Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Catching up ...

Phew! I’ve fallen a bit behind, so it’s time to do some catching up. This was for a couple of reasons, not my slackness I hope you realise. Well…

Anyway, posting in Scandinavia became problematic for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, time in an internet café was expensive. Secondly, they weren’t really conducive to blog-ing. Generally they were impersonal: unstaffed, put money in a slot, get a password, and use a PC with Internet Explorer and not much else. No Skype, no download of camera, no download of any applications. I think this is because everyone in techno savvy Scandinavia is mobile. They all use internet and Skype from their mobile phones. The staffed internet cafes had a few PCs tucked away in the corner, but acres of PCs all networked for computer games. Thirdly, I had better things to do!

Anyway, the next posting (below) has been re-titled by adding (Revisited). That’s because as part of my catch-up I’ve gone back to it, added some photos, a few more lines, and corrected typos and spelling errors that got included in the rush.

So, if you have read it without the (Revisited) you might want to have another look –maybe. And if it’s your first visit you’ll be none the wiser. And the way it happens, you’ve probably got to here through my catch up stories.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Watch out for the vikings! (Revisited)

Suddenly, Spain is gone.

It makes me wonder about how easily this happens. But rather than think of some shiftless trait, I'd like to believe that it is due to having a broad comfort zone. Mind you, gone but not forgotten.

With Germanic efficiency we are whisked from Berlin to Hamburg. Fields of wheat, poppies and sunflowers - long gone in the Andalucian heat. The whole train rolls straight onto a super ferry for the crossing to Denmark.

København is to be our initial Denmark base. And a bloody nice place to wash up. A tourist office newspaper states: "Unfortunately many people criticise Copenhagen as being expensive. In reality, it is on a par with New York and London." Let me clarify. It's expensive. But quite a party town.

And what a language! Words seem extremely long with strings of repeated consonants, liberal doses of js and ys thrown mid word and then the vowels have little circles or double dots over them or slashes through os. But everyone speaks perfect English, and probably German, and French, and ... But the written word is nearly all Danish. And there's no correlation to English words. One word I have got the hang of though: Mad, which translates as food. That's important.

It's hard to tell if the name of this yacht is poetic, romantic, whimsical or something more powerful, But one thing for sure, it certainly doesn't roll off the tongue of an Anglophone.

I tried to understand some Danish TV news. I'm pretty sure the lead story was about a train being a minute and twenty seconds late. Everything is neat and tidy, everything works, everything is so organised, the people are polite - and handsome. And speaking of trains: international, domestic and commuter trains all have wi-fi hot spots in each carriage.

There's much acknowledgement to literary history. Hans Christian Andersen statues litter parks. Not to mention the poor, sad, little mermaid down by the tourist inundated harbour side.

But a really cool thing for us was completing another of those travel connections. As I've written about in the past, we visited the Karen Blixen house outside Nairobi, Kenya. Travelling, I read Out of Africa. Now we were able to visit her birthplace, and where she returned home to, Rungstedlund, and completed all her writings. And she features on the basic Danish banknote, the 50 kroner.

And my book for this trip: Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (Doubleday, 2003). It's another from the stack that was at the side of the bed in Wilton. There's three or four more, now on their way to London. It's quite a read, but written with the characteristically Bryson readability and his beguiling narrative style. But already his layman's explanations mean I now understand what the theory of relativity is about - not the theory, just what it is about. And he gives the best explanation, making it quite simple really, of the Doppler Effect.

And here's something I didn't know, despite having visited. Dublin, Ireland, was founded by Danish Vikings as a ship building centre. (Live and learn, or travel and learn seems more appropriate.) Excitement was building as we visited a Viking museum in Roskilde. We will miss it by a few days, but the Havingsten fra Glendalough (The Sea Stallion of Glendalough), a replica of the Skuldelev 2 Viking ship built in Dublin in 1042AD returns from Dublin. It will be completing a 38 day trip around the south coast of England and back through the North Sea. This follows a 2007 trip from Denmark up to Norway, across to the islands of northern and western Scotland, down to the Isle of Man and then Dublin. It's a 30m long vessel, 4m wide, that took 7,000 iron rivets, 334 trees and 48,000 man hours between 2004-2007 to build. The video of the 62-man and women crew sailing it across the North Sea is pretty alarming.

On a Sunday afternoon we got to watch the finish of the Tour of Denmark cycle race. A six-stage event, contested by all the top teams, but by
'reserves' or 'apprentice' riders. The final 165km stage finished with seven laps in the inner city. There was a half dozen Aussies competing.

But the surprise was that they had a 'King of the Mountain' grade. I don't think I have seen a hill in Denmark. In fact the highest spot in the country is 172.5 metres - they need that 0.5.

But, CSC Saxo Bank riders took out first and second place in the big sprint to the finish. And for the record, Jakob Furgslag, a Danish local riding for Team Design Kokken won the tour.

We went across to an island the Danes call Hven, and the Swedes Ven. It's closest to Denmark, but is part of Sweden - handed over years ago as a settlement between the two warring neighbours. Ven was granted to one Tycho Brahe, a nobleman, and between 1576 and 1597 he created one of the first research institutes in the history of science, studying astronomy, meteorology, cartography and early medicines. It became a meeting place for scholars from all over Europe. Astronomy was his main interest, and today a series of planet information sculptures are placed around the island. There is also a statue of Tyco staring into the heavens.

Brahe was one of the believers that Earth was the centre of the universe, though conceded that the other planets did orbit the sun which, in turn, orbited Earth. He was at odds with Copernicus. However, one Johannes Kepler, well known to Kiwis and one of Brahe's first scholars on Ven, used all good old Tyco's collected data to in turn prove that Copernicus's theory was right - the sun was the centre of the universe. Again, live and learn or travel and ...

The island is a rural, low key place rather gorgeous on the eye. We experienced the most rain since Ethiopia a year ago, after three lovely days in Copenhagen. However, a climate with rain does make for green grass fields (with huge hares bounding about) and lush forests - something we have missed in Andalucia. But the farm cottage was a lovely place to hunker down.

The weather didn't stop us from getting out and about for some brisk walks. Our second day was much better, and we hired bikes and rode the network of cycle paths on sturdy, single speed bikes that felt like a steamroller after the Orbea. The cycle paths made great running tracks as well. There are power generating wind turbines all over Denmark (Europe it seems) but it was a surprise to see rows of them in the ocean on the way to the island.

Bikes and running remind me of events back in Copenhagen. I haven't seen so many bikes since Beijing. But man, you have to look out and take care as a pedestrian. Don't step off the footpaths without a good look for bikes. And running, oh boy, the lakes and canals make for some nice runs. But the tanned, blond chicks out running. Enough.

The label on the reverse side of a Tuborg stubby reads:

1. Seize bottle
2. Remove cap
3. Indulge.

No nonsense those Danes.

aka Max

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Time is up in Spain

Ten and a half months is now up. It's time to move on from Antequera, and Spain.

It had to happen. It has been a fantastic experience. But new things await.

As much as I have written about the sights of Antequera, its the small things that count. The regular cafes and bars, favourite newsagent and stationery store, the supermarket, the neighbours, the sitting in the Plaza Portachuelo outside Shithole Arriba aka Cafe La Soccorrio, watching football at Cafe Diego's, I'll never get over the view form Plaza Coso Viejo, the bike club, the rides through Andalucían countryside, the Moors history, the Catholic Kings reconquest. The list goes on.

I never thought I'd write this after years of New Zealand weather, but the weather here is unrelenting. We get out just in time apparently. August is just way too hot. Already local businesses, they are nearly all family run affairs, are closing as they head to la playa, the beach, for the month.

But I've braced myself for this. Nothing too emotional. We have loved Antequera and to return would be very easy. But we think that maybe when we do come back, in a year or so, we should try somewhere else for a change. Probably somewhere where Castillian is spoken a bit more regularly, not like the crazy Andalucíans. That would help our language skills somewhat. We'll see.

We also have a small group of Brit ex-pats to say goodbye to. They have provided a bit of 'normality'.

Anyway. We're off, Thursday 31st. We fly to Berlin, then train overland via Hamburg and onto Denmark. A quick visit into Sweden on the way to Norway, and back to Sweden. Then its across to Finland, and then onto the Baltic States - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania before heading into Poland. The original plan had been to go from Helsinki on the famous train route to St. Petersberg, Russia and onto Moscow. But, that was problematic. We would have had to send our passports home for visas. You can get them in London if you can prove you have lived 'legally' in the UK for three months, which we have not done. Or apply in Madrid, if you can prove you have lived 'legally' in Spain for three months - which creates one small problem.

But no worries. We will end up in London later in September, to find a flat, and find jobs!!! So that's another whole exciting prospect ahead. Earn some pounds. Head back to Spain, probably, and some more travelling.

The boxes and bags are packed - the computer is about the last thing. So I better get off and ...

aka Max

Monday, July 28, 2008

Last ride in Spain

We returned from Menorca on Saturday night, straight back into real heat. In the past no matter how warm, I used always sleep under a sheet. Here it's on top of the bed and that's it.

Sunday morning and I joined my cycling club for my last ride. It was El Torcal de Antequera club's turn to host the get together of clubs from towns in the district. We rode out to meet other clubs as they rode to Antequera.

We all rode together and back to the Plaza de Castille for the traditional desayuno, breakfast, of mollete, aciete, jamon and now that it's hot refresco (cold softdrink) instead of cafe.

It's a real feeding frenzy.

With the club demon, 73-year old Pepe. He is all but a neighbour.

These three have played a big part in making me welcome in the club. Left to Right: Jorge, Manolo, y Roberto.

Then it's pay back time for when the other clubs take us out for a 'race' around one of their local circuits. Club Ciclista El Torcal takes them up to their naming source - the El Torcal National Park. It's only 12km from town, but after 8km it gets serious. This was my Caraterra de Montana ride when first here, but once we get to the top of that ride (which includes a stretch of 16% climb) we turn off for the last four kilometres to the top - never less than 9% , with a 14% section. A nasty little bugger. And to top it off , it was hot - like 40 degrees. Some of the jokers from other clubs actually turned up with their mountain bikes to help them make the climb.

It's solid going, as Juanjo, owner of the local cycle store - Ciclos 2000, shows.

It's a grinder alright.

Just about to crest the last of the climb. And yes, that is the Mad Max number plate.

I was having fun. Really.

I got to the top pretty well. So I should with the training I had recently done for the L'Étape. And it was my last chance to flex some muscle with my companeros. Deb rode one of the vans -Yep, the club has three vans all sponsored by local businesses -and a chance to get a few shots of some of my club mates.

A couple of important jokers here, all standing. On the left Juan, who took me under his wing on my very first ride with the club, he speaks no English. In the centre, Jose Antonio, a good bloke and club captain. He speaks no English. And, on the right, another Jose Antonio who became my real riding buddy, especially on Saturdays with the strong boys and on club Sundays. He speaks no English.

I admit, I felt a bit of aprehension on the ride down, but that quickly went when the brakes worked OK. On this stretch of downhill I hit 73.2 kph the first time I came down -when I didn´t know the road. I hadn´t gone close since. On this, the last time, I gave it a nudge but could only crack 70.06kph (yep my new computer, the old one was stolen on the bike, produces two decimal points). But my mate, Jose Antonio, and I both passed the club president who had done the trip on a scooter.

So that's it. I was lucky to find a good club which I really enjoyed. There is actually three clubs in Antequera, plus a triathlon club. But the time has come. Who knows, we might all meet again.

aka Max


Time for a 'holiday'.

We flew to Menorca, in the Balaeric Islands, to meet bro BOK, Sally, and the boys for a week of holiday break.

And yet another Spanish language.

Lovely spot. Great beaches, fantasic swimming bays, and a manageable and pleasantly cooler 30-33ͦC. Swimming, swimming, swimming.

We stayed at Sol de Este, from where we could watch the comings and goings of the yachts and pleasure launches of Europe's wealthy. Man, is there ever some money tied up in these craft.

Anyway, as has been the case many times for Deb and I during out time in Spain, we arrived for a fiesta week, this time that of Sant Juame.

It kicked off on the Sunday morning with an Urbana Milla race, which was in fact 1,950 meters long - so call it a 2km race. Anyway I scored a podium finish, photo with the mayor and the running club president, for my third place in the over 50s. Sister-in-law Sally scored second in the womens over 40. BOK and the boys all ran, Deb gave this one a miss.

The Spaniards have an inherent craziness. You know of the running the bulls. But Menorca is famous for horses. On the Thursday evening, the fiesta programme lists a jaleo. This begins with horses walking casa-a-casa, from house to house, collecting horses positioned around town. As each one joins the procession it does a stand on its hind quarters, rearing into the air.

They make their way to the Plaza Mayor where they are joined by a band. It really starts warming up now. All the bars in town have set up outside on the footpaths. Customers have started getting rather merry, having already started kicking off on Pomada - Menorcan gin and lemonade, which is consumed by the bucket loads.

The band marches around town, stopping at the bars, consuming Pomada.

The horses follow all doing hind leg stands at each bar, some ride into the bars to have a Pomada.

Everything is humming by now. They make their way back to the Plaza Mayor where the real jaleo begins, translated as 'uproar'. This is a real Rark Up.

Two by two the horses - all two year old stallions, fiesty beasts, canter straight into the crowd standing on the sawdust strewn plaza, then rear up and prance two legged through the thronging crowd. The crowd, mostly males, then all push in and attempt to hold the horse up in the rear standing position. The story, apparantly, is that if you can touch the horse near the heart, its strength will be passed onto you. The other version is that if you can touch near the heart, you will in turn become hung like a horse. For either reason, plenty of young men were keen to get in there and hold the horse up, pushing near its heart.

There were 30 horses that went 'around the block' many times to repeat the activity. It went well into the morning.

They repeated it Friday afternoon.

But Friday night is another crazy happening. The horses raced two at a time at full speed. It all starts off pretty orderly but gets a little out of control when crowds start pushing in from both sides of the street trying to give the horses a smack on the rump. Crazy stuff.

The lady mayor of the town is a keen horse woman, and she was there, full on, for both events. It's the sort of thing you just can't imagine being allowed at home, yet here it is just considered part of the fun, with the mayor taking part boots and all.

Friday night finished with a spectacular fireworks display over the harbour.

A great week, in which the Spanish got very excited when Carlos Sastre took over leadership, and went on to win, the Tour de France. Marca went to 10 pages of coverage. And Rafa won in Toronto, and looks a real threat to take over Roger Federer's number one spot. And Spain is going to win bucket loads of gold in Beijing - if you believe Marca.

Lying on the beach gave me a chance to read Eric Newby's, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (Secker & Warburg, 1958). I had this book shipped from NZ. My attention was first drawn to it when I was crewing in the Melbourne to Hobart Yacht Race, 1986. But that's another whole story, but did generate for me a term I have come to use called 'an Eric Newby experience'. I eventually tracked down my Picador, 1981 edition at Ferrits Bookshop, in Cuba, Wellington which oddly enough lead me to the Nambour Book Exchange, Nambour, Sunshine Coast, Queensland in December 2006, where I bought Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari, which I told you all about sixteen months ago from South Africa. But that is all yet another story.

Anyway, Menorca was our chance to say our farewells to bro and family. They will stay on in Spain until mid 2009 before moving back to England with his job. Expect we'll spend more time with them again there.

Back to Antequera, and to say our farewells there. Not without a few pangs.

aka Max

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Starting to wind down in Spain

I took things pretty easy for the fortnight following the ride. I was pretty sore from the crash, though just scrapes and bruising. I was also plain tired for the first couple of days from a demanding weekend of travel arrangements.

But it gave me time to start slowly packing up our belongings for the imminent departure from Spain.

I was also able to watch quite a bit of the Tour live, in real time. Spain was in a state of vergüenza - disgrace or shame, following the two cyclists and the Spanish based team out of the tour on doping charges. The daily sports newspaper, Marca, which runs six full pages daily on the Tour, ran a Salvemos al ciclismo - save cycling campaign.

We also caught the bus to Malaga, and went to the beach. Such a treat in the heat, swimming in the Mediteranean.

And the British Olympic Triathlon team turned up in Antequera for some last peak training. There's a strong triathlon club in Antequera that uses the Aqua Slava training facilities, and they pull in some pretty good results in National championships. Two members, one woman and one man, are in the Spanish Olympic team. One of the Brits reckon the ride up the Torcal is the toughest he has ever done. I wonder.

Friday night is club night for the cycling club, and since the last Friday night in Antequera has come around Deb and I knocked up an invitation to members to join us for a few drinks and nibbles at the club rooms. It was a pleasant evening with a good group turning up to say goodbye to us.

What was somewhat overwhelming was being presented with a plaque which translated (from the usual poetic and flowery Spainish) read:

club logo.

El Club Ciclista El Torcal de Antequera

To Max and Deborah

"In acknowledgement of the friendship that we have been offered, and always for the memory for this group of cyclists and the many friends that you have made. Until always. Antequera July 2008."

It was nice to think that I had made a bit of a mark during my time with Club Ciclista El Torcal de Antequera. The plaque suggested as much.

We were heading to Menorca for a week next morning, and my last ride with the club would be the following Sunday, when it's Antequera's turn to host the regular get together of clubs from other towns in the district. That will be it for Spanish cycling, for now, as we will leave four days later.

aka Max

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Ride - a postscript

As you might expect, we got to watch stage 10 live on Spanish TV.

An eye-opener. I got to see the countryside I had ridden through. Rain and low cloud meant I saw virtually nothing of it. No wonder it was cold at the top, there was snow up there on mountain tops!

Watching the Tourmalet downhill brought a shiver down my spine. I saw the track I shot off the road on, and some off the other driveways I used. And as they went up Hautacam, where I had my prang on the way back down. Man, it was so close to the bottom - they had only just started climbing up. When I cleaned up the bike, a few days later, my bike computer showed max speed of 83.47kph !!! Holy Shit! And, of course, now all cleaned up, the brakes work perfectly. I don't know. The bike is fine, though I have had to have handle bar tape replaced - it was pretty ragged. A few small scrapes on the brake hoods - badges of honour!

But it appears Caisse d'Epargne's Alejandro Valverde knew something, when after stage nine he said, "Let's hope that the weather will be as nice as today; otherwise the downhill of the Tourmalet could be more difficult than the climb." (http://www.cyclingnews.com/) Well, it was for them but ...

The highlights package didn't do justice to the climbs. It was good reliving them, being able to see what I rode up. Man they were tough. I was gobsmacked at the cadence those boys could turn over on those mountains. I see they were over an hour quicker than first in our event. But we did go 14 km further!! I realise afterwards also that because of my stop and slow downhill, I was probaly struggling up through slower guys on the Hautacam.

The 1520-metre Hautacam comes at the end of a 156-kilometre day, preceded by two category three climbs and the Col du Tourmalet. "I have never raced the Hautacam; I have only done it in training," Sastre [CSC team rider] said after stage nine. "It is a really hard mountain. The gradient stays the same all the way up – from eight to 10 percent – and you don't have any time to recover." (http://www.cyclingnews.com/)

But watching on TV reminded me of a couple of things. How even though you tucked in behind the man in front (there were a few women, not many, and some very good) you rode just a little wide to avoid his rooster-tail of road water flying into your face. Also, all the wet, slippery, white lines. Especially when you went around right angle corners, you rode over treacherous pedestrian crossings going into, and out of , the corners in vilages and usually painted atop speed bumps.

And, the big one. My Aussie boy Cadel Evans took the yellow jersey on my stage! And he came off the day before as well!

I am trying to put the prang aside. I feel really pleased with my efforts on the true ride of this stage, the mountains.

aka Max

Friday, July 11, 2008

The big bike ride

"Every year, many cyclists are surprised with the difficulty of the itinerary of the ride. This year, once again, you will be attacking mountain passes with steep inclines." Le Guide - The Guide, 2008 Entrants program.

I soon discovered, averages are a statistical cover-up job.

I trained for this event across seasons. Starting off in winter, and despite glorious days, surprised at how cold it was setting off each day. Paddocks between the many olive groves had been ploughed, exposing red soil. On one of my long rides across the plains, I could ride for approx. 120 kms passing five pueblos, but nothing else except olives.

Then came primavera, spring. Rippling green wheat fields. Fields of blazing red poppies. Wildflowers in all colours lining the roadside. And in later spring, in a real Tour scene, masses of suflowers. All towns celebrate primavera with a feria, a fair. (Antequera had a big three day event, similiar to Brisbane's Ekka or a NZ A&P show.) On a number of occasions, I arrived in towns to wait behind women in polka-dotted, flamboyant dresses riding horses side-saddle behind men wearing Córdoban hats and leather breeches. They gathered along with others walking behind gypsy like caravans making their way to the town's paseo where guitars and castanets would be playing. I never came across that on rides up the Akatarawa Valley, I tell you.

Then at the start of June, it started getting hot. Real hot. I had to finish rides by 1:30, and then I never got back at less than 36ͦC. I'd then siesta through the 40ͦ plus afternoons. By the time of the big ride it had become scorched earth. The wheat had been harvested leaving straw stubble, wild flowers were a dried up tangle, and sunflowers had been harvested leaving sad remains. A heat haze hung over the now drab grey olive trees.

I rode Sundays with my club. Saturdays were with five or six guys from the club - we were all over 40 drop outs from Paco's groupo fuerte - in what was my effort season of the week: 120 kms usually nuts out, plenty of big hills. The rest of the week, two or three rides were on my own, with a long ride thrown in, usually doing 430-470 km per week (I did do two weeks of over 500km), and 140-150km long rides (once I did 166km).

Every six weeks, there was a club ride that met clubs from all around the district. Up to 500 of us would doodle around, picking up clubs from towns as we went, usually breaking into an unproclaimed race during the 30km, or so, loop we would do around the host town. One club, fom Campillos, almost caused a riot when the molletes, aciete, jamon, y cafe (breadrolls, olive oil, ham and coffee) turned up 20 minutes late. Dangerous move keeping a Spaniard waiting for his food.

One Sunday at club, a joker turned up obviously well known by all - lots of handshaking, hugging, and two-cheek kissing. I got invited to a ride with him on the following Tuesday. As we went up some hills I noticed he was still in big ring with several gears left. Something was up here. Gregorio, as it turns out, is a 16 year professional, currently riding with Caisse d'Epargne. But his job is purely as a training partner for the big boys. He has never had a start in a major.

My own riding progressed well. I was getting fitter and stronger. I could now dance up the Carratera de Montana, my nemesis when I first arrived in Antequera (and which I have since learned has sections of 16% climbs). I'd get stuck in and mix it with the front boys of the club on the mountain climbs, and there were some beauties. I built a bit of a reputation for myself for being sort of strong on the hills.

I started to feel that I was as ready as I wanted to be, had to be, needed to be for the big ride.

But all this riding did not make Mad a dull boy. Life ticked along nicely. When I'd get home from a ride, and the next day was a rest day, we'd be off - bus or train - and overnight at towns or cities across Andalucía. Sometimes day trips. And at some of the most beautiful of small places. I also read the tome A Stranger in Spain by H. V. Morton (Methuen, 1955). A book written in a style of its time. But really informative, and one Deb and I started to use as a pre-trip planning guide.

It's now July and time for the race. It would be stage 10 of this year's Tour, except we'd do 169km but the boys on the tour would do 155km on this stage. To get 8,000 people out of Pau required a different ride than for 180 of the Tour race. All the pre-race talk was about the two 'hills', Tourmalet and Hautacam. But there are two category three climbs as warm up along the 103km to Pied du Col du Tourmalet. But in fact you are riding 19.6km of steady uphill before reaching the 'official' start of the Tourmalet climb. The Tourmalet climb is 23.4km long, and Hautacam is 15.2km.

I had no expectations. I had but one target: not to be caught by the 'grim reaper' - to be thrown into the bus by the sweep up wagon. Over 1,600 were caught this year. I just wanted to ride 'well'. To be honest, I am still but a cycling babe with one year of training for Ironman, a year and a half off, and now a very interrupted eight months (more like four months serious.)

Entries are limited to 5,500 French entrants, and 3,500 foreigners. I understand 7,800 picked up their race numbers.

I was staying in Lourdes (Man! What a tacky place. I've never seen so many cripples, people in wheelchairs, walking frames, hospital trolley-beds in one place. And, you can bulk buy 5 litre bottles of Holy Water!) which was only a 10km cycle path ride from the finish base camp. But it meant a 45km ride to Pau on Saturday morning where you registered, stored your bike, and visited the big Cycling Expo on display.

As I rode leisurely to Pau, in the lightest of drizzle, I came off while crossing, at very slow speed, a railway line. Not 100% sure, but I don't think I slipped on the line but the smooth concrete either side of the tracks. A bit of skin off the elbow, a bruise on the bum when I landed on top of my allen-key tool in my shirt back pocket, and a smashed helmet. That's why you wear them. But nothing really, I was fine. Talk for the rest of the day was about all the people that came off on the railway tracks. Picked up a new helmet at the Expo.

The big drama was all the people flying from England whose bikes hadn't turned up. All were sorted eventually, but some not until 1:00am race morning.

The weather forecast for Sunday race day was crap. After months of heat training, not a cloud for months, the race start in Pau was 15ͦ C and raining. It was going to be cold on the mountain tops.

We were started by race number, in blocks of 1,000. Apparently taking the best part of half an hour to get everyone rolling. I started in the third wave, the 2,000s.

It was the usual start to this type of event. Some take off like shit from a shanghai, others a bit more reserved. Almost straight way people started tripping over each other and going down, usually to restart. For me the 103km to the foot of Tourmalet went like a dream. I was really pleased with the way I handled food, dinks, and most importantly pace. I kept a nice clear space, just enough, in front of the front wheel the whole way. It was just as easy to drop a train and join a group being passed as it was to hook onto a passing train if some of the locomotives up front of your train were starting to look like puffing billys.

I generally knocked along at 38-42 kph, tucked in behind - a lesson I learnt from my good mate, Blimp, back in Noo Zillan. But often, an express train of neo-pros, pro aspirants, and good old wannabees would just woosh past. They looked great. Envy.

I was somewhat surprised to see people struggling a little on the cat 3s. A wet, cold day meant the course was lined with cyclists stopped taking a pee. People queued for ages at refreshment stops to get drink refills, whereas I just pulled into a petrol station used the tap, peed in their garden, and took off.

I was relaxed, it was going well. I saw a couple of prangs at traffic islands, but luckily the groups I found were well behaved and lots of good hand signalling.

Lots of crowd support, even for this the 'dreamers' event. Village strets were jammed with crowds leaning into your path, and in the countryside farmers rang cow bells and cheered. Wearing my RoostersRacing.com shirt drew applause, the Rooster being the national mascot. There was, in fact, much admiration of my large coq, as they say in France.

Tourmalet. Advertised as 7.5% average climb. What a joke. Each kilometre is signposted with forthcoming gradient. The first 4-5 km never got over 5.5%, that's got to affect the average. Later, some were 10% and 11%. Tourmalet, however, is a pretty constant climb, just up, up, up. As it turned out, I had ridden steeper climbs in Andalucía than I would this day. But these are way long! Tormalet really is a big climb. In training, I had found a 10km climb, of maybe 5-6%. Funny thing was, going into this event I had no idea what a 7% hill was, or if you showed me a hill I wouldn't have a clue as to its steepness.

But, without wishing to sound big headed, I rode up well. No grunting, no groaning. Passed by very few, and passed heaps. Lots were off and pushing. I never stopped, of course. With about 10 metres visibility because of fog it felt like you were always about to crest, but it just kept going ... going ... and going. It was quite massive.

And, it started to pour raining with one kilometre to go.

At the summit of the Col, there was a bit of a tangle as everyone stopped to put on a vest for the cold downhill ride. I also lined the inside of my vest with a plastic garbage bag liner. I also took the opportunity to give my lower back a quick stretch. Good idea.

But then, horror.

As I rolled off and down the other side of Tourmalet I quickly discovered I had no brakes. Nothing. I am grabbing great handfuls of brake, squeezing like crazy, and getting quicker. I try to slow myself with my foot. Useless. I start whizzing around the first half dozen bends. I am shitting myself. Where will this end?

I just miss a couple of guys on one bend. I am starting to panic. There's cliff drop off one side, and a rock bank the other.

Then I spot one of those gravel uphill slopes for out-of-contol cars to use to kill speed. Itake it. Deep gravel road, lots of rocks, up I stay upright and after 20-30 metres uphill I come to a stop. I get offf, sit down, and take a breath.


Good sense would have said, that's it. But you get driven. Obsessed.

The options appear to be either pull out of the event, or try to fix my brakes. I didn't carry spare blocks, and it would be near impossible to replace them on the ride anyway. On the wet roads I had seen glistening diesel spill (so many cars use diesel now.) I guess I might have picked some up (?). I spent over half an hour taking out my wheels, rubbing the rims with my removable sleeves, and rubbing away at the brake blocks. A Mavic support motor bike stopped, but I pretty much got "Tough shit". It wasn't a tyre or tube problem.

I gave it another try. They were better, but a long way from being good. They allowed me to get along, clutching the brakes, at reduced speed. But should I let go, I couldn't stop again - resulting in me having to use a driveway to stop again. Steep bits of hill just build up speed again, requiring more emergency procedures.

I'm scared. Frustrated. Disappointed.

I have to inch down the mountain, crawling along. I think I'm in a bit of shock from the scare of the top couple of kms.

The steep downhill is for 19km, and that's a long way of being scared. The road levels off somewhat at Luz Saint Sauvuer, but still downhill. But actually now eased off enough to get back onto a train, a good idea as for the very first time there is a light headwind. I feel lucky to have survived getting to the foot of Hautacam. Some villages on the way down were outright frightening with turns and road furniture (islands, barriers etc).

But, 'great', I think. I don't need brakes to ride up Hautacam. An ascent of 15.2 km at an average 7.2% gradient. But it is not constant like the first climb. For instance one of the markers says average 11% (so much for the mountain 7.5% avareage!) but it is close to level for the first 400 metres. Man, was it steep over the last half km. Two and half km from the top, (after 166.5km of riding!)there is a 13% half kilometre. There was also a lot of zig zags on Hautacam.

Going up Hautacam, we only got to use one side of the road, the other half being closed for riders who had finished the event at the top to ride back down. This made the ride up a bit tricky, and frustrating, as you had to weave through slower riders not always so courteous at this stage of proceedings.

I continued to ride strongly (maybe I should have been dope tested - so I could find out what it was?!) It was my dream, and I was doing it. Heaps of people sat on the stone wall at the side of the road. Stacks, just pulled over, u-turned and rode back down the hill - pulling out of the event. Everyone I passed just made me feel good. And the weather was clearer on the bottom sections, but it didn't last.

Then there it was. The famous flamme rouge. The big cross-arched red marker of one kilometre left to go. Up on the pedals. I get excited and make a charge for the finish, through the fog (I've still not seen the Pyrenees).

Fan-bloody-tastic. Not a single uphill stop. All the riding stuff done well. Irony that the problems were downhill, the easy stuff.

It's freezing at the finish at the top.

From my bike computer, I thought I was heading for just under eight hours which kept me going. Even though it has Elapsed Time and Ride Time I think the extended stop probably meant some time out happened. My finish time was 8'19". No excuses, but the brakes repair stop and the crawl downhill did hold me back a bit. Ah well. It's done. I'm happy. And, I did get a gold medal at the finish, in the over 50s age group.

The results site is crap. But I know from the paper that the winning time was 5'38" Pretty impressive. Will be interesting to compare against the Tour time, on Monday 14 July (local time). Also, so you get a picture of who rides this, Laurent Brochard, world road champion in 1998 and stage winner of the Tour de France at Loudenvielle in 1997, also turned in a notable performance - fifth over the finish line.

But, there are photos. Go to:


(For the uninformed, that's a Rooster salute being given.)

But I have to get back down Hautacam, and still with no brakes to speak of. I get another scare and decide to walk down, I can always look at the jokers riding up. No shame. Besides I was tired and cold. I tried restarts a couple of times, quickly bailing out. With one kilometre to go to the finish base camp, I think I see the road leveling out, so hop back on and set off.

Bugger. Out of sight below was a steep drop with a half dozen zig-zags. My bike just picks up speed - I can't stop it. I fly arond some bends, surprising myself with my cornering ability. Again I panic - what next? (Make mental note to myself: If I survive this learn a bail out technique!) I fly around a corner, just miss some guys coming out of a bend, heading straight at a large traffic cone, swerve agin - too much. Down. I didn't look, but it's weird I just happen to notice my speed on the computer as I went down! - 67kph. I'm into a big slide down the road.

Yeah , more skin off the elbow, thigh, knuckles - caught up in the bike when I fell I think as I feel really bruised front and back of ribs. But I'm alive and nothing serious appears to have happened. People rush around me. First Aid is called. But I'm alright. But I'll need yet another helmet. I am OK, I can ride the 10km back to Lourdes.

But I'm sore that night and for the next few days. Stacks of bruising. But man I was lucky. This was probably about the best it could have ended up.

I've woken a couple of times since, nightmaring about what could have been.

So a two sided story. One of hugh satisfaction, one of frustration (not to mention a big fright!)

That's that. Tick.

Don't underestimate these rides through these mountains. They are big. You have to be prepared with lots of big, really big, hills in your training. But the Tour boys do this for another twenty days, let's not forget!

I took Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach (Vintage, 2008) with me to fill in the flying hours getting to France. A powerful piece of wordsmithing. Quite sad by the end, a story of a couple trying to 'get it off' on their wedding night. But I finished it on the two legs up (including an hour and a half delay setting off in Malaga), which was fine because I fell asleep on the return trip!

What next?

aka max

Thursday, July 3, 2008


The Spanish are futbol crazy.

Los Antequeranos are no different.

It's been a fantastic couple of weeks for them.

Firstly, the local team Antequera C.F. finished second in Tercera División (Third) and the right to a play off against Caravaca for promotion to Segunda División B. The first game, away, was a 0-0 draw. Everything hinged on the home return match at the fantastic 7,000 seat capacity Estadio El Maulí. A win, 2-0! Back into the second division for the first time in 27 years (they actually languished for a couple of years out of the national divisions, in local Andalucía leagues.) Much celebration. The local ayuntamiento (town council) sponsored a party the following Friday, starting, of course, at 12:30 at night!

On the same weekend, Malaga C.F. won their last game of the season, securing third place in Segunda División and automatic promotion to La Liga, Spain's First Division. This means that La Rosaleda stadium down in Malaga will host the big boys: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid et al.

Then the big one. España goes through the Eurocopa 2008 qualifiers undefeated.

The quarterfinal against Italy turned out to be a thriller, 0-0, extra time, then the penalty shoot-out. First victory over Italy in 88 years. Town went crazy afterwards, cars and scooters honking horns until all hours.

Then the semi-final against Russia and a 3-0 win. They're swimming in the fountain at Plaza San Sebastian as town goes crazy, celebrating the prospect of a Final.

And the Final. What tension. We flew our flag of support, of course. And it was the dreaded Germans. No problems. 1-0, a sweet Fernando Torres goal. Senna was my man of the match. Iker Casillas, the goalie, their man of the tournament. We watched the championships at our favourite football watching bar Casa de Diego. It went berserk. Everyone was just so happy. We went to Plaza San Sebastian, joined in festivities, where we were all hosed from a second floor balcony - it didn't matter, it was 30 degrees at 11:30 at night! Celebrations continued long into the night. The rest of Spain also went mental. What a fantastic thing to experience.

Campeones, Campeones, Campeones. ¡Ole, Ole, Ole!


First Championship title since 1964, when they then won another European Cup. Probably world football's great underachievers now handle that title squarely over to England.

Ah, life's good.

aka Max

El Chorro - a scarry challenge

Bike rides often took me out to, and past, Garganta del Chorro (El Chorro George), about 40km from Antequera. It's an area pretty awe inspiring with four hundred metre high rock walls , world famous for rock climbing. The george is a 3km long cleft cut through the limestone.

But as you look up at the entrance, you are obviously drawn to the concrete catwalk that hugs the wall. It threads the length of the george, crossing from one side to the other. It is one metre wide, sits 200 metres vertically above the river, and is an access to one of the top climbing areas known as Makinodroma.)

It was originally built as an acess to a hydro-electric scheme, taking four years to complete, opened in 1905. It was walked by the King (Alfonso XIII) at the opening of Conde de Guadalhorce (The Guadalhorce dam). Hence its current name, El Camino del Rey (the King's Pathway) - some call it the caminito, little pathway.

Even though the entrance to it looks like it has been removed, the walk was officially closed when four people were killed in 1999 and 2000, I used wonder at the possibility of being able to access it. The Junta de Andalucía approved 7 million Euros for improvements in 2006, but no sign of any work appears yet. A climbing company's guides will take you along, I understand, but I don't know the cost (yet).

Coincidentally, a workmate from Wellington, Gordon, emailed me the following link (under the title 'Virtual Vertigo') which displays how tricky it is. Notice that there is a safety rope that this guy doesn't appear to use as he passes others. I started to have second thoughts about wanting to do it.


But, this second site displays what I'd probably be like trying to get around some of the broken down corners. I'm not sure I'm up to it. What about some of those bridge crossings where there doesn't appear to be a safety line?


Then to make you really nervous, take a lok at this young lady walking it, un-clipped, stopping to take photos, etc. That made me feel really queasy.


On one trip past, sightseeing in a car, there were actually some people up on the bridge. I think I'd like to believe I could pluck up the courage. Not sure if I can. But it won't be this time, as time runs out. When we come back next time, perhaps. Maybe the Junta will have spent the 7 million Euro, and it will be much safer.

But what's life without a bit of excitement?

aka Max

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

How do you make a Maltese Cross?

The advantage of this lifestyle is that when a budget airfare pops up on the internet, you can say 'Lets Go!' (yeah OK, a travel guide has already said that.)

This time: Malta. I had a rough idea where it was, just grab the atlas to confirm. I know absolutely nothing about it, or its reputation as a destination. Will soon learn. And it converted to the Euro earlier this year - better still.

So, eyes wide open, off we go. All the while trying to rid my mind of Deb's terrible attempt at humour with some people from Malta, at a hotel reception in Addis Abiba, Ethiopia, with her bad 'How do you make a Maltese Cross' joke: take their room, the last available one.

Well it was alright. Bit of a surprise. Dead easy for getting around. In some ways like a living museum. Not theme park-ish, but all very time time-warped. And somewhat sleepy, in a nice, relaxed, kind of way.

It's tiny, consisting of two islands, Malta and Gozo. Travel is built around ferries that run the harbours of Valletta, with others running to some costal towns. A larger car-carrying, inter-island ferry runs between the two main islands. I suppose in that way it's a bit like Noo Zillan, with a third smaller island (Comino) that hardly anyone lives on. (Actually, apart from the number of islands, and a ferry between two main islands, it's nothing like NZ.)

And really the main transport attraction is the collection of well-preserved, antique buses that make up the network. Fantastic travel. The drivers play their own selection of music CDs. It's a funny thing, the drivers reckon they became very popular with tourists when the Euro was introduced, and they realised how cheap they were.
Before that, apparently, the tourists sherked dealing with odd Maltese change.

The one outstanding feature was the complete lack of a service culture. With an attitude of 'if you tourists want to come here, fine. But don't expect us to get excited about it.'

Valletta, the capital, is interesting. We stayed in the Sliema district, across the Marsamxett harbour, and bounded by ocean coast on the other side. Streets, as in smaller towns, are narrow. There's many streets which are actually stairs. Like Spain, there's heavy Christian influence.

They specialise in unique light poles.

And rather special front door handles.

At every turn, it seemed, there was something quirky.

Being situated in the Mediterranean, its history is chequered with the comings and goings of many people. Quaint museums display the artefacts of Cathaginians, Romans and especially the Bronze Age.

St Paul was shipwrecked there, and is credited with introducing Christianity to Malta. There is a great catacombs you can visit. (The sign reads: 'Saint Paul street.') The Arabs did take over in 890 AD, and the Maltese language today is still heavily Arab influenced.

For several hundred years, Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitallers) influenced Malta, initially running hospitals for sick pilgrims on the way to the Holy Land. And then they became fighters , and it became a base for the crusaders. This is a big part of the image of Malta presented today.

After the French revolution when the Knights sided with the Royalists, it became French controlled under Napoleon. But he had little interest in it. Locals attacked when Napoleon had gone off elsewhere. In 1814, it became a British crown colony, and in 1921 it established a self-overning constitution with the Maltese looking after their own domestic affairs. The Brits still maintain their interest, it was a great location for shipping heading off to the Suez Canal.

The island as a whole was awarded the George Cross for bravery for withstanding the Nazi bombings of World War II, thus strangling the supply routes to the German Afrika Korp.

In 1974 it became a republic, and in 2004 joined the EU. But there's still many a down-on-his-luck pom washed up in bars here.

Naturally, the water, the ocean, is a big part of Malta life. Cruise ships come and go, fortesses were built to defend against sea raiders, today there are small fishing boats tcked away in every corner of harbours, and the super yachts of the European wealthy are moored in marinas where locals fish in between them.

Relics of all the history are scattered across the islands. And it does make for an interesting enough distraction to your stay.

The weather wasn't bad, but was very breezy. We had hoped to use our Egyptian-gained diving certificates, but the boats couldn't get out. In fact, because of the wind, the harbour ferries were tied up for most of the time we were there. The Gozo ferry, being bigger and more sea worthy, had no problems.

So there you go. Pleased I've been there, pleased I've seen it. Again pleased to have shown my ignorance up. It really does have a place in history.

On the way home we had a one night stopover in Barcelona. Enough time to get down to the waterfront, and then up to Montjuic in the afternoon.

Found some nice back street bars for food and drinks that night. And next day, enough time to do a trip to La Sagrada Família, the amazing, contentious, Gaudi designed cathedral, still under contruction which adds to its appeal and a visit's worth.Getting there early, for the first lift up to the top of the tower and the incedible walk down - a four hundred step spiral staircase. A beaut 27 hours.

aka Max