Sunday, December 26, 2010

Ski trip

Sorry for the unannounced hiatus from blogging. Just a few days after settling back in at home, I was on a plane again for a week-long ski trip in Montana with my dad and sister. I hope that inches of powder and a total lack of lift lines will suffice as passable excuses for the absence.

Rarely on a ski trip are we so fortunate as to get fresh snow from day one. Usually, we seem to get one good dumping towards the end of the trip. This, time, however, it snowed for the first two days and nights. One of the greatest aspects of Big Sky, Montana is that it is near essentially nothing. While most ski resorts in Colorado are in driving range of Denver, or most in Utah of Salt Lake City, Big Sky is about as remote as it gets. For the powder obsessed, "no lift lines" are words to die for. There are no friends on a powder day.

As great as the skiing was, after day three we decided to try a new activity to break up our seven-day stay: cross country skiing. Having never ventured into this realm of snow-related antics before, we signed up for a morning lesson at the local Nordic center. In surprisingly little time, we were off and skating, and spent the rest of the day exploring some of the 100 km of trails the center had to offer. While by no means experts, and certainly not yet Olympians, we had it down well enough to enjoy a hard day of aerobically taxing adventures. Excessive amounts of pizza were in order.

The rest of the trip went much of the same way. Two more days of downhill on our still-deserted mountain, followed by one more day of cross country out in West Yellowstone on Friday, where we once again flogged ourselves for hours as we explored one of the nation's most prized national parks. After a 16 km ski, we had built up quite the appetite. While burgers and pulled pork did the job of satiating or hunger pangs, the highlight of the day was undoubtedly this:

The Lone Peak Brewery sampler. A beer rack built of two sawed-off skis, the sampler consists of 10 4 oz. samples of the beer currently on tap at the brewery, which brews all of its own, well, brews on site. From left to right you have: 1) Nordic Blonde 2) Headplant Pale Ale 3) Hellroaring ESB 4) Lone Peak IPA 5) Buck Snort Porter 6) Hippy Highway Oatmeal Stout 7) Swiftwater Pilsner 8) Wit's End Belgian White Ale 9) Steep n' Deep Winter Ale 10) Bourbon Barrel Stout.
The favorites were numbers 4, 6, 9, and 10. The oatmeal stout and bourbon stout were particularly interesting, and by the time we got half way through the bourbon stout, it tasted a whole lot more like bourbon than it did stout.

Back home now, I am literally snowed in. I got in a ride this morning before and during the start of the the massive snowstorm that has now delivered well more than a half foot of white and fluffy to our doorstep, but I have a feeling that will be the last for a least a few days as the storm rages on tomorrow. Forecasts have projected as much as a foot and half. Sadly, that probably means hitting the trainer for the first time since June, when I got all the practice I will ever need at getting through indoor workouts. Let the Food Network marathon commence.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I'm a man. Yes I am.

I'm a man. A manly, manly man.

Or maybe I'm just crazy. Either way, I was out on the bike again today, the first time since getting home from Spain on Sunday. Just one week ago, on a sunny Wednesday in Barcelona, the temperature had soared to 20 degrees Celsius. Today, back in New Jersey, it was barely 20 Fahrenheit. That's not exactly a smooth transition.

But, I survived. With all my warmest winter gear pulled on, an hour outdoors was really not so bad, with the exception of my toes going completely numb. It certainly beat the alternatives (running or riding the trainer), and to be honest, I really wanted to do it. Three days off was enough for me, and I was really itching to get back outside, no matter the temperature.

Winter riding, here we come. I'm going to miss the "cold" of Barcelona, though. It's just not quite the same.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

I'm leaving, on a jet plane

Sitting here at 9am, waiting for my cab to arrive to shuttle me off to the airport and officially bring an end to my nearly four-month stay in Barcelona, I can only think about how truly perfect my final day here was. So, in the few minutes I have before my chauffeur arrives, I think I would rather pine about those last 24 hours than reminisce about the last 16 or so weeks. Maybe we'll save that for another time.

Up at 6:45am on Saturday, I was out the door by 7:45 for one last two-wheeled journey with Ismael and a few friends I've made here out on the road. The ride turned into one of the most spectacular I've had yet, despite the feeling of utter emptiness in my legs I had to combat for the next 5 hours. But I was lead to a truly gorgeous national park, with a stunning view of the Pyrenees and a dazzling descent down into the valley between towering rocky peaks to either side. That was only after an 8 km ascent, though, up which Ismael and I duked it out one last time, unloading every drop of energy in both our tired bodies and attacking all the way up. So much for being empty.

After riding through more spectacular scenery in the natural park, we cruised towards home, slowly saying goodbye to one rider after another. Finally, it was just Ismael and I, and I finally got the chance to see where he lives and sip a Coke and eat a pastry before saying goodbye to my good friend. You'll be missed. Then, I set out for home, bringing me to five hours of riding on the day, 26 in the last seven, and a whole lot of hunger. After some lunch, I finished my packing, showered, and began the rest of my farewell to Barca.

First on the list was one more decadent cup of gelatto, well-deserved if I do say so...and I do. So I met my friend and fellow gastronomer Chris and walked to my favorite frozen treats spot, where I had turron (nougat for the English speakers) and pistachio. Magnificio! We then walked around aimlessly for a few hours, exploring my neighborhood one last time, before sitting down to dinner around 7:00, early for Spain, at an excellent Lebanese restaurant I've been to once before. For just 30 euro, we split a sampling of seven different dishes, ranging from hummus and baba ganoush and a pomegranate puree to a plate of various roasted meats. It was quite the spread. Full as we were, there was still some room left in the tank, so to speak, so we set out once more for a final treat. This time it was a crepe, and a huge one at that. We shared a chocolate and strawberry filled offering, which came with a shot of Port alongside it to pour over the top, soaking into the thin pancake and saturating the fruit inside. Delicious.

Mission accomplished in my final 24 hours on the Mediterranean? I think so.

Friday, December 10, 2010

No more pencils! No more books!

No more teachers' dirty looks!

Yup, that's right: School's out for summer!

Well, not really. It's still December. But whatever, school's out! My last final in Barca is done, my notebooks are in the trash, where they belong, and now it's time to ride! Five full weeks of nothing but vacation. Thank the Prince of Darkness! And since he started this post for me, it's only right that he should end it:

School's out with fever!
School's out completely!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Una salida a lo largo

Or, as we English speakers would say, "to go out with a bang." And what a bang it was.

The epic that was originally planned for this past Sunday did not come to fruition, so instead Nick and I decided to plan it for today. So, I got in touch with my friends Carlos and Ismael, and along with Nick's teammate Lars, also from Holland, we had a perfect group for an epic day on the bike.

A five-plus hour march may not have been on my training plan for today, but as I said last time, or maybe the time before (who's counting anyway?), it's still only dawn in the season, so it's OK in my mind to do what you think is right. Sometimes, that means simply doing what you want. Having been here for nearly four months now and not yet having been to the top of Montserrat, I knew that I had to make sure to make it to the summit this week. So with our little quintet, off we went, at 9:00 this morning, in search of a mountain peak.

The weather was just right, possibly even a little too warm if you ask me. But I'll take it, especially when it's blizzardring in Montreal, where my sister is, and a full 25°F cooler back home. After 2.5 hours at no mean pace, we arrived at the base of the mountain, a towering behemoth of jagged rock. Already a little bit worn from the approach, we attacked the ascent with abandon. Thirty minutes and 8 km later at an 8% grade, we hit the entrance to the parking lot, and after a little soft pedaling, but still uphill, arrived at the monastery. The views from the mountain were the best I have yet seen here, though I couldn't really take the time to notice them on the way up and the descent was too treacherous and wet for photos. The only shot we got, then, was at the top, standing in front of the monastery, which is the main attraction for most visitors. For us, it was the road...and maybe the soda vending machine.

From left to right: Carlos, Ismael, me, Lars, and Nick.

After a water refill and some Coke, we were on our way down and back at it, marching, or rather attacking, our way home. Part of the beauty of having a group like this, especially when everyone is more or less around the same level, is that we can throw a little competition into the ride, even if it is only December. So pretty much all the way home we were either zipping along or taking digs at one another. Good fun, good fun.

Sitting here now, many hours and many meals later, I couldn't be happier with my last big hoorah. The final count: 5 hours and 133 km. Not too shabby, especially considering that at least half that time was spent going up hill, if not more (and no, I am not exaggerating). But really, what made the day epic was spending it with some of my favorite people I have met here in Spain and planning a ride tri-national group ride that I won't soon forget. I have a few days left here, and I'll make the most of them, but it will be hard to top this one.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Smokey da bear

That's certainly how I feel right now: smoked. It's my last full weekend in Barca, so I wanted to make the most of it and get in as much quality riding as I reasonably could. Mission accomplished.

Yesterday was trip number two up to Girona to ride in the foothills of the Pyrenees with Michael Barry. I was on the train at 8:50 am, and by about 11:00 we were off. As we pedaled further and further out into the country, the ride only got more and more spectacular. The open and quiet country, scattered with gorgeous houses and farms that have probably been in families for generations, populated as much by livestock as they are by people, were enough on their own to provide a breath-taking backdrop to our ride. But, as we rode along, Michael drew my attention to our right, where, towering far above, were the snow-capped Pyrenees, an awesome contrast to the still green hills through which we rode.

As we climbed on, it was at times difficult to look at the road, and not over my shoulder at the view behind. The ride itself was no coffee shop stroll (though we did stop at a cafe halfway for a slice of apple-topped cake and a cafe con leche). Back in Girona, we had accumulated 4:20 at a very solid clip, enough to leave my legs aching as I chowed on a tuna bocadillo and ham and spinach empanada before hopping on the train home. I'm happy to say, though, that I was still my usually chatty self, blabbing away the whole time.

Today was more of the same, only this time back on my usual stomping grounds with Nick. Though or original plans for an epic to the top of Montserrat did not happen today, we still ticked off another 4:30 and emptied our respective tanks. By the time we faced the last 6 km climb before we could come back to the city, we were both dreaming of the food we would soon be eating. That came sooner than expected, though, as we stopped at the first bakery in sight back in Barca to stave off bonking in the middle of Sunday traffic. What just two days ago was supposed to be a rainy day turned into another great one, though we did get a bit of a scare for a little while as the ominously dark clouds overhead began spitting raindrops while we were still two hours from home. Fortunately, that was the point in our ride to start heading back, and we were soon riding back toward blue skies and smiles...and cream-filled pastries. I'm going to miss this.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The home stretch

Today is Thursday, December 2. Hard to believe, I know, but according to the little iCal widget on my dock, that's the date. And my Mac would never lie to me, now would it?

The coming of this date means that I have just 10 days left here in Barcelona, a terrifying prospect. To be as cliched as I can, it really does feel like only a week ago that I stepped off the plane into BCN, lugging my suitcase and bike box around the airport and to the bus. But, here we are: December 2. Ten days to go.

Rather than reminisce about my time here or philosophize about what I've learned, I'd rather just tell you what I'm going to do with my little remaining time. (Chances are, though, that you can figure most of this out for yourself anyway.)

Number one on the list is, of course, ride. With all three of my papers handed in already, and two of my four final exams behind me, I'm left with quite a bit of free time. A trip to Girona and an epic to Montserrat are already on the menu, but I have a full week to fill up, so there will be plenty more of that. The fact that my gym membership expired as well only means more time for riding. I love winter. As much as I love to race, and as much as I love to ride in nothing but shorts, there is something about a crisp winter day, when the sun is out, the wind is not too harsh, and racing season is just a little ray of light breaking the plain of a still-distant horizon. It's hardly dawn yet in the cycling season, and as you all know, I am definitely a morning person.

The other item on my menu is, well, food. This is a menu, after all. There are still restaurants and hidden treasures I have yet to experience in this city and treats I have yet to sample. At the same time, there are places I am determined to revisit to get one last taste of something I loved here and don't want to forget. With all the riding I hope to do, I think that should work out just fine. And I still have a few Euros in my wallet, so I might as well spend them all. We only like green bills in the good ol' U S of A anyway.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Time to go?

After a weekend like this, it would be a lie to say that I won't miss this place. Fortunately, it's not quite time to head back stateside just yet, as I have another two weeks left in Barcelona. I think that will be just right.

On Saturday, I set out for a long weekend ride with my friend Nick, heading out into the mountains to explore. Once again, I was shocked at how cold it can get here when you leave the city and get up into the mountains, especially after a long a windy descent. Where did that never-ending Mediterranean summer go? But, after stopping for some cafe con leche and bocadillos, we were both good to go again and cruised on home for just shy of 5 hours of riding. Next time, we'll be tackling the mountain we rode to the base of this weekend, Montserrat.

It's going to be a long climb.

Today, though, reminded me again of another thing I'm going to miss: the ever-wrong weathermen. Though we have those at home too, it seems that they are always wrong in the wrong sense of the word. Here, when they say it is going to rain, it never seems to do so. At home, when they say there is going to be sun, there always seems to be rain. Go figure. But, as the saying goes, don't fix it if it ain't broke. So don't think I'm complaining about today's non-stop sunshine on what was supposedly a rainy day. My three hours of not soaking wet riding were just terrible.

Despite all that, though, I am just about ready to head home. Living away from home for four months, especially in an entirely different country and in someone else's home, does get tiring after a while. I still love it here, I still want to come back here, and I still am just as sure that I could live in Europe, at least for a time, someday. Home, though, will always be the Northeast. And though there is not one tangible thing I can say that I painful miss, home is calling. Soon enough, though. Just soon enough, actually, because I'm not ready just yet.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A slice of home

Or a whole roast bird of it, rather. As I type this, I am sitting in my Barcelona bedroom, cozy and loose sweatpants on, belly uncomfortably yet pleasantly full, and stomach acids churning violently as I try to digest the Thanksgiving offerings I heartily finished shoveling down not an hour ago.

Since it's Thanksgiving and we are in Europe, my study abroad program put on a holiday dinner for us at an extremely nice restaurant, reserving an entire back room and two large communal tables for our feast. I have to admit, though, I tried not to get my expectations up before the meal. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days of the year, both for the food and the family gathering, and though I knew they would try their best, I was afraid it would just not be the same. Especially over the past week, as I have been thinking a bit more about home than I have over the past few months, I didn't want to build it up too much. I'm happy to say, though, that the evening exceeded all expectations.

Now, I won't say that it was an entirely traditional Thanksgiving. We started off with salad and oven-roasted, garlicy baby artichokes, which I happily consumed. Neither of those fit into my notion of a Thanksgiving day feast, but that's OK. They were both delicious. When it came time for the main course though, the goods were delivered. A beautiful roast bird, or two I believe, was carried out before us, perfectly cooked, perfectly stuffed, and perfectly moist. The dark meat was tender and succulent, and the stuffing was chock full of pine nuts, dates, currants, and raisins. And the coup de grace: ramekins of salsa española; or as you and I would call it, gravy. And this gravy was just the way it should be, nothing more than pure bird fat, fortified with some stock and some butter. Oh, there were mashed potatoes too. But the gravy!

Sure, I missed my beloved sweet potato casserole. And sure, I missed my pumpkin, pecan, and lemon meringue pies (though the apple tart was delicious). But when the centerpiece was so fantastic, all else could be forgiven. As I overindulged again and again, probably eating a full gobbler all on my own by the time the evening was done, I could almost forget I wasn't at home. Between a scrumptious meal and the company of a great group of friends, all equally looking to make a little home away from home, I could be thankful.

Now, as I digest the night, both literally and metaphorically, I'm thankful for a number of other things too. But to focus on just one, I'm thankful for the way I have changed over the past year, both while here in Spain and throughout the year as whole. This time last year, and I mean that quite literally, as in last Thanksgiving, I was out riding as hard as I could to "dig a whole" for the Thanksgiving feast. I wanted to make sure I deserved that indulgence that day, fearing otherwise it would ruin my hard work. That is no way to live. Why can't I reward myself for the determination and dedication I've had over the past month? Why can't I just say, "What the hell? It's Thanksgiving, so I'm going to make the most of it." Well, you know what, I can. At least now I can anyway. A lot has happened for me, and to me, in the past year, much of it cycling related and none of which I will get into now, but I can absolutely say that it's all been for the better, and for that I am thankful. For that, and the turkey that gave it's life to help remind me of all this.

Now, it's off to bed (or into food coma) to hopefully digest the rest of this meat and to pray for no food hangover tomorrow. Some things may have changed, but some things never will: No class on Fridays still means I get to ride lots. Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I thought this was the Mediterranean

It looks like I may have made a small mistake when packing for my extended stay here in Barcelona. Until recently, I never had a problem, but all of a sudden, as December approaches, the temperature is starting to dip a bit southward as well. Uh oh.

Normally, this wouldn't be a problem. I'd like to think that I'm a pretty hardy guy, and I've normally gone out as long as the temperature is above 15 degrees (Fahrenheit, that is). I've even more than once ridden while it was snowing. But, I've always had the right clothes to make the weather a non-factor, or at least tolerable.

Most days here in Barcelona, I ride at a pretty reasonable time of day, often setting out at 9 or 10 am. On Wednesdays, though, with class from 11 am to 3:30 pm non-stop, I usually opt to get out before class, as I just don't do well with afternoon rides. Like I've said before, I love the morning special and the feeling of starting my day off with a good ride, leaving the rest of my day open. When class starts at 11 and is a 30-minute commute away, though, that means I need to be out the door by 7:30 am to squeeze in two hours in the saddle. And at 7:30 am, it's usually pretty cold in the month of November, even in the Mediterranean, as I found out this morning.

The sun was not yet up when I left this morning. Things started out just fine as I rode out of town and then climbed 5 km to get truly out of the city. But, once I pointed my wheels downhill, the cold kicked in, and it didn't get better until I was going skyward once again an hour later on my way home. Ug. It's just no fun being cold, no matter how used to it you are. When you don't have the right attire, though, it's even worse. Fortunately, I only have two more Wednesdays left here and only one of them with class, so hopefully I won't freeze to death before returning stateside.

But fear not, fellow New Englanders: I'm not going soft. I'll still be riding in stupidly cold weather all winter long. I just want my damn warm gloves!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Jew in Paris: the king of street food

I'm just going to warn you now, this post is long. Very long. So long, in fact, that I considered cutting in two, using one half to talk about my day from an eating perspective and one from the site-seeing perspective. But, when I thought about it, I decided that the two were so perfectly intertwined today that doing so would be shame, and that I would unweave the beautiful web I spun around Paris yesterday, doing my last full day there an unforgivable injustice. So skim if you like, or don't. I'll have pictures up in a day or two so those may help if you aren't up for, or interested in, the whole thing. Here we go....

In stark opposition to my previous two days, the only meal I ate formally sitting down yesterday was breakfast, in my hotel. The rest of the day was spent on foot, starting at 9:30 am and ending at 8:30 pm, getting my hands and face right into whatever I was eating and doing all day. And it was without a doubt my best day yet.

I began with a walk to l'Arc de Triomphe, from the top of which I think is the best view in the city. Go wait in line for the Eiffel Tower if you like, I'll stay right here, staring down the Chaps Elysee and happily enjoying the lack of crowd. I also bought a four-pack of AA batteries here, which came in handy as I drained them all throughout the day.

Next, I set out to walk the Champs Elysee, hopefully to scout it out for a different point of view some day. Along the way , I spotted a Peugeot dealer, with a gorgeous array of sports cars inside. The best vehicle on display, though, was of the two-wheeled variety: a carbon Peugeot bike, the mode of transportation that, in my opinion, the company should stick to making.

Soon after, I spied the mint green exterior of what could only be Laduree, Paris's most famous of bakeries for macarons. I bolted across the Champs and barged inside. The display was overwhelming, and the task of choosing what to get was daunting, made possibly only by the fact that I knew I was here for macarons and macarons only. I finally settled on the box of 6, which still set me back 8 euro. My choices were this: vanilla, coffee, praline, chestnut, fig and date, and soft salted caramel. It was not yet 11 pm, so once outside I decided to try just one and save the rest for later. Vanilla it was, and let's just say I was glad to be sitting down already when I took a bite.

The lower half of the Champs was covered in both sides by a Christmas market, composed of easily over 100 white tents set up selling all kinds of food from crepes to kebabs to caviar and every trinket or collectible known to man. I quickly stopped for a vin chaud before cruising down one side and then back up the other, stopping to ogle nearly every item, but especially the edible ones, on display. After making it back up to the top, I decided that my original dining plans would have to be adjusted, because lunch was happening here. Despite the absurd selection, I knew what I must have: poulet provencal. Cooking in a stupendously large cauldron wide and deep enough to bath in (and don't think I wouldn't have), the rouge of this chick and potato mash called out to me the moment I saw it. As it was heaped in hearty amounts into my Styrofoam container, I knew I was in for treat. I set up shop at a tall table and dug in, instantly transported to the French countryside. Magnifique! A quick stop down the block for one oyster shooter, and I was on my way.

After another walk through much of the heart of the city, I found myself at the Cluny museum, as suggested by my uncle (thanks Ron), which is a former abbey and now hosts the pieces one stolen from or now replaced at many cathedrals and churches in France. It also gave the story of the development of many religious art forms in France, my favorite of which was the altar pieces, which I have always been attracted to and awed by.

After the museum, I set up shop in a park outside to indulge in my remaining macarons. One after another I popped them into my mouth and delighted at the soft and almondy goodness. Yet again, I was happy to be seated. The intense, almost red velvet, hue of the fig and date macaron was almost sensual, but the soft salted caramel took the cookie in my opinion. Next up, time for more walking, of course. As a side note, I did not use the Metro once yesterday.

Making my way out of the Latin Quarter, I spent a long time just meandering the 3rd arrondisment, also known as Le Marais. I had a destination in mind, but decided that if I should find it by chance, I would pop in. If not, something equally good would come up. I walked from store to store, sampling free wine and chocolates here and there, spotting incredible displays like a chocolate store that makes chocolate neckties, and just drinking in the charm that can only be found in a place when you explore it with no destination in mind. At 4:15, I caved and stopped at a place called La Suzette for the obligatory Nutella crepe. As the dough as spread out and began to sizzle in front of me, the Pavlov effect kicked in and I could feel myself salivating. Yum. Do get one.

Lucky for me, as I dug into my crepe, only half conscious of the road ahead, I found myself right at my semi-destination: Musee Carnavalet. Also suggested by Uncle Ron, I think this may have been my favorite museum yet. A true hidden treasure of the city in which I encountered few other Americans and sparse crowds, this building packs a mighty punch and contains much more than you would expect from the outside. For the next hour and half, I walked through a story book, discovering the history of Paris from Paleolithic times up through the 1900's. Set in paintings of the city's development and collections of furniture and fixings from important palaces from every time period, the museum is possibly the best way to learn how Paris got to where it is today.

Upon leaving, I had a few dinner plans in mind, and spent the next 30 minutes ambling about the area and debating all my options. I was torn in so many different directions that I once again arrived somewhere I had never intended to but am thankful to whatever God there is for bringing me to. As it turns out, he must be a Jewish one, because where do you think I wound up? The Jewish Quarter, of course! Once again, my plans were out the window once more, and deliberations began anew as I tried to decide where to go. The famous L'As du Falafel was closed (it was Shabbat after all) but that was not a problem. It was just one less place to choose. Finally, after some serious running back and forth, literally, I settled on the first place to catch my eye: Sasha Finkelsztajn. As I stood there, holding back a tear and trying to figure out what I should eat, another miracle took place: my dead camera came back to life! I immediately jumped out of line and started snapping pictures of everything. The food, the sign, the door, the street, the place across the street. All of it. Finally, though, it was time to eat.

To get to the point, dinner was a pastrami sandwich. But not just any pastrami sandwich. This salted beef was sandwiched between two halves of an onion and poppy roll, smothered in a baba ganoush-esqe puree, a paprika puree, and adorned with onion, tomato, and sliced kosher pickle. Oy gevalt! As much I have raved about the food in Paris, I found the winner. If you are ever in town, you are going. I'm sorry, but you have no choice.

I left that heavenly kosher deli/Jewish bakery/godly oasis thinking life could not get better. I was in such a mood that I decided I would walk home. And that is no short stroll, mind you, even if you go direct, which I did not. But, along the way, I opened up the final stroke of genius: an apple strudel. As I sunk my teeth in for the first bite, I was literally stopped in my tracks and let out such a groan that the woman in front of me stopped to turn and look at the lunatic behind her. I could only smile. As I walked back through the star-lit (and yes, it was, as this was the first and only clear day of the trip) Parisian night, taste of Jewish baking still on my tongue, I could only think, "When will I be here next?"

Friday, November 19, 2010

A happy accident: What luck!

Day Two in Paris was today, and it did not fail to produce. Out the door by 8:45 this morning, and I was on my way for another walking tour of city. Despite being a big-time breakfast person, I often find when traveling that some of my best breakfasts are grabbed on-the-go, and today was no different. Before hopping on the Metro, I stopped into a gorgeous bakery and asked for a coffee and one "Viking." How could you go wrong with that. The Viking is no more than a whole grain and nut bread, but as I ripped through its crusty exterior and bit into the moist and soft dough housed inside, I was ready to let out my greatest battle cry. Fortunately for my other morning commuters, I contained my joy.

This morning's Metro ride was just to the hotel I am spending two nights in, where I dropped my things off and was on my way once again, starting today's march by heading to le Mussee Marmottan. I arrived before opening, which is at 11, so I wandered around a bit until then. At 11, the magic began, and Marmottan was certainly my favorite site I have been to so far. Housed in a small, well, house, Musee Marmottan is a tribute entirely to Monet, the father of Impressionism. Alive with color and the vivid yet subtle differences of recurring motifs at different times of day, this small site packed a serious punch. Sadly, I forgot the camera today.

Following the museum, I set out on the long walk to my next planned lunch. Along the way, I picked up a few chocolates, eating one and saving the rest for later. Among the batch were nougat, praline, coffee ganache, and marzipan. This is when the happy accident took place.

I navigated my way over to rue Saint-Dominique without trouble, but when I arrived at what I though was my destination, I stepped into one restaurant too soon. The name of this restaurant was nearly identical to the one next door, where I had intended to go, and as soon as I saw the menu, I had a feeling I had made a mistake, but I was sufficiently enticed by what I saw to stay where I was. This meal was undoubtedly the high point of my culinary experience here so far. I ordered the pig's cheek stew with basil and basmati rice. When my plate arrived, I was thoroughly surprised, as in front of me sat a miniature pastry crust housing a bed of rice and topped with the meat. This looked like no stew I had ever seen. But as soon as I laid fork to the pig's cheek, it literally fell apart. I knew I was in for a treat. With the first bite, I had to lay down my fork, close, my eyes, and try not cry. Perfection. Every bite, first to last, was equally spectacular.

After lunch, I set out once more towards the Rodin museum, where a cute waitress at the restaurant suggested I should go. Along the way, I got distracted and turned in to the Musee de' Armee, which at the price of free (since I am technically a European student) was too good a deal. It was a great museum and a fun way to learn about the military history of France, particular during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of my favorite historical figures.

Next up, I did make it over to the Rodin museum, just next door and also free to students. Like he Martmottan, this is yet another smaller exhibit than, say, the Louvre, but with no less effect. Naturally, I found the Thinker, one of my more vivid memories from my last trip here. It was also interesting to learn in the Museum that Rodin and Monet were good friends and an influence on one another, so seeing the two in the same day was yet another happy accident indeed.

I spent the rest of the day generally wandering around this area of the city, stopping for a delicious quiche before exploring the Latin Quarter and sneaking my way into the Sorbonne to see what school in Paris is like. While waiting for my friends t make if over to the area, I walked into a wine store, at first only to peruse. I was about ready to leave, when another couple walked in and started talking to the employee and quickly bought two bottles. I guess buying is contagious, because before I knew it I was swiping my card for a 2007 Crozes Hermitages from Cave de Tain. Oops. But, at 8.95 euro, I decided that it was a truly a steal and that I would convince my waitress at dinner to let me drink my own wine.

After stopping at a bar to meet up with three friends, it was time for dinner. We found a restaurant to our liking at around 7:30 and took our seat. From the prix fixe menu, I started off with a mushroom and egg cassolette, followed by another duck confit, and finally a creme brulee. I know I had the confit last night, and I had originally ordered salmon, but when I saw a confit going by to another table, I had to have it. And oh how right I as. But, I won't deny it, the wine was the real star of the meal. The owner at first was not pleased with my asking to drink my own wine, but after a little bargaining and my offering to cough up a few euro for corkage, we understood each other. Merci, madame. Merci. I'm looking forward to finishing the rest tomorrow.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gimme three steps

Well, it was actually a little bit more than that today, as I think I can safely say I completed the Parisian marathon on my first day in the city. Save for my trip on the metro to get away from my cousin's apartment this morning, I did not take it again until tonight to come home. I like it that way, though. There were times that I easily could have hopped on and saved 30 minutes, but you can't see anything from underground, and that's a sad way to miss a lot of special things. So marching it was for me.

First stop: the Louvre. I decided to go today because I hoped that on a Thursday morning I would not have crowds to contend with. I was right. The first exhibit I checked out was the Egyptian collection (that's for you Kelly, if you're reading this). Next was the large collection of French paintings, where I found one of my favorite rooms yet. It was a room devoted to the epic, and by epic I mean both in execution and size, paintings of the history of Alexander the Great, done by Charles Le Brun. Of course, I also found the requisites, like the Grand Gallery and the Mona Lisa, but these paintings by far moved me the most.

After 2.5 hours, I was ready for lunch, so I began my first epic trek of the day, walking about an hour to find the singular restaurant I had in mind, as suggested by my grandma: Les Enfants de Paris, all the way off in the 11th. It is a Brazilian-French fusion restaurant that was well worth the hike. I ordered the lunch prix fixe menu, which first brought me a Thai shrimp soup to start. It was rich and hearty with a coconut milk broth, cut by slices of pickled ginger and bamboo that added a pleasant little kick to it as well. Next was a lightly battered and pan-fried sole, accompanied by a garlic aioli and a smooth helping of pomme puree, which I can only assume was flavored with a little tomato, which I am guessing from the color and taste as I could not tell from the French menu. To go with it, I had a glass of Alsatian Riesling. Like I said, worth the hike.

Next up, I marched back in the other direction to find Notre Dame and Saint Chapelle, back towards the center of the city. Along the way, I picked up an apple crepe. Yum. Notre Dame was spectacular, though in my opinion it is more incredible from the outside than in. Sadly, Saint Chapelle was closing, so I'll have to go back tomorrow, but I was able to find a small but moving Holocaust memorial in the park just behind Notre Dame. Though hidden and sparsely adorned, it was a solemn tribute that needed no words or images to convey its message.

Because I am a sadist, I decided to walk back to the Louvre for round two, since my ticket was good for the day. This time, I had one particular exhibit in mind: Napoleon's apartments, restored to look as if the little man himself were still kicking it there. The instant I walked in, I felt as though I had been there before, which, in fact, I have, about ten years ago. After a truly wonderful day of exploring Paris on my own, it was finally time to socialize a bit, so I started hour-long march number two, heading off in the direction of the Eiffel Tower to meet up with my friends and find out what they had been up to. Along the way, I of course stopped in just about every pastry shop I saw, debating the pros and cons of every pastry option. Finally, I made a choice: macarons. Seeing as it was nearly 6:00 pm, I kept i light, sampling a coffee and a pecan macaron. Let's just say that there was a party going on in, on, and around my mouth.

The journey finally came to an end as I found the rest of my fell0w-tourists at a cafe and we headed off to dinner, this time on the metro. After some meandering, we settled on a promising bistro and wine bar. When I asked the waiter her opinion on which mussels I should get, she was a little iffy, which I found odd. But when I inquired about the duck confit, she instantly lit up. My only response was to close my menu and smile. Canard confit it would be. And boy was she right.

Underneath a deeply browned skin was meat that literally fell apart at the touch of a fork, moist and flavorful. Alongside it were heavenly roasted potatoes and simple haricot verts, both of which I dipped in the spiciest of dijon mustards sitting on the table. Like I said, I am a sadist. To drink, I ordered myself a carafe of Cotes de Rhone Bertrand. It grew on me as the meal went on and accompanied the duck well, but it was nothing special compared to its poultry counterpart.

Because no day in Paris would be complete without one final indulgence, and I had already had my crepe for the day, on my back to the metro to head home I popped into the nearest bakery and ogled the selection. Pie and tarts tend to be my go-to bakery items, my vice really. The choice was not easy, as the spread ranged from pear to pecan, from cheese to flan. Finally, though, I had to make up my mind, and I went with the new and unknown: rhubarb. Though I am familiar with rhubarb as a popular pie filler, often accompanying strawberry, I've never before had it. So that made up my mind, and I was in no way disappointed. Walking to the Bastille to catch the metro home, rhubarb pie in hand, I could only think, "I hope tomorrow is as good."

(As a side note, I for once have a camera for this trip, as my friend Kelsey generously lent me her spare. I don't have the USB cable, so I will upload all the pictures back in Barcelona.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Aux Champs-Élysées. Au soleil, sous la pluie.

That's right, you guessed it. Tomorrow, I'll be singing my way around Paris, sipping wine, eating macarons, and living it up. It's been a long time coming and I am giddy as can be.

Despite the fact that I have been before, though it was far too long ago, Paris was instantly at the top of my list of places to go when I knew I would be spending the semester in Europe. I've already been to Amsterdam this semester, which was undoubtedly a trip, and a fantastic city that I would more than happily return to. But, the allure of Paris was, and is, greater. What it is, who can say?

Oh wait, I can: The food and wine of course!

If you know anything about me at all, it should be these three things: I like to bike, I like to eat, and I like to drink good wine. Period. Evan in a sentence. And if Paris is not the epicenter of the gastronomical world, then I've been sorely mislead. Through in an obvious affinity for cycling in all of France, and you have the makings for a match made in heaven.

Sure, you could say that Barcelona offers many of the same things. After all, on CNN's list of the world's Top 50 restaurants that I read before leaving for the semester, Spain notched five spots. And both Barcelona and Spain as a whole certainly have all the above attributes, and I did choose to spend the semester in Barcelona for a reason. But still, something about Paris is different. If I knew exactly what, I would tell you. Since I was only 11 years old the last time I was there, though, I can't say I know. I'm hoping that by the time I get back on Sunday I'll have an answer for you. Until then, it's munch, munch, munch, munch, munch. Oh, and gulp, gulp, gulp too.

I'll try to do a little food blogging while there. (Obviously there won't be any bike blogging since I don't trust EasyJet with my bike, and the fee would set me back a whole lot of meals and whole lot of bottles of wine.) My accommodations are going to be just as good as my provisions, too. For the first two nights I'm going to stay in my cousin's apartment. For the second two, my mom was able to set me up with a gorgeous room in a four-star hotel de gratis to help solve a little housing crisis my friends and I had last evening. That works for me. Thanks, Mom. I'll have a drink for you.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The morning special

It's currently not even 3:00 pm yet, and my food count today is already through the roof. So far, I have eaten:
2 eggs, 1/2 a baguette with jam (breakfast)
1 Nutella and honey sandwich, 1/2 peanut butter sandwich (on the bike)
1 large unidentified pastry (post-ride)
1 entire mushroom pizza, meant for two (lunch)
1 tuna bocadillo (lunch number 2)

As a side note, for you unfortunate Americans still eating sandwiches between two pieces of sliced bread, a bocadillo is the Spanish version of a sandwich, made on a baguette and usually with some form of ham, tuna, or a tortilla. We could learn a thing or two from them about bread selection.

Anyway, the reason for the absurd amount of food I have torn into today is this morning's ride. A few weeks ago, I met Ismael, a cyclist from a town nearby whom I saw on a ride one day and decided to approach and ask if I could come alone. To make a long story short, I would say we have become friends very quickly and have ridden together often. This morning, I joined Ismael and some of his friends on a great ride. It would not have been too hunger-inducing, despite the extremely fast pace for November thanks to one or two very eager beavers, but the 45 minutes of riding pre- and post-route, both of which included 5-6km of climbing, tacked on enough to put me deep in the hunger cave. Fortunately, there is lots of daylight left for me to dig myself out of that cave, fork and knife in hand.

And that is one of the beauties of getting out and riding in the morning: you can ride 4+ hours and still actually have a day. Rather than leaving at 10 or 11 and not getting home until well into the afternoon, I was home by 12:30, a quality morning in the saddle already in my legs. You know that saying, "Why do today what can be put off for tomorrow?" Well, I couldn't disagree more.

Finally, I have to say how lucky I am to have met Ismael, as well as all the other riders I have befriended here. Walking around the city, going to museums, and traveling to other European destinations are all ways to explore a new place while abroad, and there is nothing wrong with any of them. But for me, there is no better way to see a place than to spend time with the people who live there and know it best. And perched atop a bicycle, it all goes by at just the right speed. Excuse me for butchering this, but a friend of mine once said to me, "A bicycle is the perfect way to see the world. By foot, you go too slowly to see enough. In a car, it goes by too quickly to see anything at all. On a bike, everything is just right." Now that I can agree with.

Friday, November 12, 2010

When things go right

Some things are just blog-worthy. What I have been up to in the four months since my last post, not blog-worthy. Today's events, definitely so. To give you some context in as few words as possible, though, I am currently in Barcelona, where I have been since August to study abroad and will be until December. Four months, in a nutshell.

Anyway, today I finally got the chance to do something that I have been hoping to do and excitedly looking forward to since I first confirmed that I would coming to Barcelona: ride with Michael Barry. We had never met before, but thanks to his writing in the New York Times, Velonews, and his own blog, not to mention his racing, I knew I admired the man. So I shot him an email and hoped for the best. To my delight, his answer was yes. (So this doesn't turn into a game of Jeopardy, my question was whether or not I could come to his hometown of Girona to ride together.) It never hurts to ask.

So at 6:30 am I was making coffee and eggs before hopping on the bike to catch the 8:15 train to Girona. By 10, we were rolling over to a cafe to pick up a friend of Michael's and then off to the open roads. Since I don't want to sound like some teenage pop-star groupie, though I guess I am in my own nerdy way, I'll just say that the day was everything I hoped it would be. The riding was fantastic, and I'm wondering why I don't live in Girona already. We climbed to a gorgeous reservoir that feeds (if that is the right word for drinking water) Barcelona, before ascending what I can only describe as a dirt and rock wall. With hardly a car to share the road with for the majority of the ride, we could pedal and talk care-free for 4 hours. Topped off with a delicious lunch back in Girona, the day could not have been better.

And that is one of things I love most about this sport: how easily we can share it. No matter how badly I wanted to, I could not go play catch with, say, Derek Jeter - though I would never actually want to since I am an unfortunate but painfully loyal Mets fan. But one of my favorite cyclists? No problem. And the fact that he's willing to host me in his hometown and on his favorite roads, even better. Like I said before, it never hurts to ask.

"So, how do we know you aren't just making this up to make us all jealous?" you might ask. Well, I don't own a camera, as I told my dad when he said I should bring one along. Fortunately, though, Michael does own a camera, so there are few pictures from the day so that especially all you New Englanders can be jealous of what I'm getting to do in the so-called winter here in Spain. I may miss fall in New England, and I most definitely miss apple pie (had to get a food reference in there somewhere), but I sure as hell don't miss freezing my balls off.

I'm not going to make any promises, but I will try to make blogging a more regular thing again. If nothing else, it will at least give me a reason to go find and do worthwhile things to blog about. And if anyone knows where to find a good pie in Spain, please let me know. The pastries here are delicious and cheap, but something about that gooey, fruity filling encased in a flaky and crunchy pie crust is just irreplaceable. The apple tarts just aren't cutting it.

Monday, July 5, 2010

It's Getting Hot In Here

My living room that is. One month removed from the worst crash of my career so far, and hopefully the worst I'll ever have, I'm happy to say that I've found peace, and a routine. Though unwanted and at times utterly demoralizing, this forced break has caused me to take a step back and reassess my approach to training and my connection to this sport.

Starting with the latter, I now know beyond all doubt that I love cycling. It' been 4 weeks since I've seen a road or raced my bike, and I can honestly say that I do not feel whole. I'm definitely eager to be back. As for the former, I've adopted a somewhat new approach to training that has allowed me to settle into a very tolerable routine on the trainer. Not only has this change in direction helped me get through this time and stay in shape, but I am confident that it will both bring me back in better form than ever before and serve me well in the future as I continue to apply it back on the road.

Admittedly, this past month has not been all unicorns and rainbows. There have been some darker days that have admittedly reduced me to a state of considerable depression. It sucks when you can't do the things you love. There is just no other way to put it. But when you truly love them, you do the best you can and you survive. You find inspiration all around you and you realize that time heals all wounds, and that soon enough you will have those things back. Today, that inspiration came from cycling itself. It came from Sylvain Chavanel.

Recovering from a skull fracture just 2 months ago, Chavanel returned to racing with gusto and with love. The tears he shed today were not just the tears of some overly emotional athlete, like the ones we've sees from World Cup players the past few weeks. They were the tears of redemption. They were tears that proved how strong the human heart and will are, and they were the tears that will get me through this last leg of my recovery.

As Chavanel said himself after his win this morning, "It just goes to show that you should never give up. I had a really hard time recovering from my injury two months ago, and even before that I only had some top 20 placings in the Spring Classics even though I was always in the right group. And then, when I think of all these hours of training in front of the TV, watching the Giro... I can put all of that behind me now."

See you all soon.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Winner, winner chicken dinner

I have to admit that I've been struggling lately to keep my head up and not get too down on myself. Anyone reading here probably knows that I've been through a pretty rough stretch lately and it has taken a lot for me to stay positive. It hasn't been getting any easier.

I love to race my bike, and I love to ride my bike. I love to cook, and I most definitely love to eat. These are the things that make me most happy. Right now, though, they've all been taken away from me. I'm stuck on the trainer every single day, trapped indoors with only thumping techno or the endless drone of World Cup fans to drone out the whir of the trainer. That's not bike riding. What more? Cooking is a struggle, as I cannot chop anything and all other kitchen tasks are made ever-more difficult as well. Finally, with less riding than I would be logging sans-injury, I simply cannot eat as much as I would like if I want to maintain my lovely figure. (As you may recall from a previous post, I am a firm believer that happiness is a direct correlation to pancake consumption. And pancake consumption is down, way down.)

Could things be worse? Yes, they most definitely could. But they could be much better too.

Now that you probably think I'm a total downer in need of a good doctor or at least a little "medicinal" relief, I'm going to flip things around on you.

Yesterday, my teammate and awesome friend Emerson Oronte soloed to the win at the Purgatory Road Race. He has been getting stronger weekend after weekend and looks like he is approaching his best form yet just in time for U23 Nationals, where I know he is going to crush it. Though I couldn't be there with him, that win means more to me than I begin to verbalize. It inspires me to work harder than I did before. It presents me with a tangible goal to work toward, namely making myself the best and most determined rider I can so that, when I'm back, I can support my friend better then I could before. Whereas before I was upset as I felt that I was being left behind by those around me who are meeting their goals and achieving success, now I'm just more determined than ever. Whereas before all I had was anger to drive me, now I have inspiration. That's a dangerous combination. So look out, because I'll be back before you know. And now I'm pissed, but with a purpose.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Crash bang boom

So just when I thought I'd hit rock bottom already and was due for some good fortunes, it all came crashing down again...quite literally.

By now, I'm sure that many of you already know about how the P1/2 road race at Connecticut was cut short, so I'll skip the details. That and I am currently typing challenged, and just these two paragraphs have taken me an unduly long amount of time to hammer out. So I'll just skip to my own injury report, following my visit to the orthopedist yesterday.
I'm recovering from my crash and I feel well, but it turns out the damage was worse than I thought. My knee is alright and I should have the green light to ride the trainer by this weekend and will get the stitches out some time next week. My hand, though, is going to keep me out of commission for a bit longer.

My pinky is essentially broken in half, so the fear is that the two plates of bone could slide or rotate out of place, requiring surgery. Also, I badly sprained the ligaments in my thumb, which could degrade into a tear. So I left the orthopedist yesterday in a full hand cast that goes halfway to my elbow. I will need it for 4 weeks and will find out next week whether or not I need surgery.

So that's the report. I'm hoping to start riding the trainer soon and plan to get in the gym as soon as the stitches come out. Maybe I finally won't be so freaking skinny any more. Could be good for me. Who knows.

I'm definitely hopeful to be back in action by Fitchburg, but I wouldn't count on it. This won't be season-ending, but it's going to force a major shift in goals unfortunately. Time to find some perspective. I'll let you know when I do.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On the mend

After some time off from any focused training thanks to my unfortunate affinity for making friends with the front of automobiles, I was finally able to get back to business this past weekend. I made it through a tough week of finals, rode as much as I could, and finally made it to Friday, when I was able to load up the car and head home. What a relief.

So Sunday was the Bear Mountain Spring Classic. Earlier in the year, I had marked the race as an early season goal, but after the recent turn of events I erased all expectations for the race and went into it more with an eye to just enjoy myself and find out where my fitness is right now. The result was no surprise. I cracked sooner than I would have liked and then found myself in a chase group a good way off the back. Fortunately, I had some good company to ride out the race with. Unfortunately, my front wheel, brand new tire and all, decided it did not like having air in it that day. After riding about 2/3 of lap 3 on my now flat tire, I decided to pull out rather than attempt the 50+mph decent. I like my life and very much like to continue living it. The alternative seemed counterproductive to that. And with no neutral wheels to be had at the start/finish, that was the end of my day.

But it's not all bad. I had a great weekend with the team staying at my house, cleaning out all of my pancake mix and putting a serious dent in the ice cream. And the race itself was not all negative either. My legs were not nearly as bad as they could have been, and I think I'm not too far off from returning to from and hopefully putting up some descent results in the near future.

Next up is Sunapee and a little team mini-camp. Maybe I can forge a little form for the up-coming stage races. Who knows.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Alice In Wonderland

Sitting here, beer in hand with nothing on my mind at all, I couldn't be happier. In the words of Alice Cooper, "School's out for summer! School's out for ever! School's been blown to piecessss!"
And damn does it feel good!

I'm not going to go into the details, but it has been a rough week or so for me. Easily the most difficult I have ever gone through. After two major incidents in the course of four days, I was pretty shaken up. I had to cancel my trip to Nationals after the first, and the second sent me into a bit of an existential crisis for a day or so. But a visit from dad, the help from my friends, and a fridge full of beer put me back in a good place. I made it through finals now, am feeling normal again, and am just enjoying life and enjoying my bike. I feel I've learned that I really just need to let go and enjoy the ride, and that if I'm having fun and doing what I love, things will usually just fall into place.

So with all that behind me, I now have summer to look forward to, starting...NOW. I'm headed home tomorrow and the team is then coming down to crash at my place for a fun day of racing at Beat Mt. Hopefully we can pull out a big result to kick of the summer season. My plan is just to have fun and see where I go. No expectations at the moment. Well, except maybe a few more of these...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Not what I had in mind

It's been a rough few weeks.

Starting with the second to last ECCC weekend of the year at Army, I realized that I wasn't riding quite the way I wanted to. Something just wasn't right, and despite being confident in my training and having plenty of energy, something was simply lacking. The sort of power I had come to expect (and need) just was not there. So I took a step back, listened to the people around me and to my own body, and figured out what was going on. The following weekend at Dartmouth, things started to improve.

I wasn't where I would like to be, but you can't expect a complete turnaround in just one week's time. But I could tell that I was on an upward trend, heading the direction I wanted.

Then I got the news that I could head to collegiate nationals in Madison, Wisconsin, which was just a huge morale booster. Despite the major load of finals I have facing me as the semester draws to a close, I could not pass up an opportunity like that. So I booked my flight and hotel and was all set to go. Then today happened.

Less than an hour into my ride today, I found out that car's are hard objects that do not want to be friends with you. Fortunately, the driver was not one of those from all the horror stories we all know, and he helped me get off the road once I was done groaning on the pavement and called the police right away. I was shuttled off to the hospital in an ambulance, where they took care of me quickly and had me on my way in a little over an hour. I feel so lucky to have no serious injuries, just a few cuts and some deep bruising and contusions on my right shin and knee, which took nearly all of the impact. I don't think my bike was so lucky, though. It looks like she is going to be out of commission until this is all cleared up.

As for Nationals, I'm leaving that up in the air. Today is Sunday, and Nationals doesn't kick off until Friday. My flight is scheduled for Wednesday morning, so that leaves me two days to rest and assess my condition. At the moment, I am still determined to go, but I won't make any final decisions just yet. Things could be worse in the morning, so we'll have to see. Not quite the preparation I was hoping for, but I guess all you say is this: Shit happens.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Peanut butter jelly time, peanut butter jelly time

I think you all know the song...

"You probably wouldn’t try to run your Formula 1 car on low−grade, regular−octane fuel, and I haven’t seen any Lamborghini owners lately filling up their ego−soothers with any form of eco−friendly fuel. That’s just not the way things are done, and it’s not the way their engines run. These are high performance vehicles with high performance needs. So you would think that athletes work the same way, right?

Well, not exactly. Sure, we scarf down heaping plates of pasta and stuff our faces with oh−so−delicious energy gels (though vanilla and coffee aren’t all that bad, I swear), but there’s more to it than that. I’m not saying that you can be an elite−level cyclist, or any type of athlete for that matter, and eat nothing but pizza and KFC, though you can certainly better afford the occasional Crave Case than the average American. But at the same time, you aren’t going to get there on nothing but brown rice and tofu either.

Let’s take this past Sunday as our test case. The race: L’Enfer du Nord. In layman’s terms: The Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference (ECCC) Championships, hosted by Dartmouth College. The Men’s A race was 75 miles long, featured a pretty substantial amount of climbing and took somewhere on the order of three and a half hours. Oh, and we raced pretty hard. I should probably mention that. And as you may know from your experiences cruising along the highway well in excess of the legal speed limit, the faster you go, the more fuel you burn. The same applies.

So in order to survive a race like this, one thing is needed above all: calories, calories, calories. And yes, a calorie is a calorie, no matter where it comes from, but when you are trying to fill yourself with upward of 4,000, or even 5,000, of them, things get a little tricky. That plate of pasta isn’t going to cut it anymore, at least not on its own. That’s not to say that you don’t eat it, because pasta is definitely a source of high−quality carbs and is probably still going to be one of your best sources of fuel, but it’s only going to get you so far. This is where my peanut butter and jelly metaphor comes in.

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich serves both as one of the best ways to get that much−needed fuel, while at the same time symbolizing the balance that you need to strike in order to get in enough food without risking losing or gaining weight, both of which will hurt your performance.

The classic PB&J features the ideal ratio of foods for a cyclist: lots of carbs from the bread, some healthy fat and a little protein from the peanut butter, and some quick and tasty energy from the sugary jelly. It’s all there in a nice, neat package. You can wrap it up and put it in your jersey pocket, and it makes the perfect pre− or post−race snack. Personally, I never leave for any race weekend without my trusty Tupperware container filled with four premade and wrapped PB&J’s. And I would bring more too if they would fit.

But there is more to the PB&J than the sandwich itself. There is a lesson. Like I said, healthy carbs and healthy proteins are all great. We need lots, and I mean lots, of them in order to train, recover and race. But there is a time and a place for everything, and that means those “unhealthy” foods fit in somewhere too. If you’re going to get in enough calories, you’re going to have to get it from denser sources. This is where the fun begins.

Peanut butter, of course, is high on the list of approved foods. But right up there with it, and probably higher on most cyclists’ lists — including mine — is Nutella. This fatty, rich, chocolaty spread is pure energy in a jar, and it is calorie−dense and delicious. Did I mention that it’s chocolate?

It’s foods like these that help fill the caloric gaps in your diet that you just can’t account for with healthy foods alone. It takes cookies, French toast, hamburgers, ice cream, eggs, Snickers bars — you name it — to fill us up. Especially when you’re on the lighter side and your stomach probably isn’t big enough to handle large volumes of food, the trick is to choose foods that pack a lot of punch in a smaller package. (Does anyone have some Oreos for me?)

Now, I’m not saying that by riding a bike you get free license to stuff your face with whatever you want whenever you want. Fueling right is absolutely essential to performing well, and knowing when to eat that donut and when to opt for grilled chicken and a big salad is equally as important as any other aspect of your training. But it is a fine line between being a healthy, conscientious eater and being a little too neurotic. Eat too little, and you will suffer, possibly even more than if you eat too much. The key is balance. And that is why I always look to the PB&J.

Now that the ECCC racing season has come to an end, there is one collegiate race left for me before I transition to the rest of my season with my trade team: collegiate nationals. The race is a week from Friday in Madison, Wisc. In the span of 72 miles, the course ascends 8,000 vertical feet, which is simply a whole lot of climbing by any standard. For comparison, Mt. Everest ascends between 11,980 and 15,260 feet when measured from base to summit, depending on which face you start from.

Naturally, I like that. I like to climb, and this race does almost nothing but that. I’m not going to make any promises or predictions, but there is one thing I can guarantee: I’ll be bringing my PB&J."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Army, Crashing, and Shaving

"Sliding across the pavement and off the side of the road as the pack speeds off down the road, all I could think was, “Well, that was dumb.”

If there is one question that I spend more time answering than any other, it has to be the one about why I, and all cyclists, shave my legs.

“Does it make you go faster?” everyone asks. “Is it like swimming?”

No, not really. If you take just a second to consider the physics of it, you will realize no amount of body hair fluttering in the wind could possibly create enough drag to pose a serious detriment to your performance and slow you down. I don’t care if you are as hairy as Austin Powers with a fleecy coat wrapping your body as if the next Ice Age is coming. When you’re battling the wind, it’s just not that important.

But when the pavement is your foe, now that is another story. Imagine the feeling of shedding a few layers of skin as you roll, slide and tumble across rough pavement somewhere in the vicinity of 25 to 30 miles per hour. I’ll give you a hint: It doesn’t tickle. Now add to that the bonus of all that hair you neglected to shave being ripped from its deeply rooted follicles and you have the makings of a truly memorable experience. And hence, I present to you, the razor. (Shaving cream and moisturizer are nice too, but that is another article in and of itself.)

The benefits of the shaved leg go beyond just pain reduction, though. It also greatly aids the clean-up process, as bloodied and dirt-caked hair is not getting in the way as you delicately try to extricate the bits of road from your body. You just had a rough date with some hard asphalt, and life is bad enough at the moment as it is. There is just no need to make things any harder on yourself.

Of course, there is also the vanity aspect of it. Shaving your legs says “I am a bike racer” like nothing else can, save maybe severe and permanent tan lines that make you appear like a human Oreo: brown on the outside, white in the middle. It confers membership to an exclusive club and, depending on who you ask, looks kind of cool. Body builders do it, right? Why not skinny guys in spandex?

Finally, and this is only my personal theory, having shaved legs makes massages that much better. As you work your way up the ranks in the sport, the number of massages you get increases. When you are on a bigger team with a bigger budget, you can afford niceties like masseurs and physical therapists who will gladly and expertly knead your every sinew and muscle fiber, working out those pesky knots that accompany miles of training and travel. With no silly hair to get in the way, their lives are so much easier and undoubtedly so much more pleasant, as I can only imagine the grossness of massage oil mixed with body hair (think Alec Baldwin).

Unfortunately, I am not a pro, and my massages have been few and far between (though definitely pleasant). Therefore, my reasons for shaving, at least for the time being, are largely the first two. This past weekend, though, I was thinking more about the first.

Riding along in the peloton at the ECCC Army race weekend on Sunday, I turned to a friend of mine and said, “If I try to do anything, I give you permission to just smack me.”

We had raced a time trial earlier in the morning and then, in pursuit of some quality training, myself, the aforementioned friend and one other went off for a two-hour ride on the hilly roads around the United States Military Academy. Needless to say, I was a little on the tired side, and sitting in for most of the race would have been prudent. But, despite all this, the ringing of the bell for a preme got me excited, and before I knew it I was attacking into turn one. The next thing I knew, I was sliding along on my left side, headed straight for the guard rail along the side of the road. Fortunately, I was wearing gloves and long sleeves, so that saved some skin. And, of course, my legs were cleanly shaved.

To be honest, the whole situation was quite funny. As I came to a stop, lodged under the guardrail and needing the assistance of the race marshals to get back on my feet and run to the pits to get my free lap and hop back in the race, all I could think was that I had actually just smacked myself. As soon I was back in the race, I found that same friend and told him just that, assuring him that his services would not be needed. At the very least, we got a few laughs out of it.

It’s not so funny now, and I would definitely like to extend my thanks to the ladies at Tufts Health Service for the generous box of bandages. But even more so, I feel I need to thank the people over at the Gillette company for their Mach3 Turbo razor. Its finely honed blades and delicate padding make shaving an enjoyable experience every time. Were it not for them, I might not have had such cleanly shaved appendages, and my discomfort now would probably be all the worse for it.

Hopefully for next week’s installment, I’ll be able to keep it upright."

Thursday, April 15, 2010


More on this to come when I get a chance soon, but for the meantime, here are my reflections on Battenkill from today's Daily:

"I had a personal revelation this weekend. It won’t seem like much on the face of it, and taken out of context it probably seems inconsequentially obvious. But after I backtrack a little, I think you’ll see what I mean. So what was the earthshaking conclusion that I recently came to? Simply this: No one knows me better than I do.

And now for some context.

Last weekend was the Tour of the Battenkill. The biggest single−day Pro−Amateur event of the year in the United States, Battenkill is generally the first big goal on many cyclists’ calendars. After taking second in the Category 3 race last year, I expected nothing less than the top step of the podium this time around. Go big or go home, right?

The big difference this year was that I was in a new field: the Category 2 field. Cat 2 is one level below the top level of amateur racing, and more often than not, the Cat 1’s and 2’s are combined in one field, with a few pros often thrown into the mix as well. But at a race with such an enormous draw like Battenkill, the 2’s are given their own field to race in, providing aspiring riders like me with a golden opportunity to shine.

The usual Battenkill course — on which everyone but the Pro/Cat 1’s and Cat 2’s races — is a 62−mile loop featuring 25 percent dirt roads and a number of climbs. None of them are epically long, but there are enough of them to leave your lungs burning and legs throbbing by the time you reach the line.

The Pro/Cat 1 and Cat 2 racers, though, contest an additional 20 miles, with the added loop including a second trip up one of the race’s more famous obstacles: Juniper Swamp Road. This little beast is a short but incredibly steep dirt hill that would give many cars trouble reaching the summit. Rarely is it the defining moment of the race, but if you’re not careful, it can spell the end of your day.

But that wasn’t my problem. Neither trip up Juniper gave me any trouble, and I crested the summit both times safely in the lead group without expending much effort. As the peloton rolled along on one of the less eventful stretches of paved road not long after, a rider rolled off the front and pedaled away from the field. No big deal. With about 60 miles left to race, none of us was all too concerned. Not long after, a single rider sped up the right side of the road on a slight incline, rapidly forging a gap to the idling peloton and making his way up the road as well. But still, none of us was worried about two lonely riders trying to survive 60−plus miles of dirt, hills and wind. That is a long way to go.

I should have known better. Both of those riders are known for their strength in long breakaways, and the latter of the two has been on an absolute tear all season long (though the season is barely a month old). By the first feed zone, their lead was already over two minutes. But the peloton never showed any sense of urgency, and neither did I.

We continued to take the flat and paved sections at a sadly pedestrian pace, only turning the pedals in earnest when we hit the dirt or began to climb. Then our anger would show. Then we would unleash our fury on one another. But this inconsistent pace always favors the riders in the breakaway, who are consistently putting power to pedal.

Needless to say, we never saw those two riders again. The race was for third now. As for me, a crash on one of the final dirt sectors with about 15 miles to go found me on the wrong end of a split in the field. I was having a moment of weakness after launching an attack of my own on that same long dirt section and had drifted too far back in the field when the crash happened. Forced to slow nearly to a near stop, I didn’t have the snap in my legs to reconnect with the 20 or so riders who were spared. I spent the next hilly dirt section of the course alone, turning myself inside out to regain contact, but to no avail. Back on the pavement, I was reabsorbed by a few other riders, and we formed a chase group. We picked up a few more fading riders along the way, but we never closed the gap. We finished about 50 seconds back of the group ahead, our race now for 21st place — a sorry consolation. I didn’t contest that sprint, and simply rolled in for 30th place. Not exactly the top podium step I had dreamed of the night before.

So where did I go wrong? What foiled my plans for glory? In a word, me. I, and only I, am responsible for the missed opportunity that was the 2010 Tour of the Battenkill. I missed my chance when I watched that rider fly up the road while the peloton thought nothing of it. I let myself down when I didn’t spring from the safety of the complacent peloton myself and try to do what everyone else told me was impossible

“It’s 82 miles,” they all said. “That is suicide. Don’t worry about it — they’ll be back.”

So I listened. I sat there, safely in the field doing what was supposed to be smart: biding my time until the race got truly hard and all the excess baggage was shed from the field and only the strongest remained. But wait, that already happened. Those two brave men up the road had already forced the final selection, and that excess baggage was all the rest of us. And you know what? I should have known better. I should have known that I should have been up the road with them. I should have known that everyone has their strengths, and everyone has their weaknesses. And riding in a 60−plus mile break on challenging terrain, however stupid it supposedly might be, is my strength. I may not have the raw power to drop helpless riders with a searing attack, but give me an advantage on a course like that, and I won’t readily come back.

A little cocky? Maybe. But I think it’s realism. I know what I am good at and I know what I am not. But none of that matters when you don’t even try. None of that matters when you always try to do what is “smart.” Maybe smart doesn’t mean just one thing. Maybe what’s smart for you is stupid for me. Maybe the smart thing to do sometimes isn’t really all that smart. And now I know that. I already knew what I was good at and what I was not; I just didn’t know how to let me be me."

Thursday, April 8, 2010


KILL. That's right, BattenKILL. Know that name. Study that name. Contemplate that name. There is a reason for it.

With just two days to go before the highlight of the early season for virtually every racer in the Northeast, as well as from many other regions, there's no time left for any doubt. If you don't yet know what you are doing it for, you are in serious trouble. Whether you are in it to win, or simply to give it your best shot and enjoy the ride, it makes no difference. At a race like this, there is undoubtedly more than one way to be successful. But you better know what that is for you. You better be toeing that line and pushing those pedals with a clear focus in mind, because nothing else is going to get you through. Nothing else is going to lift you up over climb after and crushing climb, drag you over dirt road after drudging dirt road. If you have a purpose, whatever it may be, and you focus intensely and singly on it, you are going to be OK.

And I am going to say it right now, here in the open for all to read, that my purpose is to win. That's all I want. That's I will accept. But that's just me, and that's just my choice. Here is a little more on that from today's Daily:

"No one looks forward to the day a paper is due. You know well in advance when it is coming, you usually know what it is going to be about, and you know how long it is going to have to be. You go to class (maybe), do the reading (maybe) and, as time goes on, you are hopefully closer to being ready to write that paper. But even the most studious among us can’t really claim to look forward to the deadline. It looms like a storm cloud, growing darker and more ominous with each passing day.

Bike racing just isn’t that way.

At the start of every season, riders sit down, either on their own or with a coach or mentor, and look out over the season ahead. They mark off a few races that they want to win the most — races that suit their strengths and racing style — and they build their entire year with those goals in mind.

Just like writing a paper, there is a process that goes into getting ready for one of these races. You set a due date: the race day, obviously. Then, you start to train. This is like going to class or doing your reading. Hopefully you don’t miss too many important workouts along the way. Sure, a few missed days here or there won’t spell defeat, but unlike writing a paper, you can’t just cram at the last minute and expect to come out on top. In fact, that’s about the worst thing you can do.

So you put in your time on the bike, pedaling away hour after hour. You ride when you want to. You ride when you don’t. You ride when it’s raining. You ride when it’s a fresh spring day. You ride out of joy. You ride out of anger. Whatever it takes, you train. The more you want it, the harder you train. It’s a little like that paper, right? The more it means to you, the more time you seem to be willing to put into it. But no matter what, you still don’t want the day that paper is due to come. It’s always, “Can’t I get just a little more time? An extension?”

But not with bike racing.

That day can’t come soon enough. You hang posters on your wall. You pour over previous years’ results, analyze the start list and memorize the course map.

Two weeks to go. One week to go. Come on, come. Let it be the weekend already. Yes! It’s finally here.

There’s no dread, not in bike racing. No emotion other than excitement, heightened by a touch of apprehension and angst. This Saturday can’t come soon enough. I’ve done my homework. Now I just want to take the exam.

The test is the Tour of the Battenkill on April 10. The biggest single−day race in the United States, it has been the focus of my training since I started riding my bike again with any purpose way back during the Boston winter, when snow was still falling and I otherwise might have just gone skiing. But I knew this was coming. I wanted it to come. Finally, it has. All I want to do is race.

Eighty−two miles. Twenty−five percent dirt roads. Hills. Lots of hills. In short, this is my kind of race. Tactics simply go out the window, and teams lose their advantage. On a course like this, it’s all about who can ride the hardest for the longest. It is a race of attrition and a race of luck. It is a race about desire. Every last one of us knows that from the moment we clip in to the moment we cross the finish line, probably about three−and−a−half hours later, all we are going to know is pain. It’s racing at its purest, suffering at its finest. But you know what? I really can’t wait.

So what makes this different? Why am I literally jumping out of my chair to get to the race on Saturday, but at the same time moaning and groaning about the paper I have due next Wednesday? I knew that both of them were coming. I know that my race is 82 miles long, and I know that my paper needs to be eight pages. I know that both of them are going to hurt, though in markedly different ways. And I’m equally ready for both: I put in all my training ,and I went to all of my classes. So what’s different? What makes the searing pain in my legs from laboring over climb after climb more gratifying than the burning in my retinas from staring at the computer screen all night long?

The answer is purpose. Simple purpose. Each one of those hills has a purpose — namely, to get me one step closer to the finish line, a line that I can point to and visualize. It is a line that I know exists and a line that I can define. It is a line that I want to get to first. But the paper? Sure, handing it in gets me one step closer to a decent grade (I hope) and one step closer to graduation. But where that leads, I have no idea. The finish line is nowhere in sight, and if anything, it is even more complex as it draws near. But not in bike racing. Not on Saturday. The finish line is there; I can see it right now. I know exactly what getting there first means, and I want to get there now."

Friday, April 2, 2010

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a...


Hello, there. Radio silence has resumed once more, but here I am with the newest installment of my weekly series from the Daily, recounting part of my experience last weekend at Johnny Cake Lane # 2. But before I give you that, here's a little something to make you jealous:

If you guessed that this is my new Independent Fabrication steed, courtesy of Team Ora presented by IF, you are right! She is hands down the best bike I have ever ridden, and I don't see myself giving her back any time in the near future, if ever. In the words of the dear Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar: "We're not worthy! We're not worthy!" I promise a full review is to come.

And now, some Daily action:

"Editor’s Note: Evan Cooper is a sophomore, a sports editor for the Daily and an aspiring professional cyclist. He races for the Tufts cycling team and for the elite amateur squad Team Ora presented by Independent Fabrication. This series will chronicle his season as he tries to make racing into more than just a hobby.

“Pedal faster. Please pedal faster. God damn it! Just shut up, deal with it and pedal faster!” If that were all it took, winning races would be a whole lot easier. Unfortunately, things are bit more complicated than that.

It was a cold and windy day on a flat and narrow course. Eighty−five spandex−clad, over−eager men mashed their pedals in anger, fighting through gaps and edging their way forward through the peloton with one common goal in mind: Get near the front. Didn’t they know it’s only March? Didn’t they know it’s only the Johnny Cake Lane Training Series in New York, a minor training race, and that the winner would get just enough prize money to cover his entry fee and gas (if he didn’t drive too far to get here)?

But wait. Over on the right, a click of gears, a whoosh of wind, and suddenly one of those idiots went flying up the road, desperately trying to liberate himself from the clutches of the peloton and forge his way up the road to the breakaway. What a fool — he’ll never make it. Look at him. He’s so … little. Give him a hill to ride up, and then we’ll see what he can do; but here, what does he expect to accomplish? Hold on a second. I should probably go a little easier on this supposed fool. After all, that fool was me.

So just what was I thinking as I put in my feeble attempt to snap the elastic that bound me to the field and prevented me from riding in the breakaway at the front of the race? Well, I was thinking I might win. The course was undeniably not suited to my strengths. Despite mounds of pancakes and loaves (seriously, loaves) of French toast, I am still a lightweight, which means that I like to ride uphill. And when I’m done riding up one hill, I like to ride up another. That’s where I have my best chance to win. That’s where the big men with the muscles bulging from their shorts and biceps bigger than my calves will be left in the dust. But not here. Unfortunately, not every race is designed for climbers like me, and you just cannot afford to wait for those races, especially when they usually don’t come until later in the season. And besides, I’m young and eager, and I want to win.

So there I went, dashing up the road, into a headwind, tucking low over my machine and fighting the pedals to go faster. My gap to the field grew, but so did the pain in my legs.

“Ugh. Here we go.”

As the effort went on, my power dwindled. I was just not ready for this at the moment. The itch in my muscles turned into a burn. The embers in my lungs grew into flames. The cold air I sucked down felt more like acid now. But still, I’m young and eager and I want to win. So I pedaled harder. I looked over my shoulder. The field was in sight, but I had a gap. I thought to myself, “Maybe I can hold it? Click. A harder gear. Come on, suck it up. Get to that bend. If you get to that bend, you’ll be out of sight and maybe they’ll just let you go.”

I dug deeper and came to the bend. I stole another glance over my shoulder. Not what I was hoping to see: the field. A few riders rolled by me as I gasped for air. I wouldn’t have minded rolling all the way to the back of the field and spending the rest of the afternoon chatting it up with the guy who’s just happy to be there and hanging on for dear life. But you can’t win from there, so I got up and out of the saddle, gave the pedals a few kicks, and forced my way into the line of riders near the front. A friendly face appeared next to me. “Had to give it a shot,” I huffed out. A nod. He knew why I did it.

So what was I really thinking? I know what my strengths are. I know what they are not. I know what it takes to break the chains that hold each of us captive in the peloton, and I know when I have it and when I don’t. And at this point in the season, when I’m intentionally going to races with legs weary from training and treating those races as more training, I know better than to expect too much. But still, I’m young and eager, and I want to win. I feel like I have something to prove, partly to those other colorfully clad men and partly to myself. But that’s exactly what gets me into trouble.

Though they are crucial components of success in this sport, youth, eagerness and the desire to win are often intoxicating. I’m like a racehorse with my blinders on and the finish line the only thing in sight. There’s nothing wrong with intensity and focus, but there is such a thing as wanting it too much. It is when you want to win too badly that you don’t win at all; it is when you will do anything to win that you are bound to fail.

I could make the move on a course like this. I could win on a course like this. I’ve done it before and I’m going to do it again, but it won’t be because I suddenly develop the power output of someone whose right quadriceps probably weighs more than my entire torso. No, it’s going to be because I finally remember that I’m here for more than just winning. I am here for fun. Riding my bike is fun. Racing my bike is fun. And sure, wearing spandex is even fun. Next time I’ll remember that. Next time I’ll race with my head. And because of that, maybe next time I’ll win."