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.