Sunday, 31 August 2014

Days 5,6,7: Nürnburg to Meckenbeuren

I dunno anymore. The days have all blended together. Cows. Farms. Apples. Towns. So let me just point out some highlights. In no particular order.

Nördlingen, the town that inspired Dr Seuss. Built in the days before the plumb bob. No, this is not lense distortion. That facade is truly crooked. And pink. Nördlingen is built in a nearly perfect circle. The town wall is still intact, as if to protect from the invading Normans, or Francs, or Huns, or whoever attacked this place back then. The "Altstadt" ie. historic district consists of nearly the entire town and is licked clean in every corner. I learned later that the town was built in a meteor crater which creates it's own weather system,  making Nördlingen quite literally a sunny, round little paradise.

I stopped at a cafe to charge my phone and have some breakfast. They had a big shiny roasting machine and it smelled like something from my childhood. The staff were all mentally handicapped. A young guy with a crooked smile took my order very slowly. A girl with down's syndrome brought out my coffee and bagel and placed them from the tray to the table with such explicit care and concentration that I would have trusted her to handle nuclear fuel.

Another highlight: This big shiney brewing kettle at the center of Öttingen. Öttinger is a beer widely available in Germany. Not a Favorite; one of those beers you assume someone else must like. And yet it has supported this entire town for many generations.

Eating at McDonald's. I do this about once a year to remind myself of how disgusting it is. I suppose you can get people to buy just about anything if it smells right.

This guy's hat.

This politically incorrect espresso.

This beekeeper's house

Hanging out with Birger's brother.


This largest pile of poo I have ever seen.

These particularly colorful wildflowers.

Eating this apple.

And finally, discovering my roommate sitting on a porch on the wrong side of the country. I have arrived. And 3 days early!

Friday, 29 August 2014

Day 4: Brennersgrün to Nürnberg, and the art of fitting in.

Later realizing I had stashed a titanium spork in my stuff: being clever doesn't help if you forget how clever you are. 


Nobody knows where Brennersgrün is. I can't remember either. But my day started with an epic downhill. 30 km of blissful, foggy, early morning downhill, through winding roads, past tiny villages of just a handful of houses. Vistas despite the fog, overlooking the countryside of mixed farms and forest, ending in a quaint castle town called Kronach.

It rained while I sat in a cafe, charging my phone, nursing a cappuccino. It rained again while I sat in a restaurant eating a big schnitzel.

It was at this time I started wondering if I could finish the trip. My knees have been a problem for a long time, preventing me from doing long cycling trips, racing etc. It's one of those problems I've never found a real solution for, never have come to terms with or accepted, and frequently just pretend doesn't exist. In fact,  thinking I could do a trip like this was kind of unrealistic, but giving up on such trips alltogether seemed even less realistic.
What's the problem exactly?  I don't know,  but it has to do with tendons more than Cartilage, with muscles more than bones, is worse in my left than my right, and hurts like none other. Furthermore it's worse in the morning before I'm warm, and more bearable as the day goes on and my legs warm up. So despite the beauty of a 30km downhill, it wasn't the best for my knees.  And not forgetting of course that riding a fixed gear downhill is not passive.

Nonetheless, off we go! Mind over matter! Youthful enthusiasm over wisdom! And then this thing:


Take this out of context. This is dead guy nailed to a board. Now imagine riding through a countryside where every town has a fiberglass corpse hanging from a tree. Disturbing.


Nevertheless, beautiful. And it rained. The rain elegantly solved a simple dilemma I had at the start of the trip. My rain gear is heavy and large. I wasn't sure if was worth bringing. In the end, one day of light, refreshing rain was perfect to justify lugging it around. Thank you, god of rain.

I had a couchsurfing host available in Nürnburg. Due to my long lunch break and slow progress, I needed to hurry and wouldn't arrive until midnight. Nevertheless,  this sunset was just too perfect. I had to stop and do a quick photoshoot.


Sometimes, while cycling, you reach a zone. A zone where your legs are warm, you are strong, and riding fast is merely a decision, like stepping on the gas. You tell your legs go!  and you just take off. You can feel the power, it feels like it's coming from somewhere else. You can just ride really really fast.  I had 20 km to go and went into warp speed.

While packing for my trip, a spur of the moment decision led me to leave a couple articles of functional clothing behind and instead pack a pair of nice pants and button up shirt.*

Arriving in Nürnberg my host had already begun his Friday evening. I met him not at his home but a party around the corner.  I was invited inside. There I stood in a top floor apartment full of young professionals. I hadn't showered in two days and had just rode 130km in the rain. I was dripping wet, sweaty, exhausted, stank of sweat and wanted desperately to fit in.

My host was named Temi. He was at least 6 ft tall and from Nigeria. Temi graciously introduced me to his friends, and poured me a drink. The party was the perfect mix of people who all knew just enough about eachother to open up and talk. I liked it,  but felt awkward standing there in plastic pants and a puddle of my own rain. I then remembered the change of clothes, stashed safely at the bottom of my bag,  for just this type of situation. As I changed clothes quickly in the bathroom, and emerged a young professional like the others, a sense of bliss overcame me. A tall African guy danced wildly with a short British girl. I struck up a conversation with an Irish guy who had lived in Pennsylvania and together we flirted with the Spanish girls. I joined a Russian girl (who lived the past years in China), in an impromptu dance lesson from another American. We cut rug.

As we all left to continue at a nightclub, I told Temi; my friend,  I'm exhausted and need to sleep. Temi pressed his keys into my hand. My house is open, he said. Sleep in whichever bed you like. Eat anything you like. I call you when I come home,  you let me in,  Ok?

Amazing.


*shameless foreshadowing

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Day 3: through Jena to somewhere Bayern.



So first a long day (160km) then a short day (70km) and now a nearly exactly average day (95km) puts my average above 100km/day. Sweet!
(Anselm I know you do 100km before breakfast but, yknow, baby steps, right?)


But does a Thüringer bratwurst taste better in Thüringen? Damn right it does. I was determined to try this and asked at 5 consecutive towns until I found one with a bratwurst stand.  The old lady Manning* the stand had clearly been doing it for a while: every truck that drove by honked and she waved. I told her I had cycled all the way from Berlin to have a Thüringer bratwurst in its natural habitat. She was unsurprised. She handed me the bun with a wurst sticking the wrong way out the sides**. It was delicious.
Afterwards I craved more,  and returned to the order window. I asked what the other type of sausage was on the grill.  A Currywurst! She said. So I'll have a Berliner Currywurst to compare to the Thüringer bratwurst!  I ordered. 
ITS A THÜRINGER CURRYWURST! She corrected. And that was my lesson for the day: not all Currywurst comes from Berlin.
She also later filled my water bottle from a plastic bucket of water sitting on the floor of the booth . It tasted like garden hose and was full of bread crumbs, but I drank it. I assume it was the same water used to fill the coffee machine.


The end of my day brought on an epic uphill, with nearly a vertical kilometer uninterrupted. The conclusion? I love climbing, but need more gears. I'm riding fixed 48-18 with 15 kilos of stuff: not a heavy load but on 12% uphill its hard on the knees. A 3-speed fixed for touring? That would be sweet. An uphill gear, a downhill gear, and a gear for the flats. What else do you need? A gear for riding upside down? Yet for some reason I'm skeptical of Sturmey Archer's quality...


Thüringen is pretty sweet! I frequently found myself daydreaming of the Red River Gorge Kentucky, my home, because the landscape is so similar. No more flat, boring, Brandenburg. Hello rolling hills and vistas!
There was even an (obviously) haunted hause, offset from the side of the road, 3 stories and symmetrical but for a large chimney on one side. There it had some conservative ornamental woodwork, slowly decaying, and every window was broken. The entire building was clad in mute grey slate tiles, the same as the slate comprising some of the cliffs in the area. Im sure it was an orphanage in the 19th century, and after the war an Institute where Russian doctors conducted experiments in resuming the dead. Ever since not a soul has dared to enter. But alas, the spirits also drained my battery and thus no photo. That one will have to remain left to the imagination.


At the top of the hill was an entire slate clad town. The tile work was quite intricate, with visages of local fauna Ornamenting doorways. Very monotone. Very intricate. Some were in perfect,  new looking condition. Others were obandoned with large sections of slate missing to expose hand hewn, decaying wood. Clearly a tradition that spanned many generations. And then right smack in the middle,  a hair salon.

I camped in the central park in a town of 25 houses and no stores, the name of which I already forgot. An elderly dog walking couple*** just laughed when I asked if it would be bothersome for me to do so.
Tomorrow morning? Epic downhill. Oh yea.
Dan
*can and old lady man something? Wouldnt she be old ladying it?
**it took me years to figure out that Germans consider a bun merely a way of holding a sausage.  They are not intended to be eaten together.
***the couple was elderly. The dog I dunno.

About the Bike...


So it should come as no surprise that this trip is not just for me to get some fresh air, but the bike itself was also inspiration to take a long tour. (bavarian people's funny accent would also have been a reason, had I known.)
The bike has as many plant based parts as I could find, and is set up quite nicely for randonneuring (ie. multi day road riding, light touring). The frame is an Ozon Rafa (same as is made in our 3-day workshop, tiger bamboo), with CB Italia Sanremo rims (maple), Velospring Pur grips (walnut) and a Contec front fender, mounted on the back (laminated bamboo). The rest of the parts are metal (eeeeeeew!) so obviously not worthy of mention.


THE FRAME
The RAFA has a nicely relaxed ride position, good for long distances, with adequate foot-pannier clearance due to the 420mm chainstays. The lateral stiffness is good, despite weighing only 1.7 kilos, though for more than my minimal amount of stuff a larger bamboo would be necessary. I don't need to plug our frames, everybody already knows that the're amazing, but this thing really does ride SUPER SMOOTH, which also launches us into our next topic;


THE WHEELS
I admit, until now I was a tubular tire virgin. The Sanremos from CB Italia are, and have been for almost 70 years, only available for tubular tires, so thank jebus Conti tubular Gatorskins are easy to find. I definitely don't feel like getting a flat any time soon.
Heres the thing. Sometimes technology reaches a pinnacle, which is unfortunately coupled with a significant drawback, and due to demand and marketing the product with this technological pinnacle+drawback gets left behind, forgotten in favor of a better balanced product that has neither drawback nor pinnacle. Like cashmere. Anyone who has had a cashmere cycling jersey will never be satisfeid with anything synthetic ever again. It is superlight, supercomfy, never stinky, warm when wet, and lasts for years and years and years... Until that one, sad sad day when your cashmere ends up going through the washing machine and comes out looking like it was made for a newborn baby. The owner, in his anguish, will replace his cashmere with a much more affordable synthetic, so that he must never again experience such pain nor joy.
11 bar tubulars and wooden rims: another such story. omg these ride sweet. 11 bar (actually they go to 12) means obviously, SUPER FAST, yet the sweet, suppleness of the wood rims also means SUPER SMOOTH. I have never, ever, had such amazing ride quality. I'm sure nowadays there are some metal-clincher combos that come close, but don't forget, I'm riding on technology from 1948. Can I say that again? These wheels have been the same since your great grandfather was competitive. And the ride quality exceeds most options on the market today. THAT'S AMAZING. Obviously though, I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that I don't get a flat.
A bit of foreshadowing, we're working together with CB Italia on a wood+composite rim that should combine the benefits of wood and eliminate the drawbacks. More on that to come...


THE GRIPS
I met the guys from Velospring at the Velo Berlin. They sent me some grips to test, and heres the deal. These things have the most beautiful and comfortable shape of any ergo grips I've tried so far. They are truly beautiful and comfortable.
Wood also has particular properties when it comes to sweat. While rubber or synthetic feels grippy at first, but gets slimy and slippery as soon as your palms sweat a bit, wood is the exact opposite. At first they feel super smooth, perhaps too smooth, but as soon as some moisture appears the pores of the wood open up, absorbing the menacing humidity and the grips become grippier. Not bad!
In my opinion the Velospring products have one downside; the mounting mechanism. They have a funky elastomer mechanism that uses friction to attach to the inside of your handlebar. This limits the available handlebar options (since the inside diameter is critical) and is kind of a pain to install. Once they're on there though, they're nice and secure and give a perfectly clean outside surface, with no clamp or rows of screws. Velospring derives its name from their sister product, the "Comfort" model, which has a torsion spring inside the handlebar allowing the grips to rotate and absorb vibration. Super comfy, but only for those who like a wide handlebar, since the spring takes so much space inside the handlebar that the smallest possible width is still darn wide.
The "Pur" model, that I used, has no torsion spring and allows for a short handlebar. They still spring a bit though due to the compressed elastomer holding them to the handlebar. So in the end: awesome product, but let an expert install them!


THE FENDER
It hasn't rained yet, so I don't have much to say about the fender. I'll be honest too, I'd rather have a set of wooden fenders with compound curvature (bent in both directions), since they both deflect water better, and fit better inside caliper brakes. I was prevented from using the flat, wide Contec fender set correctly since the didn't fit through my brakes.

CONCLUSION
So to wrap it up, this bike is awesome! I just hope my knees stand up to the hills down here. I think maybe I'm old enough now for a multispeed hub, right? Next time I'll have a granny gear.
Dan

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Day 2: A cardboard car and a bicycle made of grass: Halle to not quite Jena

Ok so everything I said about cycling being boring? I take it all back. It's Brandenburg that's boring. Cycling is of course amazing!
Finally some hills! And tiny ancient towns with nothing but a Gasthaus and a winery! I'll let the photos speak for themselves...







And right as it was getting dark, I found a campground. Bike trips in Germany feel like cheating.

Day 1: Potsdam to Halle

So my first official day of the trip! (Yesterday counted as day 0). I started off the day at an old german Fleischerei with a breakfast of fried potatoes and a beef patty. (Germans find it strange that Americans eat beef patties on bread with lettuce and tomato)There were a lot of bike paths along the way, some cows, some windmills.
Theres a stark contrast between the fantasy of a vacation and the reality. When you plan for a vacation, you imagine the freedom, the fresh air, the challenge. You imagine the shift in perspective, the subconscious benefits, the positive psychological impact.
And while all of those things are true. And all of them present. The fact remains: sitting on a bike and pedaling for 10 hours through countryside that seems to never change... It gets... Kind of... Boring.
So perhaps this is my lack of Zen or a short attention span. But regardless, I happened to have this amazing machine with me. With a little solar panel. The machine allowed me to access the communal consciousness of mankind, and the solar panel ensured that my battery lasted until the evening. So the fact is, yesterday I listened to ever episode of NPR's '"TED radio hour" (ted talks, adapted for radio) and Every Radiolab podcast available on the NPR website, all streaming, while I rode. And despite being rather anti-zen and catering to a short attention span, it was... Kind of... Amazing.
Then I ran across a huge herd. My solar panel's family. And I thought, "if you love it, let it go". So I set my panel on the ground and encouraged to to run off with its larger cousins. It did nothing. I reluctantly placed it back on my shoulder and kept riding, later realizing the a small polycrystalline panel clearly would not feel the instinctive connection that I expected with a herd of thin films.
I arrived in misfortunately named Bitterfeld ( they could have named it "nastyplatz" or " ickyville") and was the only patron of an indian- or Italian restaurant- the only place open- and had a rather OK veggie pizza with an indian appetizer. The waitress also worked at the club across the street and talked so fast I could barely understand what she said. My mother wrote me an email, reminding me it was my birthday, so I sat there, it this multinational restaurant reading the story of my birth. Allow me to share a snippet of this...
"JUST as Dr. Johnson walked into the room, my baby came shooting out, and she caught it -- with her purse still on her shoulder!  She calmly said, “Judy, it’s a boy!”  Exasperated, I said the strangest thing in reply, “I wish I could be happier about it!”  People laughed as they probably thought I wanted a girl. However, I was referring to the way it had all unfolded -- that I was rushed into this predicament with no midwives, no shoes and NO composure!  As a trained dancer, this did NOT settle well with my picture of who I was or what I had rehearsed! 

But they laid my black-haired baby boy down against my chest and he let me know from the instant he touched my skin and looked into my eyes, that life was about to be full of unexpected outcomes, and I should be willing to ride those waves with a sense of humor and openness to the wonder of the unknown.  That day, August xx, 19xx, Daniel Vogel-Essex began his first of many lessons for me, his Mom, his student, his greatest ally and loudest fan. 
 Daniel, I love you!  Happy Birthday!!!  
Yo Momma!"
Is that not awesome? I love you mom!
So heres a thought... Women notoriously remember birthdays. Men forget even their own. Lets not forget that a birthday is not just the day that a person was born, it'salso the day that a woman GAVE BIRTH, which is clearly a big deal (guys, this could be equated with getting the restored engine of your rebuilt motorcycle to BRUMM to life for the first time). So the next time a woman reminds you of someone's birthday, don't forget, that's also the day a woman went into labor and gave birth. That's a big deal!!!
Ok, back in the saddle...
Dan

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

This is where you live. Right here, in the saddle. Live here. Stay here.

Stick with this Dan. You live in the saddle. This is your home.
Nearly 25 Kilometers complete. Only 775 more to go.
Slight uphill grade. Minimal tailwind. Road conditions imperfect. 27% chance of rain. Don't let these facts get you down.
You can do this, dan, you can. Don't give up now.