So near, so far

July 21, 2015 § 34 Comments

We are only two days from Berlin but it might as well be two hundred. It’s 4:36 in the afternoon and Woodrow is sound asleep. We checked in fifteen minutes ago. Our room is at the intersection of two farm roads, nine miles from the nearest town. We have no food for dinner or breakfast other than the leftovers I brought from Leipzig: a few slices of black bread, some raisins, an apple, and half a jar of jam.Today should have been easy, a 40-miler over gently rolling farm land with a whipping tailwind. It started perfectly with a huge hostile youth breakfast buffet and a quart of coffee. The forty or fifty bites we had from the bedbugs were a minor issue.

We were on the road before seven and within the first half hour the day went sideways and kept on spinning as I made a very wrong turn at a construction detour.

In a car when you go an hour out of the way you flip the car around, scream “fuck” a few times, and endure your wife’s 37 gentle reminders about how she told you to go left and why didn’t you stop and ask?

On a bike it’s all that except you have to pedal back the way you came and if you’re with Woodrow you feel doubly shitty because he’s still cheerful and says “It’s okay, Dad, everybody makes mistakes.”

We got back on the road to Torgau and the problems refused to take the day off. First we had a massive construction detour and then before Eilenburg we got kicked off the highway because it was suddenly for cars only. We sauntered into town, had chocolate croissants and coffee, and remounted.

For a long while things went great. Woodrow pulled down long stretches of bike path and if there is something better than sitting on your son’s wheel on a sunny day abroad I don’t know what it is.

Just before Torgau we hit another detour and it almost proved catastrophic. The already narrow road became narrower and suddenly we were being passed by dozens of giant freight trucks with inches to spare. At one point Woodrow got hit hard by the wind being shed by a passing truck and almost got sucked under its wheels. He instinctively leaned hard and steered for the ditch, which saved his life. We were scared shitless, miles from town and with no other road and no option but continuing.

Then it occurred to me–WWMSD? What would Manslaughter do? He’d fully utilize his MTB, that’s what.

“Ride in front,” I commanded, “and I’ll keep a rear lookout. When a truck comes, I’ll yell ‘truck’ and we’ll hit the ditch and keep pedaling until it passes, then hop back on the tarmac.”

“Ok,” Woodrow said, and for the next five miles that’s exactly what we did, zigzagging from road to ditch and back again. Nothing ups your off-road skills as quickly as the threat of death.

The adrenaline and effort from riding in the ditch wore us out, but we had no more close calls and in Torgau we got lunch and ice cream, and if your adventure ends in ice cream, how bad was it, really?

Unfortunately our hotel room was nine more miles up the road and we resumed ditch-and-tarmac riding after lunch.

Suffice it to say we hate the village of Torgau, but not as much as we’ll hate tomorrow’s stretch to Luckenwalde, which is 40 more miles of the same nonsense. The German drivers are respectful and skilled beyond belief, but the civil engineers definitely consider cyclists third class citizens. Sound familiar, CABO?

Unless you’re on a designated tour route, the bike paths are completely random and stop as abruptly as they begin, which is frustrating when you almost die but which adds to the challenge and therefore the satisfaction. I’m sure that was the engineers’ intent.

The perpetual raw ass from riding in shorts and moldy underwear could have been alleviated with bibs. WHO KNEW???

And …

WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME?

On the other hand, the manliness of crossing Germany by bike with cheesegrater ass is a kind of high water mark in roughing it.

Well, it’s almost six p.m. And the snores next to me have only gotten deeper. His face and arms are tanned with the color you only seem to get after days and days on a bike. Better have a slice of black bread, smear on some jam with my finger, and call it a day.

 

  

 

 

Beat by the slows

July 20, 2015 § 43 Comments

Today I finally cracked. Or rather, Woodrow cracked me. He didn’t do it with speed or strength or endurance, though. He did it with the slows.

Simply put, my son is the slowest rider on earth. The first day I chalked it up to having never ridden more than ten miles in his life and suddenly doing fifty miles uphill into the wind on an MTB with a backpack.

The second day I chalked it up to exhaustion from the day before plus brutal climbing. But as he got fitter and never seemed tired I began to wonder. Was he missing a quadriceps or a lung?

I tried all manner of tricks to speed him up. YOU KNOW THESE.

“Stay on my wheel!”

“Stay ahead of me!”

“stay even with me!”

“Find an easier gear!”

“Find a harder gear!”

“Spin!”

“Lower cadence!”

And of course “Arrrrrrrrrgh!”

All to no avail. Woodrow had his speed, singular, and it was slower than a tooth extraction. There was only one time that he let himself be cajoled off his 9-mph pace, and that was between Gotha and Erfurt. We were passing a pasture and a swarm of horse flies descended on his bare legs. Woodrow hates bugs.

I didn’t know what had happened; all I heard was a yell followed by a near-fatal swerve followed by a 22-mph pace. I leaped to catch on and he drilled it for fifteen solid minutes.

“Damn!” I said. “How come you won’t ride like that all the time? We’d be in Berlin by now.” But he just smiled and notched it back to 9-mph.

It was that deathly slow pace yesterday from Weimar to Wei├čenfels after so many consecutive days of snailing that did me in. We reached the Sport Tourist Hotel to find it empty and the door locked. After a few phone calls the manager answered and drove over to take our money and give us our room. Booking.com had assured me, of course, that mine was the last room so Hurry And Book Now! I laughed at my foolishness while we waited in the rain to enter the empty dorm.

Woodrow was untired and unfazed. “Awesome room, Dad! And the bathroom has soap!”

I lay on the bed wondering how I’d go out and hunt dinner on Sunday night in this tiny town in the middle of Noah’s second flood when everything was closed especially the grocery stores.

We finally found a Turkish place in the Altstadt and wolfed down the cheap cuisine. I noted a familiar pattern: Woodrow immediately recharged after food whereas I, like an old battery, never got back to the place I’d been the day before.

Fortunately our next leg, to Leipzig, was a mere 40km. We climbed out of Wei├čenfels and then hit the long effortless downhill tailwind all the way to Leipzig. Woodrow even notched it up to 11 or 12-mph, but the damage was done: I was crushed and could barely turn the pedals.

Ten kilometers from town we got lost and ended up on a Jay LaPkante dirt track along a fully graffiti-ized gas pipeline and when it dumped us out on the street we were hopelessly lost.

“Ask those two old ladies where the bike path is,” Woodrow said, pointing to two women in their forties.

“Excuse me,” I said in my best German, “can you direct me to the bike path?”

“I’m sorry,” the woman answered in perfect English. “But I don’t understand Polish. Do you speak English or German by any chance?”

At that moment a granny on a clunker came pounding by at a solid 20-mph. “C’mon, Woodrow! She looks like she knows where she’s going!”

“But Dad!” he protested, “She doesn’t know where we’re going!”

Despite the reasonableness of his objection we chased after her. She looked back. “Do you want something?”

“Yes, ma’am! The way to Leipzig!”

“Follow me, junger Mann, I show you the fast way!” Her previous pace was as nothing. She flexed her big legs and shot forward.

What followed was a combination between following Manslaughter down a cliff and Surfer Dan through stacked Santa Monica traffic and Wimberley through a crowded hairpin.

This old Frau was a hammer and she went over curbs, through muddy tracks, blew through orange lights, and passed other cyclists like a crit champ. Her legs were blocky and powerful and she railed the wet cobbled corners on her clunker with total confidence.

“Here we are!” she said, braking beneath the huge tower at Leipzig University. “You and the boy go well.” She put out her hand. “Christa Rothenburger.”

“You’re joking.”

She laughed. “No I’m not. Nice riding, really.” Then she blasted off on her clunker loaded with shopping bags. I wondered which one of them held her Olympic medals.

Woodrow had no idea who she was, he only knew it was the fastest he’d ever imagined riding on a bike and surviving.

We got to the hostile youth, checked in, and I collapsed. It was ten a.m. and all I could think was that the next day’s 50-miler through vales and up hills wasn’t going to be pretty.

  
  
  
  
  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  
 

It’s floodin’ down in Texas

July 19, 2015 § 35 Comments

“There’s only a 43% chance of thunder showers today,” Woodrow said before we started out.

“Those are terrible odds,” I said.

“Not at all. It actually means there’s a 57% chance of it not raining.”

“If the plane only had a 43% chance of crashing would you get in it?”

“Of course not. But you can’t compare the outcome of getting rained on with your plane falling out of the sky.”

“Why not?” I asked as I put my rain jacket in the top of my pack where I could get at it quickly.

“Because one is totally awful and the other isn’t.”

“Have you ever biked in a thunder storm?”

“No, but how bad can it be?”

We left the clean, dry, cozy hostel in Weimar under lowering skies but not before we had descended on the all-you-can-eat-for-seven-euros breakfast bar with incredible ferocity.

  
  
The other hostelites were picking at their food in a bored way when we swooped into the buffet like Fukdude and the Itonfly dudes on the fourth day of Man Tour. That was the day we emptied four giant tureens of oatmeal as the warm-up.

Woodrow and I piled our plates high with salami, black bread, fruit, cheese, and yogurt. I had three servings of cereal and cup after cup of scalding black coffee. The hostelites watched in amazed disgust as we returned again and again to the line.

  
On the road we immediately suffered from the three-mile ascent out of Weimar. Each day had been challenging, either from distance or terrain, and today we faced forty miles of endless rollers punctuated by short steep climbs.

We typically averaged about 10 mph but today was even less. Heavy bikes, backpacks, MTB tires, sneakers, and the constant undulations beat us down quickly.

What amazed me about my son was his refusal to complain and his good cheer. Over the course of the trip he had proved so easy to please: a hot shower, a full belly, a brief stop, ice cream on a sunny day, a cheeseburger when things were rough … this was the principal reason that traveling together was such a joy.

Then outside of Pfifferbach the deluge began. We threw on our jackets but the rain came so furiously that we were instantly drenched. Good thing I’d done sink laundry the night before. We rode for half an hour in the driving rain, which stopped as quickly as it had begun. The sun came out and soon we were completely dry.

In the distance we saw a McDonalds sign and raced for it. There was an outside patio with a canopy and we ordered big hot coffees. As we sat another huge thunderhead formed.

  
  
  
Woodrow looked at me. “Why don’t we stay here until it passes?”

“Sure, but why?”

“You know how when it was raining back there and I was trying to stay with you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, when it’s raining like that and you’re behind someone on a bike their rear wheel throws all the water and crap into your face and eyes.”

“Really?”

“Yep. It was horrible.”

“But not as bad as a plane crash?”

He laughed. “Close, though!”

At that moment the rain restarted. I pulled on a sweater and sipped my hot coffee as the rain pounded down. I thought about how nobody ever just waits out the rain anymore. Our schedules are too tight, and our means of conveyance make the weather irrelevant. Out in the rolling farmland a long way from the next stop on a bicycle you’re vulnerable, and it seems natural to sit back and wait it out.

Which we did. 

  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

DDR redux

July 18, 2015 § 23 Comments

Today was the day in this epic father-son odyssey that the boy became a man, that the weak, diffident, whiny, insecure weakling metamorphosed if not into a full man then at least into something with a visible pair of balls. And I think Woodrow may have grown a bit today as well.

I was feeling a bit of pain from Finger Blogging Syndrome, but that was nothing compared to my advanced case of Rotten Toeliosis, the result of too many days in the same rancid footwear. [Parental discretion advised for the following imagery.]

 

Anticipating huge rain all day we left the youth hostel prison at six sharp after a quick snack of black bread and warm milk, and began what would be an unforgettable day of riding.

  

Things went great right from the start, as in right downhill all the way back to Wutha. We turned onto the bike path for what would be our first stop, in Gotha.

“They’ll have awesome breakfasts and coffee at the station,” I assured Woodrow, who was skeptical and hungry, a bad combo.

“The last time you were really confident I almost died.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“The first day I asked why we weren’t using helmets and you said because we would be going so slow.”

“And?”

“On the descent into Limburg we were passing cars at 70kph.”

  

  
Gotha turned out to be something less than breakfast paradise but at least they had cake.

  

There is a huge infrastructure of bike routes throughout the state of Thuringen, a combination of bike paths and side streets that are very well signed and that take you through countless beautiful small towns, through woods, and along rivers and creeks.

We saw so much of the old DDR, buildings essentially unaltered and cobbled roads unchanged from the bad old days of communism. The down side to the bike routes is that they can be up to double the length of normal roads, which sucks when you’re tired.

  
The solution is to ride on the normal roads, as we saw all the racerish cyclists do. Although the roads are narrow, motorists slow down, don’t honk, and pass when safe.

All the way to Gotha and Erfurt it was essentially downhill with a whipping tailwind. We had terrible food at Joey’s Pizza in Erfurt (who could have guessed?) and totally missed the hip part of town filled with bistros and sidewalk cafes.

   
    
 

However, the rain refused to fall, and when Woodrow gave me the I’m-exhausted-can-take-the-train face, I ignored it and we set out for the final leg of our trip to Weimar.

We knocked out the final segment on nothing but fumes, and collapsed in the town square. “Where’s our hotel?”

“Uh, just up the road a little.”

“Up the road ten miles like last time?” Woodrow asked.

“No, just a couple.” We slogged out if town uphill all the way as storm clouds gathered. We missed the gigantic hostel and blindly pounded up the mountain. When I realized the mistake three miles later Woodrow smiled with his characteristic good humor. “At least we get to go downhil!”

We bombed it just ahead of the raindrops and upon entering our room Woodrow shouted, “Look, Dad! The toilet, shower, and beds are all in one room!”

We did a little happy dance, then we did laundry, and then we were done.

  
 

Hot air b&b

July 17, 2015 § 14 Comments

Our first night in a hotel I was going to use AirB&B even though I had listened to a radio documentary explaining why the sharing economy was nothing more than stupid task rabbits dumping money and data into the pockets of Wall Street investors. I had picked out a lovely space next to the desk of a Vietnamese exchange student which was being offered for the reasonable sum of eleven dollars when I discovered that before you can book a request you have to provide all of your personal information.

This proved what the documentary had alleged: the biggest value is your personal data. It also confirmed that the real evil is that the cheaper prices mean that taxes aren’t being paid as they would be in licensed establishments.

So I deleted my account and booked online. My only criterion was price, and for three nights in a row I had, for about $50, gotten perfectly atrocious accommodations. And yes, that is a card table and yes, those are gang showers.

  
  
  
  
Now we were in East Germany and prices dropped further. We’d booked a room in the Wanderherberge, a mere five miles outside Eisenach. Unfortunately, five miles on an Internet description is about 15km of hilly riding in real life, but we’d been on the train all day and sort of didn’t mind being lied to.

  
  

The most awesome thing about putting your bike on the train is the entry/exit scrum where the non-bike passengers are pushing to get off and three 75-year-olds on electric tandems are trying to untangle their pedals from the asses of random passengers and you’re kicking people in the shins while smiling politely between English oaths like “cocksuckers” that everyone understands but pretends not to while the bells beep the doors close and you realize that you’re on the wrong train.

Fortunately I didn’t have too many problems because prior to entering the country I’d received an official douchebag certification, which I could simply flash and immediately clear a path.

  
In the town of Eisenach we gawked at the statue of Martin Luther but it didn’t look anything like the videos I’d seen of him giving his speech on the Washington Mall. Artistic license, I guess.

  

We found the tourism office and got free maps with terrible directions to our youth hostel. Woodrow was feeling pretty good about not having to ride 30 miles uphill and so was I.

For dinner we bought a big loaf of black bread, salami, cheese, half a gallon of milk, some bananas, and chocolate. “This is real food,” I said.

“And it’s not terrible!” Woodrow added brightly.

“Right!”

We ate and ate and ate.

  
“What’s the schedule tomorrow?”

“We have to leave by six.”

“Why?”

“We’re supposed to have heavy thunderstorms all day.”

Woodrow stared at his black bread. “And where are we riding to?”

“Weimar.”

“How far is that?”

“Fifty-three miles. We backtrack towards Eisenach then head east to Gotha, Erfurt, and Weimar.”

“How long will that take us?”

“Eight hours if it’s flat.”

“Is it flat?”

“No.”

He looked at his bread some more. “Well ,” he said, “it will make a good story, right, Dad?”

I looked at my black bread and chewed it, breaking out a few more teeth. “Right.”

  
  
  
 

A little “train”ing

July 17, 2015 § 25 Comments

At the hotel in Koblenz I opened my backpack to get a minimally smelly t-shirt and was overwhelmed with the smell of dogshit.”Eccch!” said Woodrow. “What’s that?”

I emptied the pack but found nothing except more stench. Then I pulled out the lock and cable. When we had locked the bikes for lunch the cable had drooped onto the rear tire whose deep grooves still had their reservoir of German Shepherd shit. The next hour was spent supervising Woodrow on shit detail.

The next morning we felt like crap, although fresh crap thanks to the sleep and food. I’d been telling Woodrow to stuff himself but his appetite hadn’t really kicked in. “I’m not that hungry.”

“Eat.”

“Okay.”

The ride to Koblenz had been short but had taken all day. We left our hotel after a hearty breakfast that looked a lot like dinner: bread, butter, salami, cheese, hard boiled egg, and lots of coffee. Afraid that MB Jens might have tracked us down, we left quickly.

Our hotel was at the bottom of a gondola that went straight up the cliff to Ehrenbreitstein. I don’t know how long or steep the climb was but I had it in my great-great-great granny gear and was crawling. Halfway up Woodrow started walking. It took an hour to get to the “top” which was a mere break in the ascent. I was already tired, and Woodrow was cracked.

“How much more?” he asked.

“No idea. Let’s just say hours.” This didn’t encourage him much but we were all in. This is where you realize that it’s just you and the hill. I had pushed where I could but the road was too narrow now.

By the second hour we had gone about ten miles, with forty left to go. Atop the next rise we found ourselves on a terrifyingly narrow highway with no shoulder and 80mph traffic. Woodrow got five years’ bike handling experience in the next fifteen minutes and the knobby tires saved our lives as we could go onto the grass when passed by massive speeding trucks.

Finally, still climbing, we came to a bike path and nearly wept. Okay, we wept.

We turned off only to find that after a mile it was singletrack in the forest. “At least on these muddy forest roads there won’t be steep grades,” I assured him, him being whatever state is beyond hopeless.

“What’s this then?” he asked as the dirt road kicked viciously up. We struggled for half an hour and came to a fork. More dirt or we could get back on the B49 and face certain death. We chose death.

At the 1/4 mark we flung our bikes down and ate some nuts, shared an apple, and finished off our water. There was still 20km to get to Limburg. We rode on.

Eventually we arrived at the halfway point. Limburg is a beautiful little town on the Lahn River but its beauty derived not from the scenery but from the lovely, gorgeous, beautiful Burger King at the Bahnhof.

We staggered in and ate Whoppers, fries, cokes, slurped down hot coffee, dumped, and charged our phones. We’d gone thirty miles in three hours, total time closer to four.

“Keep riding or take the train? We’re only halfway.”

“Keep riding,” he said miserably out of duty.

“Okay,” I said miserably out of foolish pride.

Ten kilometers later along the Lahn we went through the village of Runkel. “Dad,” he said without hope, “can we take the train?”

“Thank dog,” I said. “I thought you’d never ask.”

We parked at the station and got tickets but more importantly we got ice cream. Nothing ever tasted so good.

“This is the best miserable time I’ve ever had, Dad,” he said. I knew exactly what he meant. We grinned and had more ice cream.

Now here is a fact: the slowest local train is faster and more comfy than the fastest good bike ride. We got off at the station before Braunfels and pedaled the final 5km which became 10km because we were tricked into another bike path that took us over a huge and nasty climb.

Woodrow could barely stay upright and I was panting to get over the hill.

We descended into Braunfels and found our hotel at the foot of the ancient castle. For dinner I found a Turkish restaurant where we gorged on spicy food. Woodrow ate enough for three large people.

We were sound asleep by eight and didn’t get up until eleven hours later. 

  

  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

Manslaughter would be proud

July 15, 2015 § 34 Comments

Total fucking beatdown. Left Jan’s with a full belly, a quart of coffee coursing through my veins, and big chunks of dogshit stuck between the treads of my MTB tires. I hate MTB tires and especially on this trip over manicured German roads they were totally pointless.
We went through central Bonn where I showed Woodrow the University of Bonn, where I was never expelled from, and even more importantly the bus stop at the Hauptbahnhof where, on my second day in Germany, I staggered off the bus, late for my orientation session, and vomited into the trash can. Memories!  
We dropped down onto the Rhein for what started out as an easy 50-mile pedal. We were going upriver so the gradient was slightly uphill and we had a steady headwind. We were wearing knapsacks; mine was a solid 20 pounds due to the Kryptonite lock and 6-foot cable, and our mountain bikes with the fat tires weighed a good 35 pounds or so.

  The scenery and weather were gorgeous and we stopped at the ruins of the famed Remagen Bridge, where the Allies first crossed the Rhein in WW2.

  
After a while we got tired and hungry. Woodrow, who had prepared for the physical rigor of the trip by reading books, hanging out with friends, and sleeping til noon, had planned our lunch stop in Sinzig. We left the Rhein and ride 3k into town because although the riverfront was lined with restaurants they were all tourist priced instead of Davidson priced.

  
We found a grocery store because we had learned from Frau G. that in addition to coffee and cake we could also get cheap and hearty sandwiches there.

We got underway at one and only had 25 miles to go. But we were tired from the heavy bikes and especially the backpacks. My shoulders were killing me and the pressure from the pack had rammed my jeans where jeans aren’t meant to go, creating great chafing and rawness. The path then took us off the Rhein and for a couple of miles we followed the signs. Finally I got tired of riding in what was plainly the wrong direction.

“Turn here. We gotta get back to the river.”

“But the signs say this way, and we’ve been seeing so many riders in the opposite direction,” Woodrow protested.

“They’re idiots. Come on.”

We dropped down towards the river where the road dead-ended in a soccer field. “Let’s go back,” Woodrow said.

“I can see the path over there and plus we have these idiotic mountain bikes so let’s use them.” We plowed across the field and dropped onto the path. It was paved but cracked and filled with chugholes and overgrown with weeds and there was a huge sign that said “Danger. No entry. Ride at your own risk!”

“Fuck that,” I said.

After a couple of miles the paving ended and there was a singletrack with the giant, 10-foot wall of a motorway immediately on our right and a sheer drop off into the river on our left.

“Let’s go back,” I conceded.

“Let’s see where it goes,” said Woodrow.

“It goes to hell, obviously. But Manslaughter would approve.” So we charged ahead.

For a few miles it was rough but doable and then it became hideously strewn with huge jagged stones. If you went slow you’d fall but if you went fast and picked a bad line you’d plunge into the river below.

This was where Woodrow learned the important father-son bonding lesson of “Good luck, kid,” as my hands were full trying not to die.

This lasted for several miles. The rocks then went away and it was grassy singletrack.

A few miles later including several stops and we reached Koblenz, where we avoided MB Jens and collapsed senselessly into our beds. The second half of the ride had taken four hours. I could barely stand, my back was killing me, Woodrow was in shell shock, and we hadn’t eaten dinner.

We walked to the Lidl to buy dinner but couldn’t unhook a basket because they were all chained together and we couldn’t figure out how to unchain them. Finally we tried to take a basket from a guy who had finished shopping but he got very angry. I explained our problem but he was very suspicious as anyone would be when talking to filthy idiots and he showed us that you had to put in a coin that you got back when you rechained the cart.

We purchased dinner and staggered back, eating dinner in our tiny sweltering room with a broken air conditioner and farts.

  
Tomorrow would be our first hard day, a hilly ride to Braunfels and away from MB Jens. This is the town that immigrants in Texas named New Braunfels after. Woodrow was already checking train schedules.

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