Saturday 31 March 2007

It's Cherry Blossom Time in the District of Columbia

Magnolias in blossom in John Marshall Park,
beside the Canadian Embassy

Friday, March 30, 2007

The weather this week in Washington has been beautiful as Spring arrives triumphant. In the four years I have been here I have never tired of this season, so unlike the muddy, rainy grey Spring we have in Ontario. The air is clean and fresh and the wind blows the promise of a new beginning. I often go for a bicycle ride at lunchtime and today I brought my camera to record cherry blossom time, when the tourists come out of hibernation and invade the District of Columbia in full force.

The Washington Monument, with cherry blossoms

Jefferson Memorial

Leaving affairs and diplomacy behind, I rode out of the Embassy at 12:30 and headed along Constitution Avenue, turning left on 15th Street and passing the Washington Monument. The flags at the Monument are a good indicator of the wind strength I could expect and it looked much better than when I had ridden the same stretch on Tuesday and Wednesday.

When I approached the Tidal Basin I could see the vast hordes of visitors one can always expect at this time of year. And who could blame them for coming? The weather was gorgeous, with clear blue skies, light wind and temperatures around 18C/65F. I had to thread my way past more than the usual number of tour buses and when I reached the Tidal Basin itself I pulled off onto the sidewalk and enjoyed the view.

Putting away the camera and turning away from the Tidal Basin, I rode into East Potomac Park to begin my workout. I passed a sign encouraging people to park there for the Cherry Blossom Festival since there were 1300 more trees to look at. There were no blossoms to be seen there on my Wednesday ride and today, two days later, the trees were simply glorious.

Passing the golf course, I pulled off the road to wait for the inevitable group of racing cyclists to come by. Hains Point is the choice for cycling in downtown DC at lunchtime, both for hardcore racers doing sprint practices and people on sit-up-and-beg bicycles just wanting some fresh air. The road is in excellent condition and has two lanes in one direction so cars can easily pass. There are no stoplights but three stop signs and the loop is around 3 miles in length. I usually do four or five circuits, giving me 17 to 20 miles (28 or 33 kms) in just over an hour with the slow parts coming from and going back to the Embassy.

I am not much of a sprinter but even though I generally do not join the large (and terrifying) group I always find someone to ride with. After I took my second photo, I saw another Squadra Coppi jersey and discovered it was Brian, for whom I will be pet-sitting this weekend. I caught up to him and we were soon joined by a third rider, who was visiting from Pennsylvania. The three of us did five circuits together, practicing our sprinting on the west side of the loop, where there was a slight tailwind. I set the pace for the others since I wanted to get into a higher training zone and they held my wheel until near the end when they both jumped and sprinted. It turned out that Brian and the other rider both came from the Susquehanna Valley and had lots to talk about.

I felt pretty good, and was able to reach 53 km/h (33 mph) on one of my pulls on my old but honourable steel Bianchi, which limits me to a maximum gearing of 52x13. I went slower than I usually do on the east side of the course to recover so my average speed was a bit lower than usual but the workouts were excellent, bringing my heart rate pretty high up. Of course, my average would have been better if it were not for all the cars and buses that kept getting in the way. The Cherry Blossom Festival will run for two weekends, the first being tomorrow, and the crowds will be immense so I am not sure if I can get many more rides in at Hains Point in the coming days. But this week was great!

Wednesday 28 March 2007

The Santiago Road: The Fifth Day

Tuesday, May 28, 2002
Santo Domingo de Calzada to Castrojeriz
134.82 km, total for trip 454.11 km

After getting up early and getting our bikes ready, Max and I decided to head off for the next town for breakfast. He is riding a mountain bike with a fair amount of baggage and even though he is much younger than I am I do not have any trouble keeping up with him on the Marinoni. We roll smoothly along our road, the N120, and chat when we can in a mixture of English and Spanish. The little town of Grañon is off to our left but it looks pretty inconsequential and we do not expect to find any place to eat there.

Belorado is a much more substantial place, with a large square in the centre of town. The town has a long history, having been settled in Roman times, and was a strategic location on the border between Castile and Rioja. It once was an important centre for the tanning industry but it did not look especially prosperous as we rolled into town. But we were able to find a café and sat outside, enjoying our coffee and sandwiches and the sunshine. Afterwards, we walked around the deserted square and looked at the Iglesia de San Pedro, which looked much newer than most of the churches we had seen during our ride. This was not surprising as it was rebuilt in the 17th Century, making it a comparatively modern structure!

Pilgrims walking

The road began to climb gently once we left Belorado and crossed the Tirón River, passing through the villages of Tosanto and Espinosa del Camino. The walking trail for the pilgrims ran parallel to us, sometimes right next to the road, sometimes off in the distance. There was more traffic than I would have liked on this route and almost all of it was big transport trucks.

At Villafranca de Montes de Oca we took a break in a parking lot next to the Iglesia de Santiago, which was built in 1800, replacing another old structure. Although the town was once quite an important stopping point on the Camino, almost nothing is left to look at. The castle, the hospital–just ruins now. The town only has about 200 residents, so when we left the population dropped significantly.

The landscape here is scrubby, rolling hills, with pine and oak trees. Apparently, pilgrims could not locate any landmarks around here and the historical accounts describe them getting lost, and also talk of the wild animals and thieves. It was here that an uprising against the Republic government took place in July 1936, with horrific slaughter, and large numbers of bodies were dumped in the area. A small monument marks the murder of men from Burgos.

I was a lot more concerned about the trucks since the shoulder was not very wide and the flow of traffic was quite steady. After an enjoyable but brief descent the road began to climb steadily for 4-5 kms and with some effort, not having climbed very much since Roncesvalles, I made it up to the top and waited for Max. We had reached the Puerto de la Pedraja which, at 1150 m, divides the watersheds of the Ebro, which flows to the Mediterranean and the Duero, which heads to Portugal and empties into the Atlantic.

We continued along the N120 for another 10 kms or so and turned off the busy road at Santovenia de Oca, heading northwest. We found ourselves once again in deserted countryside, under blue skies with yellow rapeseed blossoms on both sides of the ride. In Atapuerca we saw a lovely 15th C. church, dedicated to San Martín, and rode around the little village, finding a comfortable spot near the church where we ate our bread and cheese. It looked as if it could be a scene from the medieval high time of the pilgrimage, until we noticed a sign for an Internet café!

Atapuerca was one of the earliest town to be taken by the Reconquista, and by 750 there was a significant Christian population. The Camino continues along the top of the limestone Atapuerca Massif and you get an excellent view of the vast flat plains ahead, and a panoramic view of Burgos off to the west.

Our rural road joined the N1 and I was apprehensive that we would have very heavy traffic going into Burgos but this was not the case as thanks to EU money a divided highway could be seen in the distance and it was where all the cars were. We were not on the Camino as it crossed fields going into Burgos but we had an excellent ride along the smooth pavement of the empty road. It was getting very hot as we entered Burgos.

Views of Burgos

Burgos was totally deserted as we rode along the river and into the Plaza Mayor. The sun was blazing down as we came up to the huge white cathedral, whose first stone was laid in 1221. The structure, which only took a mere 23 years to build, continued to be enlarged for the next five centuries. We got off of our bikes and walked around a bit, looking also at the nearby chapels, also all white with soaring arches. Then, because it was so hot–Burgos citizens have a saying about their weather: “nine months of winter, three months of hell”-- we wandered off for ice cream.

Since everything was locked up as tight as a drum in Burgos and we felt pretty good, Max and I decided to continue riding westwards. In retrospect, we should have stayed a day in Burgos and looked at all of the old buildings as it is the city along the Camino that has the most art. At one point in the 15th Century, the city had no fewer than 32 pilgrim hospices. In any event, we rode off along the banks of the Río Arlanzón towards more adventure. We stopped briefly at a large refugio where there were some other cyclists that Max had ridden with previously and we chatted with them but we thought it was too early in the day to stop.

I had foreseen the next difficulty when I was plotting the route at home: the road out of Burgos quickly becomes a limited access highway and I already had enough experience with riding on one of these to last for the trip. I had plotted a route that ran fairly close to the original Camino but would take us a bit to the north. We took a minor road that soon turned into fine gravel and then dust as it led us through Hornillos del Camino. There were a few spots where the gravel was so loose we had to push the bikes for short distances, but we were in good spirits in spite of the heat. The landscape was very open and while there were few trees it was quite scenic. In spite of the thinner (25 mm) tires on my bike I had no difficulty staying with Max on his mountain bike but if the path would have deteriorated further I would have had problems. As it was, we had a real feel, out on the dusty track in the empty countryside, of what it must have been like for the pilgrims of old.


We came to the village of Iglesia and had a nice paved road again. Max was tiring and we had some large climbs ahead and I waited on top for a while near Castellanos de Castro. It was nearly 6 pm and the air was cooling nicely. The sun’s rays had become a soft gold colour, and I took some photos to take advantage of the light.

Max eventually rolled up and then we enjoyed the best section of the trip so far, a 13 km gentle downhill on an excellent empty paved road that let us coast and admire the scenery. To the right was the village of Hontanos, but we ignored the refugio sign and continued onwards.

We came to San Antón, and admired the ruins of what had been a monastery and a hospital, established in 1146 but the remains date mainly from three centuries later. There is a wonderful archway spanning the Camino, and when pilgrims arrived too late to enter the hospice they would sleep underneath this. Each evening the monks laid out food for them in niches in the wall. But now only a warm wind blew and the rest is silence.

Soon our destination for the night, Castrojeriz, came into view. It was quite spectacular, and the road led past a fortified hill. In its heyday the town boasted five churches and seven pilgrim hospices. The castle overlooking the town is actually pre-Roman in origin; Visigoths built on the site later and subsequently it was battled over by Muslims and Christians.

Our host in Castrogeriz

We followed the sign to the refugio, which was fairly high up in town and required some more climbing, but when we got there we discovered it was packed with pilgrims and there was no place for us. In fact, one of the women staying there was quite unpleasant about it. On the way up, I had noticed a sign for another refugio. We returned there and the jolly man running the place said there was space for us. I think he may have been a farmer and was renting out space–at 5 Euros each!–for a bit of extra income. It was quite small but Max and I found a room with two beds and unpacked out stuff. Several other pilgrims arrived soon afterwards but I think we were only about seven in all, unlike the big place up the hill. The shower was cold (really cold, actually) but after our 130 km of riding in the heat and the dust this did not matter so much. After getting cleaned up, we shared our bread and cheese and water and then it was lights out. We all slept the sleep of the just.

Tuesday 27 March 2007

Book Review: Cycling's Golden Age--Heroes of the Postwar Era

I wrote this review for, where it appeared on December 10, 2006.

Heroes of the Postwar Era 1946-1967 - Two summers ago, while sitting in a tiny hotel room the evening before I was to ride up the monumental Stelvio, I turned on the television and discovered a program about cycling’s past. Not able to follow much of the Italian narrative, I was transfixed by the black-and-white footage of an elegant racer, clearly far ahead of the peloton, approaching the finish.

As he sat up, he pulled out a comb and arranged his already-impeccable hair before crossing the line for a the big win. It was Switzerland’s Hugo Koblet, know as the Pedaler of Charm or, even better in German, der schöne Hugo – the Beautiful Hugo. He is prominent in this equally-beautiful book, “Cycling’s Golden Age: Heroes of the Postwar Era 1946-1967," devoted to what was probably Europe’s greatest era in bike racing, from the wreckage of World War II to the Dawn of Merckx.

The Horton Collection has an amazing range of cycling memorabilia

Fast Eddy himself opens the book with a foreward, and then it is divided into chapters with brief profiles on forty different racers. Some are familiar–Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali, Jacques Anquetil–but others much less so. Benoni Beheyt–World Champion in 1963? Michele Dancelli, Milan-San Remo in 1970? Incidentally, the book’s subtitle is misleading as some of the racers were already famous before the war or enjoyed triumphs after 1967.

Each chapter has a concise but invariably interesting account by cycling historian Owen Mulholland, but what makes this book desperately worth having are the illustrations. Since the mid-1990s, Shelly and Brett Horton of San Francisco have been collecting objects and photographs related to bicycle racing from the late 1800s to the present and what must be the cream of their collection appears in this book. Considering they have amassed 18,000 objects and 170,000 (!) photos in their Enchanted Attic, that is saying something.

Memorabilia from the Horton Collection includes a picture of one of Gino Bartali's trophies

First the Holy Relics: Bartali’s 1946 maglia rosa; Coppi’s from 1952; yellow jerseys from Bobet, Anquetil, Nencini, Gimondi; invoices for food from the 1947 Tour de France (including “2 kilograms of jam”); and posters and banners and toys and old newspapers. As evocative as the invariably moth-eaten jerseys are, it is the superlative photographs that reveal the heroics of these legendary riders.

One would be hard-pressed to pick out a favorite from this vast, detailed and beautifully-composed selection. Among the best: a photo of Coppi in the 1948 Tour de France, escorted by fans in their Sunday suits running alongside the road; or Brik Schotte, pushing his bike up the cobbles of Flanders; and Charly Gaul, climbing a muddy mountain road in the 1957 Giro as fans shout encouragement from the snowbanks.

Charley Gaul at the 1957 Giro

And the Beautiful Hugo. The Hortons have what must be the Definitive Collection. It includes his 1950 maglia rosa, 1951 maillot jaune, and 1953 Tour de Romandie and European Champion jerseys. There are trophies and a spectacular ensemble of silver, consisting of a platter, two decanters and six cups engraved with the names of his significant victories. Owen Mullholland describes Koblet as a cycling supernova, who burst onto the scene with victory at the Giro 1950 and then went on to win the Tour de France the next year by over twenty minutes. Then he faded quickly, retired and died, perhaps as a suicide, in a car crash in 1964.

But on Page 65 of this gorgeous book it is still 1951 as someone wearing a black beret and knickerbocker pants passes a water bottle to the elegant Hugo, goggles on his forehead, calm and strong and alone on his bicycle in the mountains on his way to winning the Tour de France.

One can only hope that this will be the first in a series of books centered on the Horton Collection. “Cycling’s Golden Age: Heroes of the Postwar Era 1946-1967,” while not inexpensive, would be a much-appreciated gift for any cycling enthusiast.

Book Review: The Bicycle, by Pryor Dodge

Out of print but worth looking for

In 1988, when living in China, I bought a Shanghai-built Yongjiu ("Forever") bicycle. Reputed to be a copy of a 1936 Raleigh, or a 1938 Legnano, depending on which expert it was, the Yongjiu is clearly from another era: massive steel tubing, rod-operated brakes, a wide, brown sort-of-leather saddle with lots of springs underneath, one speed. It was almost brand new and very inexpensive, so I thought I was buying a bit of history and a nifty souvenir. It looked great, with its deep black enamel finish and chrome flourishes. And it had a sturdy rack, suitable for carrying furniture, or ducks to the market.

After returning to Canada, I had the opportunity to ride the Yongjiu to work once when my regular commuter bike, an elderly Gitane ten-speed, required some major repairs. The five kilometer trip was interminable. The bicycle was awkward and ponderous. It was undergeared for load-carrying, meaning I had to spin at much too fast for comfort. But the bike was so heavy that even speed bumps took on Matterhorn dimensions. The brakes did not appear to slow what little forward progress there was, although I could hear them working. And I had to ride with my feet pointed outwards to prevent my knees from being whacked by the handlebars on every revolution of the crank. And everyone at the office who saw the Yongjiu was enchanted by it.

Mr. Dodge in Paris

This fascination for old bicycles seized Pryor Dodge at an early age. His epiphany was seeing Cantinflas ride a high-wheeler in the film "Around the World in 80 Days" and the result has been many years of collecting old bicycles and related paraphernalia. And this wonderful book, which traces the development of the bicycle from Baron Karl Friedrich Drais von Sauerbronn's Laufmaschine ("Running Machine") of 1817 to the velocipede, with its cranked front wheel, to the elegant but precarious high-wheeler and, finally, the safety bicycle of 1886. The last thirty pages are devoted to the bicycle in the Age of the Automobile, but you can tell Mr. Dodge's heart is not really into relating the story of the BMX or mountain bike.

No, Pryor Dodge loves bicycles from before 1900, when an inventive madness swept the world and the bicycle took so many whimsical forms. One can savour the details of the 1884 Kangaroo geared high-wheeler, the steam-powered velocipede (!), the bamboo bicycle or the bizarre Coventry Rotary Tricycle, whose appearance defies description but which is beautifully illustrated in one of the many superb photos that grace this book. The text, which is somewhat overwhelmed by the quality of the images, is full of interesting facts, conveyed in a clear and attractive style. The photos of bicycles are supplemented by images of posters, medals, club uniforms and other amazing things.

The collection on display

It seems that Mr. Dodge is a generous person and his wonderful collection has not been hoarded away. Instead it has toured the United States and appeared in numerous museums. However, he has not updated his website since 2002 and I am not certain of the collection's current status. I hope that it has been kept together but given what must be its extraordinary value he may perhaps have cashed in his investment. A few years ago the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, Ontario had a display of bicycles and I am certain that if they were not all from Mr. Dodge's collection, some of them must have been.

For anyone with any feeling for bicycles (or gorgeous books), "The Bicycle," which has been published in at least three languages, is a must. It was published by Flammarion in 1996, runs 224 pages and has 341 illustrations. I purchased mine for half-price a few years ago, but now that it is out of print copies are going for around $45. A few years ago I saw stacks of the German edition being sold as remainders for a song. The book is worth seeking out and a fine addition to any collection of cycling books.

And on page 193 is a photo of people in Shanghai riding to work on their Yongjius.

Heroic Madness: My Translation of a 2005 Story from TOUR Magazine

When the Tour de France first headed into the mountains, neither the riders nor their bicycles were prepared for what was to come. TOUR author Juergen Loehle gets a feel for what it was like as he attempts the Ballon d'Alsace, the first climb in a Tour de France, on a period bicycle.

With a speed of 20 km/h, René Pottier conquered the Ballon d’Alsace. We accompanied this rider with the heart of a bulldog for a full day as he undertook this outstanding yet monotonous mission. What mysterious strength does the human organism possess that allows it to push the boundaries of the possible so far?
From a 1906 account of the Tour de France

Unfortunately, I do not have the heart of a bulldog, but perhaps that would not help much in any event. What I really need and am missing is the leg strength of, say, a bull or at least that of a much-lauded track racer such as Jens Fiedler. Since I do not have either, this is going to be really close. Damned close, even. My lower back aches with every murderous pedalstroke and my quads have tightened up in places that, a mere ten minutes ago, I could not have imagined existed.

But first things first. At my desk, the idea had great charm. The Tour de France would be 100 years old in 2003 and it would be interesting to EXPERIENCE with my own body what it must have been like back then. The eyewitnesses are long dead, but some of the equipment had survived. Besides this, according to my wife, I am of the right age that I can look old even without an historical costume. With a leather cap, that’s how to begin. And now I will ride a bicycle from 1900 up the Ballon d’Alsace, a mountain that in the early years of the Tour was seen in much the same way as the Col de Tourmalet or Mont Ventoux are today–a hard test indeed.

Before beginning, I read up on my history and was astonished at the accounts of men like Maurice Garin or René Pottier, men who lit up cigarettes at the start line to “open up their lungs,” as the thinking went back then. Then away they rode, 400 or sometimes nearly 500 kms, and in the middle was the Ballon. On the stages they drank only a little water, since drinking water was bad according, again, to the wisdom of the day. Instead, one took some beer with sugar in it or a respectable gulp of red wine with an egg beaten into it. Well, if that was the case, it could not be soooo hard, I thought as I read and enjoyed a glass of Bordeaux, without the egg. Now, on the road, it strikes me that the efforts of Messrs. Garin, Pottier and Trousselier can simply be summed up in one word: inconceivable.

The adventure begins in Alsatian Seven, a good 10 km below the pass over the Ballon d’Alsace. The weather is comfortably warm and the streets are as empty as if they have been swept clean (which suits me just fine). A few old people shuffle by on their way to the baker’s on the market square. Nobody takes any notice of the weirdo by the fountain, the guy in the old-fashioned clothing with the strange bike, namely me. This is already remarkable. Sure, the Tour has come through here regularly for the last century, but when the cyclists looked the way I do now, not even the oldest grannies and grandpas here were even born yet. Or only a few of them, at the least.

Well, it makes no difference, so I will look a little more closely a my new black friend here. The technicians say that it weighs 13.3 kg and has a fixed cog, giving me a single gear somewhere between 39 x 13 and 39 x 14. There is a brake, too, a sort of rubber stamp attached to a lever that you can press down on top of the front wheel–if you have the strength of a blacksmith in your lower right arm, that is. The heart of a bulldog could be useful after all, since I understand that bulldogs are fearless.

Let’s go. Handlebar firmly gripped, left foot in the cage, push down, right foot threaded in, and tread again. Surprise–I am actually underway. Bicycle and rider, with a combined age of 150. Great. After a few shaky turns around the market square (still nobody paying attention), we roll out of Seven. To the right a lake, to the left fields, it is actually pretty easy. If I wasn’t so restricted, that is. With every revolution, my knees almost graze my hands on the handlebars: there is only the space of a thin book between them. Even holding the drops doesn’t help. The owner of the bicycle has explained that this positioning is a leftover of the previous high-wheeler generation. Ten kilometers should be about the limit, I think.

Suddenly, the road goes gently downhill and my spinning becomes easier and faster. Constantly faster, now too fast, there comes a wide left turn. Normally you could just coast through, but not with this fixed gear. My legs go around like an out-of-control sewing machine. Good God, this is much too fast, time for the brakes. I reach for the lever and pull it for all it’s worth. There is an unpleasant shrieking, like chalk on a blackboard, but practically no other effect.

The photographer is the only witness to my labours to avoid riding into the ditch. I somehow recall a technique, called counterspinning, that means braking by herculean slow-pedalling. This really hurts my knees and it is fast becoming clear to me that there is NO WAY that I am going to descend the other side of the Ballon d’Alsace with this bicycle. Truly, they were nuts back then. And the whole thing on gravel roads. As I say, simply inconceivable. At least from 1912 on there were freewheels.

I wheel by the photographer with my knees turned out and my right arm cramped up. He is sitting in the field and I am certain that he is laughing more than a little. And so I essay in, shall we say, a half-elegant manner, the left curve. The road begins to climb now and for a few seconds my spinning is beautifully round and powerful, the way cycling is meant to be. I think again about good old so-long-deceased Pottier:

“Even here the King of Climbers did not reduce his cadence by a single spin of the pedals.”

I am able to do this myself for nearly 100 meters, then I came to the foot of the Ballon d’Alsace. Pedalling becomes very hard, then, perhaps 200 meters further along, absolutely hellacious. Out of the saddle now, but that doesn’t help either since my knees keep hitting the handlebars. So, sit back down and push, push, push on the pedals.. My upper body flails from left to right, my arms tearing at the handlebars, everywhere under my skin ache muscles that were never constructed for this kind of effort. I feel as if I am riding the 18 percent grade Stohren hill in southwest Baden, even though the road here must only be between six and nine percent.

It was in this area during the1997 Tour, perhaps in this very serpentine curve, that Udo Bölts famously chastised Jan Ullrich, saying: “Put some effort into it, you pig!”. My photographer encourages me instead with a friendly “You’ll make it!” as he drives by in his car and of course I want to make it up.

So the murderous spinning continues. Two riders on racing bikes pull past, rolling in little gears at a high cadence as they overtake me. They are not going a lot faster than me but they are making progress. Surprisingly, they do not seem astonished by the guy on the museum-piece trying to ride to the peak. “Salut!,” says one cheerily. Thanks a lot.

For every two turns of the pedals I move forward just over six meters but soon no movement at all. My lungs are still okay but my legs are miserable, heavy, hard and tired. Stamp the pedals, wheeze, stamp the pedals. Sitting in such a squashed-up manner makes my back hurt with every turn of the crank. Stop whining, put some effort into it, think of Pottier!

After three kilometers the road passes another lake and it becomes a bit flatter, a bit more merciful. A quick glance over the trees and I see the valley below. So at least part of it is accomplished. Another historical spot, where Pottier showed what I would have liked to: elegance and toughness:
“Now the third kilometer is passed and one after another Petit-Breton and Dortinacq look with tired eyes at the ceaseless spinning of the rear wheel of the leader pulling away.”

I see only a sign telling me that I still have 7,000 meters of torture before I reach the summit. Horrible–1,150 agonizing turns of this big gear. Saint Pottier, will this never end?! In the serpentines, particularly, my speed drifts dangerously close to zero and my legs threaten simply to stop in the middle of the revolution. After the next curve, it is clear to me that the boys back then were harder than steel and I am now somewhat softer than butter. One more curve to go.

On the horizon I see the photographer waiting for me. I have to ride at least that far. I recall suddenly a telephone conversation I had with the aforesaid torture-specialist Udo Bölts. He responded drily to my planned adventure with the words: “You’ll never make it.” We’ll see, I replied. Now it looks as if he was right. “Chew into it!” bellows the photographer. What does he think I have been doing for the last twenty minutes?

“Ringeval lost five meters to Pottier but came up with a great burst of strength, only to fall back again. And that was it.”

Exactly, that was it. A last click of the camera and, with shaking legs, I got off the bicycle and into the middle of a flock of goats that had suddenly appeared. I have a fear of goats ever since one in Crete rammed me in the calf with a horn. Of course, Pottier would have probably throttled the creatures with one hand while riding by, or drunk their milk, or both. Was the term “mountain goat” invented here for climbers?

Whatever. The remaining half of the ten kilometers I accomplish on foot, pushing the bicycle. Back in the old days some of the racers did this too, Pottier excepted of course. Perhaps some of those who were dropped had time for a smoke to get more air for the remaining 250 km to Dijon. I prefer to drink water, even if it was not in at the time, and dream about a Gios Carbon frame and Campagnolo parts. Then down again with the car since, as mentioned, braking on the bicycle is even harder than riding it. You just have to imagine what it must have been like–half-dead on the summit and then strength needed to go downhill as well.

A few days after at my desk. Violent muscle cramps in my quads, all from perhaps half an hour of turning the cranks. In addition, stiff calves as if I had been weight-training, not to mention the backache. I would find it very interesting to know how Lance Armstrong would make out on this kind of bicycle. I root around in the archives and find a nice conclusion from 1906, naturally from René Pottier:

It is a lot easier for me to master the Ballon d’Alsace than to write an article for a newspaper.

Not for me. I also do not know what kind of “mysterious strength” was in good old Pottier to allow him to go over the Ballon at 20 k’s an hour. One thing is clear–whatever it is, I don’t have it. Absolutely not.

A Technical Note

Jürgen Löhle’s “black friend” was a “Permanenz”-brand bicycle built in Dresden in 1898. This model, weighing 13.3 kg, was available until 1905 so it met the condition of being a racing bicycle available in 1903. The equipment list is short: a fixed gear, a lever-operated brake for the front wheel, a cottered crankset, a chain with one-inch links, pedals with cages, racing handlebars with no stem, a leather saddle and a saddlepost adjustable horizontally. From its imitation woodgrain-painted steel rims to its beige tires, the bicycle is in original condition. We thank Tilmann Wagenknecht of Erfurt for the friendly loan.

Tuesday 20 March 2007

The Santiago Road: The Fourth Day

Above San Millán

Monday, May 27, 2002
Logroño to Santo Domingo de Calzada 67.92 km,
total for trip 319.29 km

My experience coming into both Pamplona and Logroño was that the outskirts of large Spanish cities are really dreadful and no pleasure to cycle. This was confirmed when I left Logroño and, successfully following the signs taking me in the correct direction, I soon found myself riding the shoulder of a limited-access highway, completely illegal in Spain. Even worse, I was riding into a headwind and the road seemed only to go up. This continued for an interminable 11 kms. Just before it ended, I regained my composure by having breakfast at a highway rest stop but was glad that I was able to get onto the smaller N 120 road soon afterwards. On the highway, I had been passed by a number of police cars but they seemed to be escorting buses and paid me no attention.

I followed the N 120, which was not a terribly interesting road and then soon found myself riding with the three Asturians again but we did not speak a lot because of the effort of fighting the wind. I parted company from them again when I turned south near Nájera. My guidebook suggested that I should go to San Millán de la Cogolla where the monastery was a part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as the route ran along quiet country streets I thought this detour would be worthwhile. However, even though the hills made it a bit more difficult than I had expected, the massive headwind slowed my speed down to almost nothing. When I rode through the town of Cardenas, I actually rode downhill in one of my lowest gears, usually reserved for going up mountains. And the wind howled so much I could hardly hear anything.

By the time I reached San Millán I was quite tired, even though it was only about 18 kms from the N 120. There was a little road behind the village that was supposed to take me to San Millán de Suso where the famous 6th Century hermit San Millán was born, and where he died a century later. But the road went uphill with much more enthusiasm than I could muster. It did give me a view over the village and past the monastery to the impressive mountains behind. There was even snow on one of the peaks, San Lorenzo. I took some pictures and decided to roll down into the village and look around. This was San Millán de Yuso. No confusion here.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered all the buses, and their police escorts, that had overtaken me on the highway had occupied the entire village. The story was that the EU Ministers of Public Works were meeting in Spain and were making a visit to San Millán. The Spanish unions of public servants had organized the buses for a political rally and now the streets of the little village where totally jammed with office workers with signs. They were in a good mood, however, so I was not very worried. I locked the bike up to a post and began to walk. With all the demonstrators, it was a bit difficult to walk through the streets to the monastery. And the village only seemed to have two streets altogether. But when I finally did make it there, I found the monastery surrounded by armed police who were obviously the ministerial escort. So much for my detour.

The monastery in the village became a going concern in the late 11th Century when the upper monastery was deserted and the relics of San Millán brought down from the hill. Under the Benedictine Order the monastery grew and was rebuilt between the 16th and 18th Centuries. It looks massive for such a small village and was perhaps too much in the end. The Benedictines moved out in the 19th Century but other monks have more recently returned to inhabit the building. My guidebook refers to the “interminably long guided tour” so perhaps I did have something to thank the EU Ministers for after all.

After having some bread and cheese and a lot of water, I prepared to ride into the hellish wind again. The scenery was wonderful, but difficult to enjoy and I moved up and down the hills at a snail’s pace. I crawled through Villar de Torre and then soon after saw a big sign marking the location of an 11th Century convent. “Well, that’s what I am here for!,” I thought, and turned eastwards, out of the wind at last.

A short ride of 5 kms took me to Cañas where a Cistercian convent had been founded in 1170. It had flourished through the Middle Ages–apparently St. Francis of Assisi had stayed there on his pilgrimage--but then fell into ruin. It was restored after 1945 and reoccupied. It was my luck that it was time to restore it again or something since most of the building was surrounded by scaffolding. Nothing in sight was open and it did not look as if tourists were abundant. I had the feeling I was the only person in Spain.

Turning west again, the short 5 kms became a very long ride into the wind. I was in gently rolling green farmland, but it all looked a bit desolate. There were no houses and almost no trees. It was so tiring for me to ride up a tiny hill near Manzanares that I actually got off the bike and walked for a few minutes to get my breath back. It was embarrassing to think that I had crossed the Pyrenees without too much trouble yet was crushed by this molehill.

The road now ran downhill and soon I was on the outskirts of a real town, Santo Domingo de la Calzada. I passed a carwash. And some warehouses. And then I was on an ancient street of a town that really owes its existence to the Camino de Santiago.

Until the engineer-monk St. Dominic arrived, there was nothing much here on the banks of the River Oja. The Camino, passing from Nájera through swamps and forests was exposed to bandits and was considered one of the most dangerous stretches for pilgrims. Domingo García, born in the area around 1019, had been a shepherd but turned to the monastic life. He did poorly in his studies at San Millán and was not allowed to continue, so he chose the life of a hermit instead. After a time in the forests along the Oja, he turned to assisting pilgrims and improving their travel conditions. Beginning with improvements to the local roads, he went on build a famous 24-arch stone bridge over the Oja and a small village grew up around a hospice he organized in an old ruined fort.

St. Dominic was long in his grave when a legend became attached to him in the 12th Century. An innocent German pilgrim who rejected the local innkeeper’s daughter’s advances was framed for theft and hanged. A month later his family arrived to collect his body from the gibbet and were astonished to see that he was still alive and in good spirits, due to the intervention of St. James or, in other versions, St. Dominic. The family rushed to the presiding magistrate was eating his dinner and told him that their son was still alive. Gesturing at his meal, he scoffed and said that the son was as alive as his roasted chickens. Whereupon the chickens reassembled themselves, feathers and all and flew off cackling. A pair of white chickens are kept in a coop in the cathedral and there were some being kept at the hostel I stayed in that evening. The town coat-of-arms also bears white chickens proudly upon it.

Bustling Santo Domingo

Until I arrived in Santo Domingo, I was not aware that the pilgrimage route had made significant changes to any cityscape. The town was clearly built along an east-west axis as I did not have to deviate from the Camino as I rode directly into town. The town, with its sand-coloured buildings and quiet streets, was appealing enough that I considered quitting for the day although I had not even ridden 70 kms. But the wind had made the ride so arduous (not to mention the morale-sapping highway out of Logroño) that I thought I would allow myself the luxury of stopping in mid-afternoon and doing nothing. I was dirty and windblown and exhausted and felt enough like a genuine pilgrim for one day.

As I was thinking these thoughts and riding gently down the main street, protected from the wind by the low buildings, I saw a refugio sign on the left and pulled over to a large building that appeared to be a convent. Leaning the bike against the wall and putting myself into a slightly better appearance, I approached the Nun On Duty at the window and asked if there were any beds for the night. Unfortunately, the refugio was full, to my surprise given the early time of day, but I thanked her anyway and decided to think up an alternative. There was a fountain and a courtyard, so I sat down and took out some bread and cheese and made a sandwich.

A moment later, I was delighted to see the three Asturians ride into town. I had parted from them near Nájera earlier in the day and I am certain that they did not have much fun grinding into the wind with their heavily-burdened bicycles. They pulled off the road and joined me and we chatted in our limited mutual vocabulary.

The refugio

They planned to press ahead as there was still lots of light but I had had enough. After we parted, I rode down the street a little further and discovered a second refugio, a large old building from the mid-19th Century on the right side. There would be space here for me, I was pleased to learn, and I had my pass stamped.

I unloaded the bicycle and set up my sleeping bag and panniers next to my bed. Then I got back on the Marinoni and rode back out of town the way I had come to the car wash. Luckily I had enough small change that I could use the car wash and rinse off my poor bicycle, dusty where it was not spattered with mud and, uh, agricultural detritus, to be delicate. For inexperienced cyclists reading this, a high-pressure hose works very well, but should be used with great care on a bicycle as aiming it at the hubs or bottom bracket could blow out all the grease in the bearings, resulting in a short and expensive ride the next day. But a few minutes’ work suffice to bring back Signore Marinoni to his sparkling best self. Without the burdens of the panniers and handlebar bag, the bicycle felt so fleet and responsive and we joyfully zipped back to the refugio at racing speed. After a welcome shower and an attempt to do my laundry, I was refreshed and relaxed and ready to look at the town. The heat of the afternoon had passed as we moved into early evening and the weather was much nicer. And the wind had thankfully died down.

The cathedral

Well, there is not a whole lot to see in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. There is an impressive cathedral, built in differing styles from 13th Century Romanesque to Baroque. St. Dominic had built the first church on the site and the current building has gone through several cycles of decay and restoration. Strangely, the tower of the cathedral stands alone across the street, unattached to the principal building. Nearby is the impressive hospice which replaced St. Dominic’s basic original structure in the 15th Century and served pilgrims for a further 300 years before falling into disrepair. It has been rebuilt as part of the Spanish national parador system of luxury hotels.

Around the corner was what looked like the city hall on a large open square. The demonstrators that I had seen at San Millán were here as well to protest the EU Ministers, but I avoided them and headed in the other direction. This gave me a chance to find a grocery store, where I stocked up on the inevitable bread and cheese and chocolate, along with a few big bottles of mineral water and some fruit. I even found postcards of Santo Domingo and spent the evening writing them out. I also chatted with other pilgrims, including a husband-and-wife team from Germany, and talked at some length with Max, a young Argentinian living in Barcelona. He was riding a mountain bike and not adverse to some company on the road, so we decided to head out together the next day.

The hostel gradually filled up with hikers and more cyclists but it was not uncomfortable and, exhausted as I was, I had an excellent night’s sleep for a change.

Sunday 18 March 2007

A Book Review: The Rider, by Tim Krabbé

An utterly engrossing book, "The Rider" by Tim Krabbé is a first-person account of a competitor in a French amateur cycling race. Kilometer by kilometer, the author describes, economically, but with plausible feeling, the range of emotions he goes through. It is clear that he rides for the love of cycling, but his writing reveals the mental calculations, often not very flattering, that go through the mind of a rider. A chess player, he is out on the road playing a form of chess with his opponents, considering their weaknesses, weighing their histories, examining his own position on the board, so to speak.

In this short book about a 150 km long race, Tim Krabbé also travels back in his mind, recalling legends of bike racing as well as his own dreams of sporting success in Holland. These include some wonderful absurdist episodes, including a brief "Little ABC of Road Racing" where he fantasizes about riding with Merckx and Anquetil and the other greats in a series of bizarre circumstances. And all through this one is conscious of the race going on, the change of scenery and weather and how the cyclist must constantly monitor his situation-now trying to make up for his downhill lack of skills, now attacking as the others weaken, now preparing for a sprint. One is struck by the fundamental cruelty of the sport, how one must endure pain and inflict it as well.

Anyone who has ridden fairly seriously will love this book, as will those who admire strong, clean writing. The author has brilliantly portrayed a concentrated moment. This is a world of intense focus and narrow but exhilarating boundaries.

The Santiago Road: The Third Day


Day 3–Sunday, May 26, 2002
Pamplona to Logroño
107.06 km, total for trip 251.37 km

Pamplona, called Iruña in Basque, is of course particularly famous for the running of the bulls through the streets every July 7 but it is a city with a lengthy history. An easily defended site, the Romans built on the ruins of an old Basque settlement around 75 AD and the city went through various owners until the Muslims took it in 718. Eighty years later, the citizens revolted, killed the governor and elected a Basque to run things. The Pamplonans had to deal not only with the Muslims but also the Franks under Charlemagne and there was constant warfare.

The Hams of Pamplona

Pamplona was the first important city that pilgrims would have seen in Spain. There were many hospices to cater to their needs. In the middle ages, Pamplona was divided into different sections for Basques, Franks, Jews, Spanish Moslem converts and Gascons, none of whom got along and there were regular riots. Eventually, in 1512, the city was forcefully incorporated into the Kingdom of Spain.

Getting up early and packing my bags, I was out of the door by 8 am and decided to find the pilgrims’ hostel where I could get a nice stamp for my Credencia but I got lost in the medieval city and by the time I arrived there half an hour later, they had already closed up everything. The city seemed to be completely deserted, except for a man hanging out a selection of hams on his balcony, but I thought I would sightsee as much as I could. I rode around on the narrow cobbled streets but the sun was already quite intense and from the wrong direction so I was unable to take any pictures as the streets were quite dark and full of shadow. The cathedral, a Gothic structure begun in 1394, is massive but it was closed and I am not sure if it is a functioning cathedral or only a museum now. I did manage to find a small grocery store that was open and filled up my water bottles and had a piece of pastry for breakfast before setting off for the next leg of the Camino.

There was good signage showing the route out of the city, with what was to become the familiar blue sign with the gold field of stars. I wanted to avoid ended up on a highway and somehow I found myself to the east of where I wanted to be, in Cizur Menor. There were many pilgrims in the area, both on foot and several groups of cyclists. “They must know where they are going,” I thought, wrongly. There was even a group of Canadian and American mountain bikers who were travelling with a support van. At this point I once again ran into Paul and Siegmar, who had arrived later in Pamplona than I had but had found the hostel. We decided to continue onwards together for the company.

Siegmar and Paul underway

We somehow missed our turn but the direction seemed okay and the road was very nice. We climbed steadily and soon Pamplona was behind and below us. The road took us around a 700m high peak, the Puerta de Perdón, which had windmills on it that generate power for Pamplona. The rolling hills were used for grain growing but grapes and asparagus are also produced in the district’s red soil. We were soon joined by three Spaniards, a woman and two men, on bicycles. They were all from Asturias in Northern Spain but one of the men and the woman were living in Dublin and spoke excellent English. After lots of climbing and some descending we came to the small town of Campanas.

I was worried that we were going to end up on a main road but instead the Camino signs directed us to a wonderful little road, the NA 6010 with no traffic. In fact, the road was officially closed due to road construction in Eneriz but, as usual, this closure only applied to cars as we just walked our bikes through the construction area and then continued on the road. It descended steadily and I made excellent time, enjoying the beautiful weather and the scenery.


Suddenly to the left appeared the octagonal church of Eunate. Books on the Camino Santiago often feature this, one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Navarre. It was built in the 12th Century. It appears to have been used as a chapel for funerals. One of the odd features of the building is the arched wall that completely surrounds it. The inside was nearly pitch-dark. Excavations around the church have uncovered remains with scallops shells, suggesting that pilgrims were buried there.

The Irish-Asturians

We soon reached the village of Puenta la Reina and found the pilgrims’ hostel, which was closed for lunch, along with some lovely old churches. The first was the Church of the Crucifixion, which once belong to the Templars and dates back to the 12-13th Centuries and adjoins an 18th Century monastery. We were told to go to the church to get our precious stamps but this was not correct. There was a Sunday service just ending and we were impressed by the sounds of rustic folk music coming from the church. Once agin, the interior was very dark. We decided to go into town for lunch and then come back to the hostel to get our stamps later.

Riding past the church, we came to the Rúa Mayor, the main street which, nearly 1,000 years after the foundation of the town in 1122, still caters to pilgrims. It has broad sidewalks with cafés and plane trees and lots of traffic. We found a bar with a nice terrace and, after a few minutes, the group of North Americans also showed up for lunch. I had the first of many, many tortilla frances, an omelette sandwich that was made using what appeared to be an entire baguette, on this trip. Choices for vegetarians are a bit limited in rural Spain and the salad that I ordered with the sandwich was very dull, consisting of iceberg lettuce, some tomato and a bit of olive oil. But almost any food is good food when you are cycling all day.

There were a number of other cyclists sitting outside as well and it was clear that they were North American. I struck up a conversation with a couple from British Columbia and they explained that they were doing the Camino as part of an organized tour of mountain bikers. Each day they would ride a section, with a support van following along, but they were only doing selected sections of the route. And they were probably staying at nicer accommodations! On the other hand, the cost of a such a trip is probably very high and, more importantly, it lacks the feeling of self-sufficiency that you quickly acquire as a pilgrim.

After lunch, Paul, Siegmar and I rode back to the hostel and had our Credencias stamped, then rode back past the monastery which directs traffic straight toward the centre of town. We stayed on the Calle Mayor, a narrow shop-lined street that still has its medieval character. There was another church, the Church of Santiago, that has been there since at least 1142 but unfortunately it was closed so we just continued ahead to reach the fabulous Romanesque bridge, with six arches, that gives the town its name. It is not suitable for cars but we were happy to cycle across its cobblestones and then turned left onto the N 111 highway that would lead us onwards.

The N111 is a broad, busy road, with wide paved shoulders. We started climbing immediately, grinding up the hill taking us past the villages of Mañeru and Cirauqui, which is at the top of the hills and whose name means “nest of vipers” in Basque. It has two impressive churches and even a section of Roman road. I was on my own for a while but was soon passed by a group of French club riders in matching jerseys. Unable to miss a good opportunity, I hitched on to the group and was rewarded with a good slipstream for several kilometers. As they approached the hill up to Cirauqui, I decided to have some fun and pulled past them and quickly rode up the hill with my loaded touring bicycle. At the top I took some photos of them as they came by, much to their delight. I waited for Paul and Siegmar and photographed them too as they laboured up the hill with their heavy gear. And at this point I reached the 10,000 km mark on the Marinoni’s computer, which was good work for three full summers of riding.

We rode together for a while towards Estella but the others wanted to quit early so I charged ahead again. The road continued to climb and climb and I found it a bit discouraging on my own, particularly as a headwind came up. But now the scenery changed dramatically, with spectacular vistas of the Navarre wine country. I passed some well-known vineyards, including Villamayor de Monjardín.

The climbing stopped now and the road narrowed but I had it pretty well to myself. At one point I was overtaken by a whole line of old Mercedes-Benz sports cars, including some 300SL Gullwings, obviously out for a club tour. The road was beautifully paved and rolled very softly so, with the wind having changed direction, I set a good pace, crossing from Navarre into the next province, Rioja, and its famous wine district.

I reached a crossroad at Sansol and followed the big signs for Logroño with only 21 kms to go. I was expecting to soon reach a big climb but the road continued onwards with no changes. There were no settlements of any kind and I was all by myself. I reached the little settlement of Lazagurria and stopped at a bus stop to check my map and was horrified to find that I had ridden on the wrong road and had headed east instead of west. Although this meant that I had bypassed the big climb, I now had some extra distance to ride, perhaps an additional 8-10 kms.

And now the weather, which had been so cooperative, turned against me. The road began well, with a long downhill straight where I comfortably reached 64 km/h but when it leveled off I was suddenly pelted with big drops of rain. I put on my wind vest and put the pannier covers on and continued since there was no place to find shelter. I soon came to an intersection and turned into a fierce headwind on the NA 134, the road that would take me into Logroño.

It was a lousy ride, between on-and-off rain showers, mud and detours through industrial parks and when I came into Logroño, after riding through yet another construction zone beside a highway, everything was closed and the city looked deserted. After some effort I found the cathedral and then looked around for a likely place to stay, finding a small hotel nearby. The room was not very nice but at least I could clean up and reorganize my stuff and there was space for my muddy bicycle in the stairwell. I had a hot shower and took a short nap and hoped that things would look better later.

Sure enough, when I went outside for a walk in the early evening, the city was transformed. The sun came out and then all the steel shutters came up, revealing all kinds of interesting little shops. There were people everywhere walking around and I bought some dried fruit and even some candy. I spent some time in front of the biggest church, the Iglesia de Santa Maria la Redonda, which has a baroque facade and towers, constructed between 1752 and 1756. I was particularly impressed by the numbers of storks nesting on the roof and as I stood in the square I watched them regularly fly back and forth, looking for food for their nestlings. Of course, nobody else paid any attention whatever to the birds.