Friday, 25 September 2009

Bends, Bikers Bars, Borders & Balls

Italy had arrived; my arse didn’t hurt, I’d had no punctures, not got lost and been enjoying literally minute. Time to crank up the challenge; add mountain passes, one charming yet inexperienced cyclist, sprinkle with burly bikers, garnish with unchartered territories and serve.

Cortina was truly spectacular; imposing mountains surrounding a bowl-shaped valley which soaks up the sun. Vivi and the family Moretti showed me their customary hospitality; chatting, drinking, and eating handsomely for a blissful couple of days.

Bends

The day to pedal on arrived. Vivi, a somewhat novice cyclist by her own judgement, waited nervously as I updated my blog and cruelly faffed about. Faffing complete and bags packed it was time to roll, quite literally, down the mountain. It’s hard to imagine a better cycle path; freshly paved, jaw-dropping views and downhill all the way.

The afternoon ride went without a hitch and we’d made a start up the ominous Passo Mauria when we found a spot camp. This was not just any spot, this was picture perfect. We’d found flat mown ground on the mountain-side, views of the valley, nice dry wood on hand for a camp fire, all under the soft purpley hues of the setting sun. For Vivi’s first night camping ever this was a five star experience.

On waking the prospect of the remaining 600m climb loomed large. If my mountain experiences to date had taught me anything it was to take it slow and steady, and that we did. The quiet weaving road was dappled with light and extraordinary views, as we appreciated it the ascent crept by.

Then we were there; the top, the summit, the most daunting leg of the ride complete - cue photos, video and any other means available to capture the achievement and elation of the moment.

Biker Bars

The downhill was most satisfying, accompanied by yet more impressive vistas. We followed the valley through the afternoon to our intended camping site – some 80+km away.

By nightfall however we were still on the road. Vivi completely unfazed by it all pushed on until we’d reached our destination… only to find no campsite existed, had ever existed or was even nearby. The messengers of this information were some burly blokes at a biker bar. The messengers became our saviours when they offered us a spot to camp in their beer garden; that’ll do nicely!

Lesson: despite tough exteriors, bikers seem quite as friendly as everyone else - see anecdotes about books and their covers. (Now I’ve taken to giving the biker bands a big thumbs up with a response rate I’d previously have baulked at)

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The following morning we fixed the flat tyre Vivi had picked up and pushed on up the valley. We climbed slowly for the best part of four hours, tough work on the legs after the previous day; without the glory of a pass to set sights on. One proper stretch later we were feeling grand while a peering granny watching lost an eyebrow to her hairline.

We neared the Slovenia border by Tarvisio (another biker haven), and used the opportunity to stock up on carbs and provisions. On leaving the town we stumbled upon an innocuous cycle path which turned out to be a real beauty, following an old railway line, straddled by mini waterfalls, valley views and tall pines.

Borders

We passed into Slovenia, through the now redundant border post. The sun was setting behind us and bathed the still magnificent valleys in an idyllic light. Not rusting the map alone we had a quick encounter with some friendly locals which sent us off in the right direction of the campsite. The wonderful cycle path (D2) continued and we were a couple of highly contented cyclists.

The following day we peddled to the picture postcard town of Bled; just 30km away. An ancient church sits amid the lake on a small island, making for a pretty stunning centrepiece to the already impressive mountain backdrop.

After pitching our tent in a superb campsite right on the lake, we gave the bikes a rest and rented a boat. We both took the oars around and to the island and back; it was great fun. The water was fresh but not freezing, so we went for a dip and I took on the newly christened ‘Bled Challenge’ swimming out to the island and back.

The final day’s cycle a mere 65km took us through lush landscapes; before satisfyingly reaching Ljubljana. Vivi had completed her leg, and what a triumph it had been. We had both admitted our trepidation about how she’d cope with the ride and the Passo Mauria; as it turned out we needn’t have worried.

Lesson: if you can take your time, riding is rarely strenuous; if you’re feeling tired, take a break… you’ll get there - so get out there!

Balls

Central Ljubljana was a fitting tribute to our efforts. The city, particularly along the river is welcoming, vibrant, and cosmopolitan. It is a well preserved and charming nest of the Bavarian regency and well worth a visit.

We moseyed round, took in the sights and ate well, particularly the ‘gelatos’; supreme ice-cream to vie Italy for its mantle. Our last supper was at a traditional Slovenian restaurant. The menu translations revealed an ‘exotic’ local delicacy; I was inexorably drawn to trying.

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Lesson: if eating a dish of origin you wouldn’t normally touch or even go near, remove from your mind what it is that’s going in your mouth from the taste; especially when eating bulls testicles!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

You can do it! Brussels to Cortina

The first two weeks of my ride have flown passed yet looking back they have been crammed with more new experiences than I’d encountered in the past few years. The ride and the adventure have well and truly begun.

‘You can do it…’

I would tell myself, calling on the spirit of Lance Armstrong to keep the legs pumping to up a mountain pass – at the end of a long day.

You can do it

The realisation that in spite of having no cycle touring experience, I’m not just hacking the life as a tourer but thoroughly enjoying it. I remember reading: ‘hardship is just an adventure wrongly considered’ and that’s the ethos I’m employing; enjoying the rain and mountains as much as the sun and valleys.

You can do it

My message to you. There is a world of wonderment sitting right on our doorsteps. I couldn’t believe how many fascinating sights there were so close to home. Cycling is a great way to see the world. You needn’t be overly fit, have an expensive bike or even experience. Get a map have your own little micro-adventure, I have no doubt you’ll be rewarded with satisfaction and a zeal to do more.

Brussels to Cortina

The first leg over the next 10 day schlep was time to train. I hadn’t made much time to do extended cycles fully loaded before I left, so I decided to make haste, put the pain on the legs and at the same time save money; the euro isn’t as friendly as it used to be.

Hills

Leaving Brussels heading for Luxembourg, hills appeared and they rapidly grew in size. I gulped. I hadn’t really planned for this, the route I’d chosen was more based on places I’d like to see than the terrain involved. Fortunately help was at hand. Wim & Veerle; two wonderful folks I’d never met, agreed to put me up for the night. After feeding me like a king then generously helped me plan my route a little more clearly for the next week or so; a serious blessing. Not only did this mean less hills and quicker progress but nicer routes to cycle too.

Off I went (details for the cycle enthusiasts) storming along the RV6 cycle route in Belgium, through Bastogne; the site of many epic WWII battles – I have to recommend Band of Brothers drama series at this point, seeing that then cycling through really gave me a poignant appreciation of my surrounds.

Valleys

I seemed to on to a winner on river valley cycle routes and so I continued, down the stunning Saar River valley on the Saar-Radweg cycle route, though Saarbrucken and counter-intuitively back into France to cycle through the picturesque Vosges National Park. I camped under a stunning array of stars surrounded by towering trees that formed a procession along the roadside.

The following day I was back into Germany, again by boat crossing the Rhine near Wissembourg. Here I learnt my first serious lesson: if it’s 30oC+ and super sunny, cover up and take it easy; I didn’t. I was hit with a mild bout of sunstroke. Fortunately Alice a local lady from Karlsruhe guided me on to a tram to Pforzheim where I could find a good place to camp for the night.

I’m not into taking alternative transport if it can be avoided but I actually wanted to ride the tram and the 20km journey was hardly a major shortcut. I’m glad I did. Two soothing Slush-Puppies later I was over the nausea and had found a great spot to stealthily camp by the Nagold river. I slept in my hammock with the water gurgling next to me, by morning I was in much finer fettle.

The next few days I flew down through Germany along the Nagold, Neckar and Iler river valleys – still camping all the way. The high point was reaching the top of a hefty 17% gradient hill after cycling 120kms already that day. I won’t lie, I had to push, nevertheless the determination to get there and the relief at the top was a great feeling of achievement. I was really working myself.

Mountains

The Alps appeared late one night after another 100+ mile cycle. Fortunately the dazzling and somewhat daunting spectacle was eased by the another AoRK (Act of Random Kindness); being given a delicious pizza free by a very friendly delivery place outside Kempten.

The following morning the rain arrived; not drizzle, proper heavy rain - we’re talking torrents on the roads not puddles. However with my Ortlieb panniers bound up tight and my rain jacket on; it was a fun. The mountains looked so mood and mysterious, it made for some cracking photos.

More AoRK abounded when twice in one day the German then Austrian police escorted me off roads not intended for cyclists. One time I knew; it was motorway (which looked safer than the sketchy A-road) - the other I didn’t, too busy gazing at the scenery to see the sign. Both times the police spoke English asked where I was going: ‘South Africa?...’ after looking startled, then seeing my sincerity, they chuckled and sent me on my way. No fines, no nothing. Thanks chaps –quality policing.

Still amid the rains I was ready for my first pass – the Fernpass; height:1280m. I decided to not to push my luck, avoiding a car-only tunnel, adding another 400m to the ascent. The road was perilously thin and heavy with traffic but I stuck to my guns and took the space I needed. You can do it Danny, I’d repeat to myself – and sure enough with the rain flowing in the opposite direction I did.

Flying down the other side was a delight. Open road, hairpins and speed – woohoo! I was lost in happiness and the sense of achievement… but hold up a sec … shiiish… ; a car took a bend on the wrong side of the road, my side. I slammed the breaks; the car flew by; but the incident wasn’t over; the bike slid out from under me at 45kph! I slid down, and with adrenaline pumping pulled myself and my bike out of the road.

The following day I took it a little more steady, made my way to Innsbruck and checked into the relative luxury of the Youth Hostel. It’s a beautiful city… in the centre at least (as with so many; on’t judge a city by its suburbs).

My date with my friend Vivi beckoned, so the following morning I was off for yet another pass. An 800m+ climb to the Brenner Pass. Head down, tunes on, legs pumping, job done. Italy; I have arrived.

The next 24hours flew by, collecting a few more passes en route; and stumbling upon the somewhat bizarre region of northern Italy that feels more like Germany – not two cultures I’d imagined fusing.

The final valley to take me to Cortina was unlike any other, simply breathtaking beauty. I couldn’t stop stopping to take photos. This Italian detour to meet Veronica and visit Cortina really was worth it, for the views alone.

Shortly after, having coasted into Cortina – I was met by the enthusiastic and incredibly hospitable welcoming party of Vivi, her brother Andy and his awesome kids Kristina and Marco. Three bowls of pasta and a good chat later I’d really arrived. Time to put my feet up!