November 15, 2017 Comments Off on Bike path crazy pants
Given the spleen that has been vented lately in L.A. regarding bike lanes, I paid close attention to how an integrated, multi-modal transportation network functioned while I was in Vienna. The city is quite small, about 1.5 million people, and it offers easy transport by walking, cars, buses, streetcars, subways, trains, and bikes.
The city’s bike paths are extensive and very well-planned. There is a bike path ring around the inner city, which is actually more like a “D” than a ring, with the straight side being the Donau river. The city’s bike paths follow many of the major streets, are fairly well marked and maintained, and will take you to any part of the city you want to go. In addition to these transportation-oriented bike paths, there are major touring and recreational paths that provide extensive access to large parks and that crisscross the entire country.
Numerous bike shops exist to support recreational and transportation cycling. The city of Vienna offers free City Bikes for trips that last less than an hour, and there are more than 120 pick-up/drop-off bike areas.
Bike paths play a major role in transportation planning. There is a major bridge crossing the Donau that is for bikes only, a completely separate structure that runs parallel to the one for cars. It is pretty boss to ride across that thing and look over at the cagers and think, “Yo, I got a bridge, too!”
After spending ten days riding in the city and its environs, it became abundantly clear that if the goal of this type of bike infrastructure is to provide an integrated, safe, usable, easily understood cycling network, it is, for the most part, a colossal failure. And if this type of bike infrastructure fails so miserably in a small city that has been committed to including bikes in the transportation grid for decades, then I can only conclude that attempts to do this kind of planning in Los Angeles will also fail, only on a larger and more catastrophic and more expensive scale.
As a backdrop to this anecdotal, off-the-pedal critique, I’d like to note that the only time in Vienna and the surrounding countryside I was able to safely and predictably and comfortably get around was when I rode in the lane and behaved the same way that motor vehicles behave. It was necessary to do this because the bike infrastructure always seemed to run out just when you needed it most. This is of course the same experience that anyone on a bike is familiar with in L.A.
Here is what a mature, open-minded, integrated bike path network looks like in one of the most advanced cities in the world:
- Haphazard AF. The paths start and stop with no warning. Despite being pretty savvy about the routes after nine days of riding, my wife and I got immediately off-path simply riding from the Waehringer Guertel to downtown the one day we tried the City Bikes, getting lost on about as easy and well-trodden a path as there is.
- Massive bike-ped conflict. Although some of the paths were well blocked off from vehicles, they were often side-by-side with pedestrian walkways. In a city that has huge pedestrian traffic, especially the inner city, and where large numbers of those walkers are tourists who have no idea how the bike/ped paths work, there was constant friction between walkers who were on the bike path, and bikers who wound up on the ped path.
- Car cut-throughs. The downtown ring is continually bisected by travel lanes for cars to cut through. Each one of these intersections is a potential collision. It also requires much more attentiveness to navigate the constant cross-traffic than it does to simply ride in the traffic lane with the cars.
- Inadequate signage. When you construct a completely alternate transportation system of bike paths, you apparently run out of money to sign it properly. Hence I found myself having to stop and look and think often, something that drivers never have to do–and that you wouldn’t have to do if you were biking on the street.
- Suburban breakdown. As soon as you got very far out of the main city, the bike paths became few and far between. Out of town they vanished completely. Since ultimately you have to learn how to ride in the street anyway, why bother with having to also learn all of the extra bike path skills and techniques and hazard-avoidance and wayfinding?
- Motorist acceptance. The times I rode along Waehringer Guertel and Linke/Rechte Zeile, hugely busy thoroughfares, I had zero problems with car traffic. The lanes are so much narrower than L.A. that there is no option for cars to squeeze by. They have to change lanes. I could tell they didn’t like it, but I only got honked at a couple of times, and had zero punishment passes or close calls. It was much hairier on the inner city bike path ring, as I was constantly afraid of hitting pedestrians.
- Extreme gutter bunny. Many of the bike paths are nothing but striped lanes up against an endless row of parked cars, with treacherous streetcar rails on the left, for example. It requires inordinate skill to thread these hazards and would be much easier to simply ride out in the lane. Many of these bike paths are only a couple of feet wide, with high curbs and traffic islands for the streetcars.
- False security. The green painted bike paths initially feel safer, but you quickly realize that ped traffic and constant vehicular cross-traffic are omnipresent and lethal. It’s more mentally exhausting to ride the paths than to ride in traffic.
- Inefficiency. You have to go much, much slower than you would in the traffic lane. The easy speed of 20-24 mph that you can hold on the guertels would get you or a pedestrian badly hurt on the painted bikeways in the city.
- Salmoning. Because the bike lane/bike paths create a separate travel maze, it is often faster to salmon for short distances, and I saw lots of people doing it. It drives the cagers crazy and doesn’t look terribly safe; in any event it encourages lawbreaking.
Of all the bike infrastructure I saw, the only ones that really did anything for me were the bike paths along the river and inside the parks, where there were no cars at all. It was pretty cool to zoom along a wide, well maintained, well paved bike path for mile after mile and to see only other cyclists. But as far as using bike paths as an efficient way to get around, it seems to me that by far the easiest, safest, most easily understood, and best way is simply to use the existing roadways and follow the same rules that the cagers do.
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November 14, 2017 Comments Off on Goin’ down the road (feelin’ good)
Why do we travel?
I was wondering that very thing at 6:30 AM on Sunday morning, struggling down a rainy street in Vienna with a cardboard bike box balanced on top of a rolling suitcase as we slowly marched to the subway station. I was also carrying a bright yellow, very giant, rubberized messenger bag that weighed a good twenty pounds, and then on my chest I’d strapped another, smaller rucksack. Even the street people gazed at me in pity.
However, once seated in the extra-economy window seat of a refurbished Aer Lingus jet, I figured I’d make a list of things that happened during my travels, memories that, whether fleeting or permanent, made this such an amazing adventure.
• Black bread. Eat it with butter and plain yogurt and water for lunch, breakfast, and at least one dinner. Whoever said bread and water was prisoner’s fare has never eaten black Austrian bread baked with nuts. I carried a giant loaf of it onto the plane with me, and while my poor fellow travelers were agonizing between the chicken or the beef, I was happily chewing mouthful after mouthful of the staff of life. BTW, it will make you regular for days and days and days.
• City Bike rental. Yasuko and I rented City Bikes, pedaled from our youth prison to downtown, ditched the bikes, had delicious coffee, and used up what was left of our subway tickets for a quick trip home. Total cost for City Bike rental? 1 € registration fee, and free for any trip less than an hour. Winning and fun AF!
• Coffee. You can have ten cups of coffee a day in Vienna and never get tired of it. I did. Cappuccino with schlagobers, melange with schlagobers, schlagobers with schlagobers … it never gets old. Why? Because schlagobers is Viennese for “whipped cream.”
• Pre- and postprandial walks. Every time we went to dinner, we walked 20-30 minutes there and 20-30 minutes back. It was always cold and often raining. When’s the last time you walked anywhere in the rain? It makes arriving so much better.
• The asshole at U.S Preclearance in Dublin. Yep, your government stations American immigration assholes in foreign countries to check your passport and behave like complete jerks. Hope you feel safer! It’s such a better use of tax dollars than, say, housing for the homeless or more pay for teachers.
• Getting ripped off. At a place where they spotted us as obvious tourist wankers, they gave part of our change in fake Polish (?) coinage, which looks almost exactly like euros. D’oh!
• Falafel kebabs. We devoured them in the Turkish kebab shop while watching the Turks sit around and talk animatedly, perhaps arguing about who was going to give us the fake coins.
• Riding in the countryside. Getting lost, asking for directions, being completely confounded by the Lower Austrian dialect; these are some of my favorite things.
• Obnoxious American. Dude was decked out in his LA baseball cap, LA jacket, LA neck chain, and Darth Vader backback harangue the ticket agents in Vienna, in Dublin, and again on the plane for a better seat or a free upgrade, and watching him get sent to his room without any supper.
• The shaving shop at 7 Krugerstrasse. Ogling the incredible array of straight razors and shaving creams and other manly articles for manly facial care.
• Spending money. You can’t take it with you!
• Shipping success! That incredible feeling of taking your bike out of the cardboard box and realizing that nothing is broken.
• The flop. Getting to your hotel and flopping down onto the clean white sheets and puffy pillow.
• Smells. Going down into the subway in the morning and getting hit with that aroma of fresh pastries, freshly baked bread, and hot coffee. Then ordering some.
• Politics. Chatting with my son’s father-in-law about Austrian politics and trying to explain why we elected an insane bully ignoramus as president. And failing.
• Nodding. Standing at the bar in Radler Treff drinking coffee and pretending to understand what the guy was saying.
• Wandering. Ambling through the mall in Lugner City and watching some kind of public concert where everyone was wearing traditional Austrian clothing and playing lights-out brass band music. Viennese = Musicians.
• Mechanical success. Not getting one single flat or having one single mechanical. Not having my headset come loose while descending and have the steering fail. Not losing my brakes.
• Familiarity. Going down the same roads two or three times and starting to feel like I know them.
• Hypocrisy. Bitching about how much crap I brought, much of which I didn’t even wear, and then somehow coming home with even more crap, and cursing as I tried to make the zipper close.
• Street life. Listening to the drunks fight and yell and stumble out on the street late at night.
• Disappearing money. Being astonished at how quickly 100 euros seems to evaporate.
• Sobriety. Falling into bed dead dog tired, but awakening totally refreshed and with no hangover.
• Gluttony. Realizing that no matter how much I ate, it wasn’t going to be enough.
• Buildings. The Euro Magic of pedaling through streets lined with amazing architecture, where virtually every home is a work of art.
• Crookedness. Not getting anywhere in a straight line; thinking I was going one way but actually going completely the opposite way.
• Bike path I. The Donau Canal bike path. Fuggin’ awesome.
• Bike Path II. The Donau Insel. Even more bike path and even more fuggin’ awesome.
• Bike Path III. The bike path that rings the Old CIty. It’s super easy to use, you just have to slow down and pay attention to the markings and not run over clueless tour groups and wankers on Segways.
• Meet-and-beat. Meeting some of the local bikers. Cyclists speak a universal language, and it’s the word “Hammer!”
• Old World elegance. Cafe Hawelka and Cafe Diglas and Cafe Diglas and Cafe Sperl. Snooty AF, but you won’t regret the coffee, and no one cares if you sit there for hours.
• Cobblestones! Fun AF!
• Disappointment. Initiating conversation with dozens of people and having almost all of them answer in English, or worse, having them switch to English the minute you don’t immediately understand everything. Takes you down a few pegs every single time.
• Feeling Germanic. Those conversations where everything was perfect, and the other person let you struggle a little, patiently, and then you got on top of the gear and felt like you were actually speaking German.
• Trainventures. Taking the wrong train. Realizing it ten stops later.
• Shopgasm. Wien Mitte. It’s bustling like Tokyo, super fun and trendy.
• New dining experience. Vapiano. Italian food you will love, and a very unique method of ordering. There are no wait staff; you go directly to the chef and tell her what you want, she makes it for you, and you carry it back to your table.
• Holy Grail. Joseph Brot. My favorite restaurant in Vienna because after you finish you can take home a giant 2-lb. loaf of organic black bread.
• Bike shops everywhere. Cycloholic, Road Bike, and a zillion more, everything from high-end boutiques to general service shops located along the bike path, no less.
• Gaelic. Chatting with the Aer Lingus flight attendant about all of the Gaelic in the Dublin airport and whether anyone actually spoke it. “Not many people, not fluently anyway.”
• Book wormism. Reading my book on the history of Vienna. “Wow,” is all I have to say about that, along with “What a horrifically shameful history of pogroms and seemingly gleeful participation in the Holocaust, for which they don’t appear to have come to grips with.”
• History. Learning about “Red Vienna” and the city’s commitment to social democracy; seeing all of the public housing for ordinary people, where it’s part of the city’s mission to provide affordable housing, not let landlords control the most basic human need after food and clothing.
• GPS? Nein, danke! Maps. Reading lots of maps of Vienna, Lower Austria, and Austria.
• Menu choices. No matter where we went, it seemed like there were plenty of non-meat options on the menu. Even the Austrian Gasthaus, that redoubt of beef and pork, had meatless options. And I took ’em.
• Bookstores. So many and in such variety. I loved Thalia in Wien Mitte, but they were everywhere, and what was even more awesome is that so many people were reading in public.
• Rain. Okay, this is probably a SoCal thing, but it’s really cool to hang out, at least for a little while, in a place where it rains.
And finally, of course, that feeling of dropping your bags in the middle of the floor and happily sighing, “I’m home.”
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November 12, 2017 Comments Off on Euro ride
You wanted to know how the ride was. Well, it was like this:
For starters, you would have loved it; your kind of ride! Tough, long, and diamond hard.I don’t usually get nervous before racing, and certainly not before group rides. But I was anxious, even the night before, which is crazy. I got up at 7:00 to have plenty of time for breakfast and to be out the door at 8:30; the ride started at 9:30 and it would take thirty minutes at the most to get to the Lion’s Bridge. I gave myself time to get lost …
As I pulled on my multiple layers of clothing I toyed with the idea of not even going. “Why am I doing this? It’s going to be stupid. And cold. I’m so over it. Maybe I’ll go back to bed.”
I looked out the window again; if it had been so much as sprinkling I would have bagged it, but the 100% chance of rain predicted in yesterday’s forecast had guaranteed the first perfectly sunny sky in the last ten days. I knew I had to go and I was dreading it.
As I wheeled out from the youth prison a street sweeper walked by, wearing his bright orange hi-viz uniform. It was cold and the wind was blowing, but he patiently swept the refuse from the night before into a pile. He might have been Turkish or Afghan; he didn’t look up. “Good morning,” I said.
He stopped sweeping and turned to face me directly, all of his attention focused on my face. He leaned the broom handle against his broad chest and opened his mouth into the warmest, kindest smile, showing beautiful white teeth that practically glittered in the morning sunshine. “Why thank you, sir! And a most wonderful and beautiful day, and a joyous weekend to you!” Then he turned back to his work every bit as attentively as he had greeted me.
That was the first sign I’d had that it was going to be a good day.
At the Lion’s Bridge there was no one, which was a good sign, although I knew that on a cold day with no Starbucks to hang out at, the riders would probably show up shortly before the start. Thirty minutes is a long time to stand around in the cold. I found a sunny spot in front of a concrete girder that also blocked the howling wind. “Hope we’re not riding into that shit,” I thought.
At 9:25 the bridge was still deserted and I figured I would call it a day. Maybe I’d gotten the location wrong, or more likely, the ride was Sunday only and on Saturday people rode elsewhere. Just as well. I’d get in my last Vienna bike ride, do a couple of climbs, declare victory and go home.
Just before I rode off, a guy rolled up in a Simple Green kit, of all things, clearly there for the ride. He turned out to be from Arizona and didn’t acknowledge my existence. No head nod, nothing. Too cool for out-of-towners with bike lights, obviously. We never exchanged a word the whole day. Whatever.
One by one riders appeared until we had a group of about fifteen. I could tell that they were some hard fuckers. Their kits were worn hard, the kind of wear you get from riding in shitty weather, and riding a lot. Scuffed shoe covers, faded rain capes, frayed sleeve edges, grime on the chain, flecks of dried mud on the underside of the down tube, no matchy-matchy anything, just workmanlike equipment and clothing designed to get the job done. One guy had a rear fender and no helmet, a beanie pulled down over his ears, and he had the effortless spin of someone who’d logged a few miles in his life.
Another guy on a ‘cross bike showed up with no gloves. The high forties wasn’t enough to need anything on his fingers, apparently … these weren’t SoCal fair weather riders, they were cyclists, which meant that they rode their fuggin’ bikes. I laughed to myself, thinking about how when it sprinkles in SoCal, Facebag explodes with proud photos of bikers out riding in the rain. Like I said, these were obviously a hard bunch of fuckers; it showed on their equipment and their clothing, not on their #socmed #bragposts.
I was a few riders from the back and got a good look at everyone. There were four or five riders who were obviously the hitters, but there wasn’t a single person who didn’t look like they knew what they were doing. I’ve never been in a group of that size where everyone was so fit looking and intimidating. And I knew they were keenly aware of the stranger. They were checking me out ten times harder than I was checking out them.
“Who’s this guy?” they were wondering. “And what the hell’s he doing riding here in November?”
No one said a word to me though, at least at the start. There was some quiet conversation between people who knew each other well and rode a shit-ton of miles together, but none of the South Bay friendliness that we shower on new riders. The vibe was, “We’ll find out who you are soon enough.” If there was a #socmed pecking order here, I couldn’t find it. It had the feel I love; you’ll prove your mettle with your legs, not your online bravado and hashtags.
After a little bit, though, the curiosity was overpowering, and a guy named Christoph came up alongside and chatted me up. He’d raced in California in the 90’s, and described himself as the “old man” of the peloton. He was 47. He didn’t look very fit, but the way he pedaled and sat on his bike, you could tell he was a tough bastard, and I knew from experience that way a guy pedals is way more important than how much extra weight he’s carrying. Turns out he raced pro for several years and knew Steve Speaks and Roy Knickman, had raced Redlands, banged bars with L.A. Sheriffs, and knew all of the Subaru-Montgomery racers, among others.
Less than twenty minutes into the four-hour ride we hit the wind. We were riding two by two, and people were taking really short pulls, like a minute or two minutes, max. Each time Christoph and I hit the front it seemed to last a lot longer than that. “The testing has started,” I murmured to myself, keeping my face expressionless. Christoph was stonefaced too, and never wavered until after a bit he’d shout “Off!” and over we’d swing as the next pair put their necks under the executioner’s blade.
The rotation was perfectly organized. No shouting, no instructions, no gatekeepers, horsemen, or sweepers–just fifteen really good riders who were starting out on a long day and knew what to do. It was also interesting because no one pointed anything out. You were expected to watch the road like a hawk and not run over shit. We rode so closely together that you quickly understood where the Euro pack skills come from; they come from training hard on long rides on narrow roads that are never straight.
I could tell right away that there was one rider who was the ride boss; his name was Damir. He had on a Voest Alpine jersey, he wasn’t too big, legs slim but busting out with muscles even wearing tights. The guy he was paired with was the other hitter, and when they pulled, the pace always jumped. I watched Ride Boss grind his partner down over the course of three or four pulls, until the guy had to quit rotating and sit on the back. By now, hardly anyone was on the front for more than thirty seconds except Ride Boss. It was the most horrific wind I’ve ever ridden into, easily a 20 mph cross-headwind that guttered everyone behind in a dual echelon and absolutely flayed whoever was on the front.
Christoph finally had enough and dropped to the back as well. Ride Boss had been checking me out and he decided it was time to put me through my paces. He slid up next to me and in a few minutes we were on the point. He slowly picked it up until I was crouched down over the stem as low as I could get, and the pain was relentless. I knew he was trying to crack me, but I just said to myself, “Fuck it, I won’t be the one to pull off first.”
After about three minutes of awful work into the teeth that howling fucking wind, Ride Boss finally swung over. He’d had enough for that first session, but as we paired up at the back I knew it was just a matter of minutes before we were on the front again. People had that gassed look but no one was quitting. The conversation had evaporated as people counted the minutes until it was their turn again. Like I said, these riders were so fucking tough, even the ones who weren’t pulling. If we’d been in SoCal we’d have lost half the group in the first half hour. No attacks, nothing more than relentless, steady riding.
Ride Boss and I hit the front again and he amped it up until we were both sitting on redline, straightfaced and pretending that this agony didn’t hurt at all. A few seconds before I cracked, he swung over. Now, only four other riders were pulling; everyone else was in survival mode. We hit the wind again and even Ride Boss was starting to look giddy. Still, no one quit. After one particularly horrible effort I knew we must have dropped three or four riders, but nope, everyone was still there.
Eventually we hit the turnaround. I have no idea where we were; it was a long fucking way from anywhere. We’d been pounding out through farm fields northwest of Vienna. Like cyclists everywhere, these guys knew the best roads. The second we turned, the horrible headwind became a monsoon-like tailwind. All the riders who’d been shirking or doing 30-second pulls came to life. The pace got cracking, and each time we reached some tiny little burg there would be a sprint for the city limit sign. The guy from Arizona, who’d taken exactly two baby pulls the whole day, attacked for the first sprint.
Shortly thereafter more than half the group called it a day and took the short way home. We kept going for extra credit; you, friend, would have gone with us. There were no coffee stops, no water bottle refills, no potty breaks, no regroups, nothing. We rode our bikes from the minute the ride started until we got home; four hours of solid-state, full-on riding. Several of the guys were ex-pros, it turned out.
Back at the Lion’s Bridge, Ride Boss and I exchanged emails and phone numbers. “You rode good,” he said. “You’re a tough guy.”
I think that’s the best compliment I’ve ever been given, for anything, by anyone. “Dude,” I said, “you had me on my knees.”
“Nah,” he said. “You go good. That was one of the hardest rides, today. Nice time riding with you. Next time you’re in Vienna, come ride with us again. This ride, it’s the good ride. The other ones are for shit.”
It sure made all of the headaches and hassles of bringing my bike worthwhile. It sure made me glad I did the ride. It sure made me eager to come back and do it again. Friend, you would have fit right in. See you soon.
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November 10, 2017 Comments Off on Tasty streets
To be a cyclist is to be a connoisseur of roads.
Unlike the cager, whose connection with the surface is managed with antilock brakes, computerized independent suspension, power steering, and an onboard radio to drown out the chatter from the road, the cyclist’s life changes from moment to moment depending on the street.
When the surfaces constantly change, cycling is at its peak, with the road going from wet to dry to smooth to rough to paved to dirt, and the rider adapting to the endless differences in order to preserve life and limb. Of all the things that have been fun about riding in Vienna, that has been the best, sampling from an endless buffet of streets.
Today what I wanted, from the minute I left, was coffee. It was cold and damp, and after my experiences with the tricky rails-embedded-in-asphalt, I set out to avoid such roads as best I could, which in Vienna, it turns out, is fairly impossible.
Having done a few five-star climbs on different rides, my goal was to cobble them all together into a single route. Somewhere along the way I’d pull over and get a hot cup of cappuccino; that was the plan. The street buffet was scrumptious! The cobbled, 3k climb up Hoehenstrasse, the crazy door zones-and-rails getting out of town, the steep walls, the twisting climbs, the manicured bike paths, and then … the end of the road.
Or was it?
At road’s end there was a curb and beyond the curb a tiny dirt track, more mud than dirt. “Should I try it? What would MMX do?”
I hopped the curb and plunged down the trail; what looked foreboding turned out to be a beautiful wooded trail with a lush forest on the right and people’s backyards on the left. Off in the distance I could see the end of the trail and the re-start of a gravel road.
Just as I thrilled at having successfully sampled a piece of off-road mud, I swung ’round a bend and ran into a front loader that was bulldozing mud, shrubbery, and undergrowth onto the trail. I was blocked.
“Go ahead? Turn back? What about my white shoes? And what would Surfer Dan do?”
I got off, shouldered my bike, sank my foot shin-deep in freezing mud, and began bushwhacking. The ground sloped away and if my legs hadn’t plunged so far down into the mud I would have fallen down the hill, but I slogged and grunted and thrashed for a couple of hundred yards until I could climb back onto the widened gravel road.
My shoes were caked in mud frosting and my cleats wouldn’t fit into the pedals, so I found a stick and began cleaning off the shoes. I should have been pissed, but I wasn’t. This was total street dessert, a rare vintage with a muddy bouquet and overtones of manure and shrubbery.
Several miles and a couple of hard climbs later I was back in Vienna, rolling along the Donau bike path, still craving that hot cup of coffee, when I blew by a little place called “Radlertreff” with a bike rack out in front. There was also a hanging sign that said “Kaffee.” Since “radler” means “cyclist” and “treff” means “meet” and since bike racks mean “bros” and since “kaffee” means “Fugg’ yeah!” I pulled over and entered the cafe.
As soon as the door slammed shut I realized that this wasn’t a cyclist meet-up joint. It was noon on Thursday, everyone was already hammered, and let’s just say that there wasn’t a lot of lycra, nor was there anything that could have easily fit into any.
Turns out that “radler” is also a kind of alcoholic drink, and what I’d thought was a cyclist cafe was an old boy bar. I ordered a coffee. The guy next to me asked, “Where are you going?”
“Where are you from?”
Everybody thought about that for a minute. “It’s warm in California now, isn’t it?” the guy asked.
“And it’s cold here, isn’t it?”
“And rainy and shitty, too, eh?”
“So what the hell are you doing here?”
“My son is getting married and we’re here for his wedding.”
A chorus of groans broke out from the others. “Married? Oh, no! Stop him! It’s not too late!”
I laughed. “She’s a wonderful local girl.”
They groaned even louder. “So why’s he stealing our women?”
“He’s not,” I said. “He’s staying here.”
The guy next to me brightened up. “Well that’s good, at least. Hey boys,” he said. “Let’s get this nice fellow a couple of drinks to speed him home.”
The drunks all cheered and thumped the table with their fists, big hammy fists that looked like they could hammer posts into dry cement. “Beer and schnapps for the Californian!”
“Oh, thanks, guys, but I can’t. I’m still riding.”
The guy next to me was crestfallen. “What’s that got to do with anything? It’s on us.”
“I’d hate to crash into the river and drown.”
“But it would delay the marriage!” the drunkest guy shouted, and everyone cheered.
“Beer and schnapps and a bath in the Donau for the Californian!” Everyone cheered some more, emptied their glasses, which were already empty, and clamored for refills.
“If you don’t want to damage the bike we can throw you in by yourself and fish you out after you’ve gotten good and mostly drowned,” the guy next to me offered. More cheers.
“Why don’t I come back this summer when the water’s warmer?” I suggested. Everyone cheered.
“That’s a better idea,” he said. “We will all be here. We’re here every day.”
“I’d never have guessed,” I said.
“Here, California. The coffee is on me. Now go and enjoy the boy’s funeral, I mean wedding.”
I hurried out, feeling pretty lucky that I’d avoided a dunking, and even luckier that the coffee was tasty, scalding hot, and had thoroughly warmed me up. The streets had been tasty, but on reflection, the coffee even tastier.
November 9, 2017 Comments Off on In the pink
The lady at the hotel desk looked at me as if I were crazy, leaving in the rain and cold to go “enjoy some cycling.”
“What is to enjoy?” she asked. “It is like saying I going to dentist for enjoyment. It’s crazy.”
“Crazy can be its own kind of fun,” I replied.
I only had an hour and a half because I’d been informed that we were taking a day trip to Bratislava and we had to leave no later than 10:30. I didn’t want to go to Bratislava. I wanted to ride in the rain.
Every time I’ve climbed Johann-Staud Strasse, I’ve gone down this insane descent called Ulmenstrasse. If I were still on Strava I could tell you all the stats but using a non-#socmed description it is long AF, twisty AF, steep AF, and begging to be climbed.
The problem is that I’m not the kind of person who will go down a hill then flip a u-turn and go back up it. I have to actually be using the road as part of a route. I know, stupid.
So today’s stupid involved finding the base of Ulmenstrasse without going out Johann-Staud Strasse. After plenty of map recon to boost my hippocampus I headed out a major street, the rain soaking through to my feet pretty quickly but everything else staying dry. Ish.
You always hear about how good Euros are handling their bikes, and it’s when you get out in the rain on a day like today that you understand why. The street had two sets of streetcar rails laid into the asphalt, and the gaps parallel to the rails were just the right width to devour a bike tire and bring you down on your skull.
Next to the gaps was a section of concrete, not very wide, that had bolts drilled down into it. If you were riding on this section it was bumpy, not a good sensation so close to the deep, wheel-eating grooves. It also put me far enough out into the lane to back up traffic and I could feel the anger. The next section of pavement, further to the right, was very smooth but also very narrow, maybe two feet wide, and it ran flush against a row of parked cars. People were forever getting in and out, so the risk of being doored was constant, and people were pulling away from the curb, so you also had the risk of getting hit. My blazing strobe headlight saved me over and over.
Then, every kilometer or less there would be a traffic island for the streetcars to pull up at. The island ate up the street side parking lane and therefore the parked cars, which was fine, but also the narrow strip of good pavement, narrowing suddenly into just the rails and bolt-studded strip of concrete next to them. So I had to hop over onto the bolt-concrete, which was now flush up against the streetcar island, which itself was a good four or five-inch curb, about the right height to catch a pedal and send your front wheel into the crevice of death next to the streetcar rails.
It was tense going and I made a mental note to find a different route the next time, on a street that didn’t have streetcars. Eventually I got to the street I was looking for, Rosentalergasse. I think it means Pink Valley Street.
Turning up this street was wholly unnecessary, by the way, but it looked twisty on the map and twisty around here usually means a climb. Who doesn’t like to start their ride with a climb?
The road jerked straight up and suddenly I was away from all the traffic and noise. I could hear myself pant as the road got steeper until I was going at that speed where, when you pass a pedestrian, you can see the bloodshot in their eyeballs. No attaboys in Austria, but lots of “Whatthe fukkerya doin’ ridin’ up here?” looks.
Riding a new climb, sort of found, but also sort of lost because you don’t know when the climb will end, I slowed to whatever is slower than a crawl because Rosentalergasse is nasty. Will you think there’s something wrong with me if I tell you I was wet and it was cold and I was inching my way up a steep-ass hill and I was happy?
I made some guess-turns and the climb dumped me out 3/4 of the way up my old buddy Johann-Staud Strasse, but if I continued it would take me down the street I wanted to go up, Ulmenstrasse, so I turned around and got lost trying to find my way out.
And “found” is what I got. Cue second best feeling known to man.
Eventually I reached the base of Ulmenstrasse and after a few minutes I could only think “Dan Cobley.” Dan would love this climb. It was hard beyond belief and long and steep and the oncoming bus filled the whole road so I had to hop the cobbled curb and thread a utility pole and a stone wall and a parked car and then hop back into the lane, all the while struggling uphill.
I felt pretty Euro-ish, and my legs felt great. If Dan had been with me he would have kicked it at the halfway mark and I would have mounted a futile chase and he would have looked back and laughed and either pedaled away or sat up and waited, depending on his mood. But he would have loved this climb, the kind of road that even the locals seem to give a wide berth. And Dan would always be down for it. He wouldn’t care if it were raining or colding or pointlessing as long as it was gritty and hard and steep and it fuggin’ hurt.
I bombed the forested descent back into town, fairly scared because of that carbon-on-carbon, not-so-great-braking feel that fancy wheels have when wet. I navigated back streets to the hotel, avoiding all of the streetcars named desire as well as the ones named knock-down-the-cyclist.
The chunky hotel lady was taking a cigarette break. “Where have you been?”
“Where is there here to ride around? It is nothing but cold and wet and cars and shitty. To ride a bicycle in Vienna is what I think of when I think of hell.”
“I climbed up Rosentalergasse and Ulmenstrasse. Do you know them?”
She shook her head in reply, pulling happily on the warm cigarette. “Should I?”
“Nope,” I said.
November 8, 2017 Comments Off on Lost and found
Today’s rain never materialized so I got to ride in the hills again without the misery of treacherously wet descents and a spinning back wheel on the steeps. The always-wrong weather app says it’s 100% going to rain tomorrow so maybe I can count on a dry ride then, too.
There are a lot of great reasons to ride in a foreign country but one of the best is so that you can find your new best friend. If you ride a lot you have best friend routes, ones that feel more comfortable to you than others. Usually, one route is your favorite. Riding in Vienna I think I’ve discovered my favorite route out of town, up the wall called Johann-Staud Strasse and then through the woods to the tower and then down Ulmenstrasse with its crazy twisting endless hairpins through a fricking neighborhood.
Today everything was going great until I turned onto an arterial that was going to take me to the turnoff to the Exelberg, which is the highest peak near Vienna at about 530m. The arterial was choked with commuter traffic into the city and it was uphill and fairly steep so I had all kinds of vehicles passing me within inches and I was crowded onto a little strip about six inches wide.
However, the cars didn’t pass that fast and there was a good foot or eighteen inches between me and them so it was mostly mutual annoyance rather than chamois-browning fear. The low 40s turned into high 30s up in the hills and it was a damp cold, one that cut right through to your fingertips, but as soon as I turned off towards the Exelberg the traffic vanished and it was steady, heat-generating climbing.
Since getting to Austria I’ve refused to use GPS navigation and have instead bought maps, studied them, and then gone out and gotten lost AF. The most exciting thing about riding without GPS is getting lost and found. Remember when you were a kid and you used to get lost? Or when you started riding and you would get lost AF and you’d be out of food and water and nowhere near a store?
Turns out that was good for you, and reliance on GPS is brain-eating poison. Studies show that if you use GPS you automatically shut off a crucial part of your brain, the hippocampus, and if you continually use GPS your hippocampus will shrivel up into a wizened little nub, useless for anything more complex than finding your way to the fridge. Before GPS the brain had a pretty good system for getting around, but now that everyone uses a dumbphone it’s totally common to run into people who have no sense of direction at all. The more wayfinding technology they have, the more lost they become.
I, on the other hand, have been getting lost AF but then hitting the dopamine high of getting found. Getting found is the best feeling a person can feel. Okay, the second. And you can’t ever get found with GPS because GPS connects a bunch of dots and when you get to the final dot, your destination, you just eat the cheeseburger, but when you get found in cognitive brain mapping, a picture clicks into place.
Paper maps are far superior to GPS mapping as far as the human brain goes because they accelerate the development of your actual cognitive map. You know what I’m talking about; it’s when a particular location becomes part of an existing mental picture, like when a missing puzzle piece clicks perfectly into place. Like I said, second best feeling ever.
In a sense, I’ve been getting lost every few minutes here in Vienna, especially in the beginning, because the existing cognitive map was so tiny and it took so much work to plug in the pieces. The exhaustion behind getting lost occurs when your brain is overwhelmed by the landscape such that it recognizes nothing and you don’t see any part of the picture.
But the beauty of the brain is that it spins overtime even when you’re lost to create coherence, and after each ride I’ve returned to the hotel, studied the map, retraced my route, and locked huge chunks of the puzzle into my mental map. After a few days I have a very perfectly rough picture of the city, and granular maps of the area I’ve now ridden in three separate times. That would never have happened with GPS or by simply following along on a group ride. The anxiety of staying found, getting lost, getting found, and getting lost again keeps me on my toes in a way that GPS never could have.
In fact, I got found two days ago when, at the end of my rope, utterly turned around, frustrated and legs wrecked, I recognized a bank of trash cans that I’d tried to throw a banana peel into on my first ride. The can lids had been locked and I cussed pretty good. The second I saw those garbage receptacles, the whole surrounding area clicked into place including the buildings, the road, the crosswalk, and most importantly, the route back to the hotel. With GPS I might have gotten back more quickly, but no cognitive anything would have remained. Instead I’ve cemented a large section of the city into my head.
This cycle of lost-found-lost-found breeds “found-ness,” but also confidence. How many tourists spend a few days in this city and never remember anything at all about its layout or the location of its important streets, monuments, buildings, and natural features? Most, I’d guess.
Today’s getting-lost event happened between Tulln and the village of Muckendorf in the micro-village of Wipfing as I tried to find the Donau bike path. I interrupted two gabbing housewives to ask directions and they happily obliged, but the local dialect overpowered me and all I could do was nod as if I understood and soldier on. Austria has so many local dialects and they are crazy-hard to understand.
I found another woman and asked her the same thing. “I don’t know, sorry,” she said, which was kind of incredible since as it turned out we were only about 200 yards from the giant Donau River. Finally I asked some dude walking his dog on a berm and he answered in glass clear German that I understood perfectly, and then he translated it into even more perfect English. That feeling of mild panic I’d been having, the feeling of lost, was hitting a crescendo.
I followed his directions and magically reached the base of the levee, exactly where he said it would be. My brain stepped out and took a quick dopamine bath; this was the trail I’d been on a couple of days earlier. However, the bike path was on top, about 30 feet above where I was standing. Luckily there were stairs, and even more luckily they were covered in thick, slick mud. When I got to the top it was worth it, though, because I had a slight tailwind, a deserted bike path, a gentle downhill slope all the way to Vienna, and a massive piece of cognitive mapping had materialized like sculpture from a lump of clay.
With GPS I would have been back on the bike path, but with brain mapping I was both building out the chart and filling it in with crucial details made up of landmarks, distances, the curvature of the river, and all the other things that our brains have used for thousands of years to place us within our environment so that we can get home again.
Back in town I cleaned up and headed off to the bookstore. Vienna is busting out with them, real bookstores filled with actual books, not the Barnes & Ignoble-type places that carry fifty bestsellers, a rack of kids’ books, and a wall of schlock on travel. The bookstore I’ve been hanging out most at is Thalia, at the Wien-Mitte subway stop. It is filled with people browsing and the shop has lots of chairs for you to sit down in and read. Plus, it’s warm, which suits my t-shirt attire perfectly.
I curled up in one of the chairs with a stack of maps and other items. You can’t have too many maps. Really, you can’t.
November 7, 2017 Comments Off on You got a screw loose, Wanky
I went back to the bike shop around the corner and asked the mechanic to swap out the nonexistent brake pads that li’l Joey Cooney had loudly hinted I should replace. This is of course the same Joey who rides around on threadbare tires, proving the old biker maxim that it’s better to talk shit than to do shit.
The shop was closed, which made sense because it was in the middle of the day, and no one in Vienna seemed too concerned about working when they didn’t have to. However, Martin’s shop dog, a big Weimaraner, stood at the door and dared me to come in.
The two-hour lunch break ended at 2:00 and I only had fifteen minutes to wait, but you’d be amazed at how slow time crawls when it’s 41 degrees outside and you’re standing in the drizzle wearing a t-shirt. “You are back?” Martin asked reappearing at exactly two o’clock. “In Vienna we do not wear the t-shirt in winter.”
“Yeah. I need some new, how do you call these? Brake pads.”
“Gummi,” he said and motioned me in while the Weimaraner growled. “Do not worry. He does not hurt anyone until the biting.” He put the bike up on the stand. “So,” he said “why are you actually here in Vienna? It is cold in November you know.”
I shivered. “Yeah. Well my son is getting married and we’re here for a week or so.”
This explanation didn’t appease him. “Yes, but you see it is cold here and raining so we were wondering,” he nodded over at the guy who was leaning up against the wall “why you are here with the bicycle and only wearing the t-shirt?”
“I figured I kind of need to get to know the lay of the land so I brought my bike. And I’ve got a coat back at the motel.”
“Yes, but why are you with the bicycle in November in the rain and the coat in the hotel? There it will not keep you warm too much. Some people bicycle in such times but only because they must. With fenders and jackets because outside it is cold.”
“I dunno, I didn’t know how bad the weather was going to be.”
“But you have the searching Internet and can check weathers easily it seems. It could not have been too big a surprise finding cold in Central Europe during winter and you said you are from Kalifornien and so we are wondering,” he nodded again over at the dude holding up the wall “why you are here?”
“Look, dude,” I said, “I like to ride my fuggin’ bike, okay? I been here once and I’ve seen all the fuggin’ museums I care to see. I don’t care if it’s cold or raining or snowing or if you’re getting fuggin’ annexed by Germany. I just wanna ride my bike. And if I can ride the fuggin’ thing with brakes, that would be awesome.”
He nodded. “This must be the American style. Here in Vienna when it is very cold and raining we do not adventure to the outside on our bicycles and certainly not in the t-shirt with the jacket in the hotel.”
“How many days a year is it not cold and raining? Two?”
“Only a very few,” he said, finishing up with the brake pads. Then as punishment for being so stupid as to come to Vienna in winter with a brakeless bike and not be wearing a jacket he charged me 75 Euros, which is like $4,000 US. “Can I advice you?” he asked.
“Why not? I suppose I’ve paid for it.”
“Are you working on your own bicycle yourself?”
“Yeah. I put it together when I got here.”
“My advising to you is to not do the bicycle work for yourself. Perhaps it is not your profession or strong point.”
“Whatever, dude. I got trained up by Boozy P. before I left so I could take the bike apart and put it back together. Boozy P. is as good as they come.”
“The taking apart is not so difficult as many children can do this. It is the back together putting that requires some attention and experience. Do you see this?” He held the front brake and tried to move the front wheel forward. The whole front end rattled like a loose set of dentures, with enough play in the headset to fit a small marching band into it.
“This means you have not tightened the bolts correctly or at all. In a few more kilometers you will lose all steering and perhaps the head tube of the bicycle will shatter from back and forth movement, likely on the downhill with high speed over very hard cobbled stones.”
“Shit,” I said.
“Yes,” he continued. “If you prefer I can make it wholesome, but you only requested the gummi so I did not want to perform an annoyance.”
“It would have been more annoying to lose the steering at 50.”
“Yes, but perhaps it was the American style, as with t-shirt in winter. Right Udo?” He glanced over at Udo, who nodded. “Let us see if we can make it wholesome.” He loosened the stem bolts, tightened the cap on the steerer tube, then used the torque wrench to snug everything up. “This way you will ride Austrian style, with everything not falling apart in the middle of the pedaling.”
“Thanks, dude,” I said.
“It is not a problem. I have included it in the price.”
Suddenly the 75 Euros seemed like the bargain of my life. The Weimaraner came over and licked my hand. “See you around, Martin. Thanks.”
“It is nothing,” he said. But you know, it was.