six-lane super highway through Muscat to just beyond the airport before I could turn inland away from the urban sprawl out into the desert.  By the time I started I had a little more than two hours before dark.  This would be my third time along this nerve-wracking, less than desirable route.  

Though I could fly along on a nice wide shoulder, I had to contend with regular on and off ramps that were sometimes two-lanes wide with surging virtual non-stop traffic.  It can literally take several minutes before there is a break in traffic to dart across.  Leana, the South Africa, had to be rescued by the police when she was stranded in the middle of the highway entering Abu Dhabi, unable to cross a couple of lanes of traffic.  I suffered that fear myself a couple times in Dubai.  There is no alternative to the super highways at times, and since so few ride bicycles here, they don't bother with forbidding bicyclists on such roads, though they easily could.

It felt good though for the first time in several days to be riding hard at the end of the day, trying to get as far down the road as I could. I had fresh legs after a couple of twenty mile days of minor meandering.  Ever since my night in the hotel on Valentine's Day I have been camping in pre-selected campsites on the fringe of Muscat, waiting until dark until I could retreat to them. I pedaled on right to dark this night and was able to set up my tent tingling with the exhilaration I had lately been deprived of.  And I could go to sleep happy to know I had a full day of cycling ahead of me the next day.  I wasn't upset at all that I would be skipping the day's third stage way out by the team hotel, as I continued heading inland seventy-five miles to Green Mountain, the stage four finish.  

I didn't have the most isolated of campsites, but it was perfectly adequate.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tour of Oman, Stage One


Twenty-one course markers indicated the way for the peloton over the final two miles of the first stage of the Tour of Oman thanks in part to three sharp turns before the finishing straightaway.  I was hoping to appropriate at least a couple of them after the conclusion of the stage.  Miraculously, I was the only one with an interest in these little treasures.  I could have had all of them.  I grabbed a quick three before the awards ceremony and then a few more afterwards.  It was hard to pass up the rest, but I can only strap so many to the back of my bike, and whatever I gathered, I'd have to transport a thousand miles over the next twenty days before I return home.  Though I have lots of friends I'd like to share them with, as I've done with those from The Tour de France, I'll only be able to please a few.

Just as with the water bottles at the Dubai Tour a week ago, this was an unprecedented windfall.  In Europe course markers are immediately pounced on as a prized souvenir by fans. And if they aren't quick  about it, a clean-up crew will soon remove them.  I'm lucky to return from my three weeks of following The Tour with five or six.  I didn't expect much fan competition here in Oman, but I didn't know how much priority  the race organizers would give to removing all evidence from the roadway that a race had just come through. At The Tour de France the authorities are highly efficient and eager to clean up one stage and be on to the next, what with twenty-one of them. And since The Tour de France sponsors this race, I feared they'd bring such efficiency with them.  But not in that respect.

A half dozen French-chattering officials with a strong Gallic suavity were overseeing a crew of Omanis and Indians preparing the finishing stretch when I arrived at noon, three-and-half hours before the peloton was due.  I was disappointed to learn that there would be no screen, large or small, televising the race for fans as is customary at The Tour and any high level race, even at Dubai.  Nor was there to be a VIP tent where there is ordinarily a screen that the riff-raff might be able to glimpse.  This was quite a small operation.  Crews were just starting to set up the finish line barriers.  Ordinarily they go on for several kilometers.  Here it was just 250 meters.

There wasn't a single other spectator when I arrived.  I meandered around a bit exploring the adjoining police academy and the two large stadiums with lights, then plopped down in the shade of a palm tree and read for a couple of hours until another fan showed up, a Scottish woman by the name of Linda, whose husband was a pilot for Omani Air.  He had lost his job with a small British Air line less than a year ago.  He was offered jobs in Kasathan and Oman.  At the time the temperature in Kasathan was minus thirty Centigrade, while in Oman it was plus thirty.  That made the decision easy for them.  So far they have been very happy with the choice.  They very much like the Omanis, but she said they aren't very hard working or ambitious, as the country is so wealthy everyone is guaranteed a government job.   

Her husband is home every night, as he just does short flights to Iran and the United Arab Emirates.  They are cycling fans and have attended The Tour de France three times.  They went to the team hotel the day before and were amazed at the access they had to the riders.  They were just hanging out and were most relaxed and approachable.  It was a stark contrast to the frenzy of The Tour and the hoards it attracts. She was shocked how skinny the racers were, even Tom Boonen, who she had the impression was a hefty, solid guy. 

She'd read many of the books on cycling that I had, including the biographies of the two most prominent Scottish riders, Robert and David Millar, both retired.  She'd also  recently read the autobiography of the French rider Bassons that I hadn't realized been translated into English.  He quit racing early in the Lance era largely because he was a strong advocate for clean racing and Lance hounded him out for his accusations that just about everyone was doping except him.  She said I could have the book and would give it to me when we next met.  She doesn't much like driving in the hectic traffic here, so wasn't planning on going all the way to the stage two finish, as I was, rather seeing the intermediate sprint, as it was near where she lived, so we couldn't make the transaction then, but hopefully on one of the later stages. 

After half an hour or so Stephen, the Polish cyclist, arrived with a couple of Polish friends and his daughter.  He was crestfallen that the hotel the teams were staying at was so distant this year.  He and each of his friends had Polish flags they were hoping to get autographed by the three Polish riders in the race. As we chatted, I scanned the handful of arriving fans hoping to spot a cyclist I had met the day before, a fifty-year old South African who had been touring the world for the past eight years.  She wasn't in Oman for the race, but rather to visit a friend before she continued on to Sri Lanka, but there was a chance she'd show up for this cycling event.  We'd had a sensational two-hour conversation we both wanted to continue.

We happened upon each other as I was pushing my bike down the sidewalk in Mutrah looking for a place with WIFI.  I noticed a tall Western woman with a shawl covering her head coming towards me.  When our eyes met, she smiled and veered over to me.  She wasn't with her bike but I noticed what appeared to be a handlebar bag strapped over her shoulder.  As we neared one another,  I asked, "Is that a handlebar bag?  Are you a cyclist too?"

Indeed she was, the most well-traveled cyclist I have ever met and most of her miles on her own, making her all the more extraordinary. Her name was Leana  and her website is  She'd only taken up touring less than a decade ago.  She was won over after joking up with a group of thirty others riding from Cairo to Cape Town with support--an annual event that she thought she would do for the hell of it despite having no touring experience.  She loved it so much she quit her job and has been traveling the world since, starting with riding back up to Cairo, except this time on her own.  

I've read a few accounts of those who have done it, but had never met anyone who had.  They all dramatize the desert terrain of the Sudan, having to push one's bike for miles through the sand and getting lost not knowing which tracks to follow.  She said she had to do some pushing, but not for long, and since the way followed the Nile, even when the tracks through the sand diverged, if one kept their bearings according to the river, one didn't have to worry about getting lost.  She was aglow like Andre in "My Dinner With Andre" with only positive energy.  I couldn't get a complaint out of her.  When she said she biked South America from bottom to top, opposite to what I had done, I asked how she had coped with the notorious head winds of Patagonia that have defeated many a cyclist.  "That's something I don't like to remember," is all she would say.

She knew she had had many extraordinary experiences thanks to the bike, but she was most humble and matter-of-fact about all her accomplishments, saying anyone could do them. There was no boasting or any attempt to impress, just a joyous sharing.   She admitted there were moments when she asked herself, "What am I doing this for?" but she knew they would pass and she'd have no doubt why she was persisting at something that wasn't always so easy.  She wild camped and had never been robbed or ever felt threatened.  She thought it was an advantage, not a disadvantage, to be a woman.  Her favorite country is India, where she is headed after Ski Lanka, and then on to Myanmar, which has just recently been opened up to cyclists, and then to China, another of her favorite countries.  She was thrilled to have acquired a visa good for a year, giving her time for Mongolia as well.

This was like meeting Bettina Selby, the English cyclist who wrote nine books about her solitary cycling tours, mostly in Africa and Asia, and didn't start touring until she was forty and her children were grown.  Leana didn't know of her. Bettina mentions being driven to tears at times, which has gotten her out of some tough scrapes.  Leana has yet to have such an experience.   She doesn't read much travel literature.  She prefers to do it herself and make discoveries on her own.  Nor did she know of the two other prominent women cyclists who've written quite a few books--Dervla Murphy of Ireland and Josie Dew of England--whose experiences also mirror hers.

This was a conversation for the ages. At first we dwelled on places we both had been and how much we loved them--Brasil, the Philippines, Australia--then we tried to pick the brains of each other on places only one of us had been and the other wished to go.  Leana was able to give me encouragement on cycling Taiwan and South Korea, while I was able to fill her in on Japan, Iceland, Morroco and Uganda.  This was a conversation that had no end, but she had to meet her friend to get a ride back to her house. At least we had each other's blogs to peruse, which could keep the conversation going indefinitely.  Plus there was the chance she'd show up at this race, but it wasn't to be.

Not many did show up, explaining why there was no need to give any extras such as a broadcast of the action for the few gathered.  Even before the helicopter appeared overhead indicating the imminence of the peloton, Linda and I noticed the soigneurs heading over to the finish line with their bags of cold drinks for the racers.  We had no problem finding a spot right at the finish line.  I was able to catch the winner, the Italian sprinter Amdrea Guardini riding for Astana just as he surged past Boonen and began lifting his hands from the handlebars to celebrate his victory.

Five minutes and three course markers later I was at the modest podium with the finishing arch in the background as he was given flowers and the red leader's jersey.

Just a few feet away Eddie Merckx was providing commentary and wondering if he knew the white-bearded guy crouched down taking his picture.

Yes, we had passed at The Tour, but never in such a casual manner as this.  It was hard to believe the Yellow, Green and Red Polka Dot Jersey winners from The Tour were all here along with quite a few of the other top riders in the world and hardly anyone was paying them any attention.  This was the sixth year this race had been held in Oman and it wasn't winning many converts.  But at least it provided some good solid early season racing for the peloton while Europe was still engulfed in winter.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Oman Miscellania

Where are all the camels?  In two weeks I've only come upon three of them, quite a contrast to my time in the Sinai a few years ago when stray camels were a common site.  Of those I've encountered here,  the first was semi-tame in a small preserve along the road out in the desert of Dubai.  It was being petted and fed by a few tourists.  The next was crouched, lashed down in the back of a pick-up truck in Oman.  The third was staked down in a field about fifty miles north of Muscat.  I didn't see him at first, as he was laying down.  It was dusk and I was looking for a place to camp.  I was in Oman's prime agricultural belt with small fields of shoulder-high corn.  The camel saw me before I saw him.  I only noticed him as he rose to his feet.  Camping in this field with a camel suddenly became all the more alluring.  But then a noticed a couple of field hands in the distance who had spotted me.  That made me push on until I found a more secluded spot.

I've had even less luck with seeing an oryx, no surprise, as they are much more elusive and not so common.  They are a regular site though on bus stops and also as a symbol of one of the gas station chains.

Gas stations are always a welcome site, as their wash rooms provide water for soaking my shirt and neckerchief and pouring over my head.  They provide a variety of cold drinks too.  Sodas are a bargain, going for as little as a quarter, about the same as a liter of gas at the pump.  I usually pay more for a premium drink of mango juice or strawberry milk.  Not so premium is mango Tang, though it more than serves the purpose of flavoring my water and making it palatable when it reaches a temperature that doesn't encourage me to imbibe much.  A little flavor helps me down a bottle of urine-temp fluid in no time.

Also among my reserves are a pound or so of dates.  If I keep munching them I have no worries of running low on energy.  In the old days Bedouins needed no more than dates and camel's milk to survive in the desert for days.  I'm fortunate that I haven't been in need of camel's milk, as it is said to be quite sour and can turn one's stomach.

Lately I've been filling my water bottles at mosques.  They always have a long row of faucets, so that those coming to pray can wash their hands and feet and splash some water on their face.  And nearby are usually three or four faucets attached to a tank of purified refrigerated water for drinking, often with a cup for those who prefer a receptacle to scooping a handful into their mouth.

The last two days while I've been hanging out along the coast near where the first two stages will be finishing I've scouted out sources of water.  A nice little oasis of a park across the road from a marina provided shade and water for washing and also an electric outlet.   A couple miles away a mosque provided drinking water.  Another source for drinking water was the nearby presidential palace.  The palace was grand and majestic without being ostentatious, fully in keeping with the traditional architecture that continues to predominate here.  This is an Arabic country that hasn't buckled to the skyscraper.

Beds of flowers and stretches of grass are its only exterior concession to the times.

A few miles down the coast was a second palace at Al Bustan, where stage two will finish.  It too was a stunning, sprawling monument with the stark, rugged terrain as a backdrop.

In front of it was a huge roundabout with the wooden dhow, the traditional sailing vessel of the Omanis, that noted adventurer Tim Severin used to sail to China from Oman in 1980 with a crew of Omanis--a journey of nearly 4,000 miles that took eight months.

Oman abounds with roundabouts, maybe explaining why The Tour de France organization wished to sponsor a race here.

Even as I've been largely hanging out these past two days, resting my legs and conserving energy, I have failed to attract any youth.  They are all diligently attending school.  The small goat herds out in the desert aren't even attended by young herders as is customary in similar such habits.  The goats are left to wander on their own, trusted to return to their owners for food and drink.  Just about anywhere else I have traveled I would have had young boys pestering me for a water bottle.  They see the three mounted to my bike and don't think I need them all.  They'd be positively demanding if they saw my present bike with an extra eight or nine extra bottles lashed to my panniers.  Some places boys wouldn't ask, they'd just try to grab.   There is not a hint of that here.  

I can go into a hypermarket and leave my bike unattended for fifteen minutes or more and have no concern that someone might appropriate a bottle or two.  The only two kids who have approached me only wanted to shake my hand.  From the helpful adults to the respectful kids, Oman has been a most gracious place to travel, on a par with Japan for the politeness and niceness of the people. 

I've met quite a few Omanis who have studied in Europe and the US.  They have all enjoyed their time there, but have had no desire to immigrate.  There are no significant communities of Omanis in the US, as they enjoy their country too much to want to leave, despite the blistering summer temperatures.  These seem to be a rare contented, untroubled people.  I am fortunate that the Sultan has chosen to sponsor a bike race that drew me to his country.  Many more should come.  And tomorrow the racing commences.  I am eager and ready.  I have a campsite staked out in a small arroyo behind some trees less than two miles from the hotel I stayed at two nights ago.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Mutrah, Oman

Although the distant and isolated Millennium Hotel and Resort, that is Tour of Oman headquarters and will be hosting all eighteen teams and their eight riders and staff, had no race programs or brochures on offer four days before the race is to commence when I made the seventy-five mile ride out there from Muscat two days ago, the concierge did share with me the stage route information she had.  It was just what I wanted--much more detailed maps than available on line of each of the six stages and estimated times it would take the peloton to ride each stretch of road of all the stages.  

I sat in the lobby of the deluxe hotel among the upper crust copying down all the information and taking advantage of the hotel's WIFI and electricity.  There were no racers ambling about, as none of the teams had arrived yet, many wrapping up the Tour of Qatar over 500 miles away.  This was the first time in its six editions that the race had based itself at the Millennium.  In previous years it had used a hotel in the city.  This would entail considerable transfers for the riders.  Most of the stages started nearby, but ended a long ways away, inflicting a not very welcome two hour or longer drive back to the hotel in buses much less luxurious than the riders are accustomed to.  If they had a union, they might be mounting some grievances.

I didn't altogether object to my long ride out to the hotel and back, as it allowed me for the first time some cycling along the Arabian Sea and a couple of dips.  Long stretches were lined with fishing boats and small shanties.  The beaches were otherwise quiet and uninhabited, more scarred by tire tracks than foot prints.

I was also able to get a taste of quite a few miles of the various stages, as course markers had been posted for all of them, though there was no defining which markers were for which stage.  They criss cross one another, so it could be hazardous to start following course markers unless I was absolutely certain where they were leading, as they could take me a long ways from where I intended to go. They heat and relentless sun (I have yet to see a cloud) discouraged me from wanting to unnecessarily meander.  Many miles will be ridden on super highways.  The below may be called a street, named for the current Sultan, but it is actually a six-lane divided highway through the heart of the city with two lanes merging from the right at this intersection.

Unlike when following The Tour de France course markers, I couldn't turn off my navigational systems and simply follow the arrows.  I had to remain alert as to where they were taking me.  Still each and every one gave me a jolt of joy knowing I was on a race route and that I was in Oman of all places. They were also a strong reflection on the integrity and goodwill of the Omanis being posted better than a week before they were needed without any concern of their being prematurely appropriated as souvenirs.  Racing fans elsewhere would not be able to resist temptation for such a prolonged period.  In Europe they are erected just the day before and are largely respected.  Only rarely does some miscreant snatch one before the peloton passes.

I've already got my eyes on a handful of markers in the finishing stretches of several of the stages.  I've been able to scout out all six of the finishes and feel well prepared.  I can somewhat relax the next two days, perhaps finding a beach to hang out at down the coast and taking my first rest.  I've ridden 800 miles since I arrived in Dubai  eleven days ago and haven't made as big of a dent in the four books I brought along as I would have liked.  And I just downloaded a Peter Mayle ebook I had on reserve from the Chicago Public Library in preparation for another summer in France.  The marvels of this technological age never cease.

Nor does the generosity and the goodwill of the Omanis.  Motorists continue to stop to express interest in my welfare, even giving me their phone number in case I have need of any assistance.  The latest was an Omani/Indian duo as I backtracked to the old port and fishing village of Mutrah that is just two miles from the Sultan's palace.  They too were amazingly cordial and good-hearted.  They got a good laugh that friends feared for my life coming to Oman, assuming that it being Islamic and in the Middle  East that I was putting my neck at great risk. No one has been upset by such a misconception, just amused. They knew I could camp anywhere and not worry.

I had just visited the stage two finish at Al-Bustan a bit down the coast and was returning to Mutrah, which Lonely Planet said had the cheapest hotels in Muscat, though cheap in Oman is forty dollars.  Food and drink are a bargain.  I haven't even been spending five dollars a day, but lodging is not.  I was going to spend my first not in a hotel since I arrived because it was Valentine's Day and I owed Janina a call.  With the ten hour time difference it wasn't really feasible to call her during the day-light hours. 

The cheapest hotel in Mutrah was closed. The next cheapest next door, overlooking the port, had risen its rates making it more expensive than a cheap hotel in America, An English woman of my age had arrived just before I had and joined me as we looked at our options.  She had spent several hours looking for a bargain hotel and admitted that this would have to do even though it was more than she anticipated.  We might have agreed to share a room, but such a suggestion might have gotten us a visit for the police.  I've had no sense of censure, nor gotten any dirty looks for wearing shorts despite notices on some stores that they are discouraged, but sharing a room with a woman I had just met might have been pushing it.

The hotel had WIFI, but it was too feeble for FaceTime and Skype is blocked here. I tried an Internet cafe.  Its signal was strong enough to get the ringing tone but fell short of connecting, so we had to settle with an email exchange.  At least Janina was able to send a brief ballet routine and Valentine greeting she had just taped in her living room--another technological marvel that somewhat made it feel like Valentine's Day.  I asked the two guys I met along the road if they were acknowledging the day.  They were both aware of the day, but the young Omani said he didn't have a girl friend and the older Indian said his wife was back in India and they were having a tiff. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Muscat, Oman

Just moments after I had stopped to take refuge from the piercing noon sun at a bus stop shelter, even before I had had a chance to get off my feet, a car stopped and a young man from the driver's seat asked, "Are you okay?  Do you need any help?"

"No, I'm just taking a break from the sun," I said.

"I'm a cyclist too," he said.  "I live just two kilometers from here. Would you like to come to my house for a shower?"

He truly was a cyclist to make such an offer.  His shaved legs and Orica-Green water bottle in a cup holder between the front seats further confirmed it.  Though I'd doused myself earlier in the day in a stream, it wasn't a very thorough cleaning.  It'd been six days since I'd had a shower, so I couldn't say no.

It turned out my benefactor was Polish.  Szczepan (Stephen) had been in Oman eighteen months with his wife and young daughter.  His wife taught English at a nearby university.  He was a ski instructor and personal trainer back home.  There was no skiing here, but he did help some locals with their physical fitness and also served as a cycling coach for a handful of cyclists, though none were as serious about the sport as he was.

He could well qualify as the premier cycling enthusiast in the country, other than me. Just inside the entry to his house was a Polish flag that had been autographed by four cyclists from last year's Tour of Oman, including the Swiss star Fabian Cancellera, who holds the record for the most days in the Yellow Jersey at The Tour de France for riders who have not actually won The Race.  Another autograph was of the lone Polish rider in last year's Tour of Oman along with a pair of his numbers that he wore during the race. 

In his daughter's bedroom was an Omani course maker, Tour de France style, mounted on the wall, complete with the pair of puncture wounds in the middle that the wire had been wound through to hold it in place on a pole.

He was excited that there would be three Polish riders in this year's race, including Rafal Majka, the Tinkoff-Saxo rider who won the climber's competition at last year's Tour de France along with two stages.  He planned on being at every stage again this year.  For five of them it would be an hour-and-a-half drive into Muscat.  For the stage four climb up Green Mountain, the most dramatic and decisive of the race, he could ride to, as the start of the climb was just a kilometer from where we had met.   He said there had been only one foreign fan that he was aware of at last year's race, an English guy.  He had all the scavenging largely to himself.  He gathered over a hundred water bottles and bags full of energy bars from the teams at the end of the race, not wanting to have to fly them back to Europe.  The race was still five days away.  We planned on seeing a lot of each other during the race.  And he volunteered to drive me back to his house for the Green Mountain stage, as it would be a one hundred mile ride from the coast.

While I showered, he cooked up a nice little feast of eggs, potatoes and bacon.  If I had been there a week earlier his mother would have been doing the cooking.  She was visiting from Chicago, where she now lived.   As we ate, we scanned the Tour of Oman website orienting ourselves to the various stages.  They don't all start at the same place as they did in Dubai, but are scattered up and down the long coastal area of Muscat's sprawl.  We also took a glance at Stephen's Facebook feature on his cycling in Oman available to all--cyclOman.  Though it may have been mere happenstance we had met, as Stephen was just returning from a 25-mile training ride and had picked up his daughter at her school, it may well have been preordained that two such enthusiasts would be brought together when they were in such close proximity to one another.

I cycled thirty miles further until dark, camping half a mile off the main highway, leaving me seventy miles from Muscat.  I had a nice shoulder all to myself on a busy four-lane divided highway.  How there could be so much traffic in a country of not much more than three million people I knew not.  And the traffic only thickened as I closed in on the city.  The urban area sprawls for over fifty miles along the coast and began twenty miles away from the interior where I had enjoyed such minimal traffic.  As I closed in on the city the road was bounded by a corridor of grass and trees with sprinklers spraying water.  It was a genuine oasis compared to the desolate terrain of my last couple of hundred miles.  I passed embassy row of magnificent bright white buildings.  There were no futuristic skyscrapers blighting this urban scape.  Muscat remained true to its roots.  There wasn't a building taller than ten stories and none trying to stand out, all blending into a harmonious whole.  The scenery brightened even further when I came upon the first of many billboards advertising the upcoming race, featuring Cancellera up front.

But even more glorious was the first of a series of course markers, a site that always fills me with cheer, though I knew not where these would take me.

If they marked a stage, they were up very early.  Usually they aren't mounted until the day before each stage.  I thought maybe they would lead me to the hotel where all the teams were staying.  But I learned from the Ministry of Tourism that the hotel was actually sixty miles from the town center, well past the airport at Al Musanaah.  I feared I might have to stay at a hotel in town, my first of the trip, but since the Ministry of Tourism had no race or route information, other than what was available on line, I continued on biking out of town to the race headquarters at the hotel hoping for printed material of more detail than given on line.

On the way I came upon a cluster of young cyclists.  It was the junior and cadet national cycle teams just setting out on a training ride.  I stopped for a chat with their coach.  He said he knew Stephen and would be seeing a lot of him next week.  We couldn't talk long as he was driving behind his riders, but before he took off he presented me with a banana. 

As dark approached the coastal corridor wasn't offering any patch of wilderness for camping so I headed inland to the desert.  It took five miles, putting me over one hundred miles for the day, my most by twenty miles of these travels.  For the first time too I set up my tent in the dark and not in the most isolated of places, but I had no concerns for my safety.  I was somewhat disappointed to have to push on so far to the team hotel and not to have gotten all the race information I wanted in town, but I could happily end the day in my tent after Another Great Day on the Bike.