Thursday, August 15, 2013

From Spain to bike!

It’s become an annual occurrence of mine to cycle around Europe in my summer break from Colombia with a few friends in tow.  This blog documented my coast to coast trip across the USA in 2010, and also mentions  trips from Barcelona to Milan in 2011, and to Spain from England last year, but for one time constraint and another, I’ve not always been able to go into as much as detail as I’d like to have done.  Anyway, this year saw the 2012 crew decide to embark on another tour across Europe on our bikes, so myself, university mate, James Birchall and sort of university mate, Andy Kenny, put our heads metaphorically together through Facebook messages over a few months to come up with the plan of cycling from the Basque city of Bilbao, on Spain’s northern coast, to Geneva, just inside the Swiss border and on the edge of the mighty Alps.  As our trips tend to coincide with the Tour de France, we also thought we’d stick in an ascent of the legendary Alpine climb, Alp D’Huez, where the tour was going up in its 100th anniversary year, and why not also pass by the engineering magnificence of the Millau bridge in the south of France?  There we had it, route sorted!

In Spain, with views over to the Pyrenees and France
Unfortunately, the preparation didn’t go as planned for Andy, who injured his knee on a training ride the week before we were due to fly out, so we were a man down straight from the off, which complicated equipment issues for us, such as tents and stoves, as well as him obviously missing out on a week of his holiday.   Nevertheless, James and I proudly boasted that we felt fitter than last year, and together with James’ new bike, and some fine sunshine, we confidently cycled out of Bilbao on a Saturday afternoon, with the remnants of a stinking hangover being masked by the usual excitement and anticipation of what the next 2 weeks and 700 plus miles of cycling would hold for us.  This year’s route distinguished itself from last year’s monotonous riding through northern France by thrusting us straight into steep, but short, coastal climbs, before gradually climbing the higher peaks of the Central Massif, and then onto the Alpine ascents that are infamous with professional and amateur cyclists alike.

The world's tallest bridge, the Millau Viaduct, 
Spain’s wealthy Basque country didn’t feel like part of a country with 25% unemployment, I suppose that’s why so many people there want to be independent, but did provide us with very pleasant coastal roads and a reintroduction to the cycle tourer diet.  Eating huge bowls of cereal and bananas for breakfast, lunchtime ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches, and all rounded off with chorizo and tomato pasta for our evening meal, interspersed with cakes, ice creams, cookies and nuts throughout the day, is very enjoyable.  I hear that Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are on gluten free diets so I’m not sure what they’d make of ours, but it works for us.

James trying to shelter from the hail
San Sebastian was beautiful and had an incredible cycle infrastructure, including exclusive cycling tunnels, but Biarritz, on the French Atlantic, wasn’t as glitzy as I’d imagined, maybe that’s why the ‘Beer and Tits’ nickname originated, but still it had a nice beach and was a decent place to take it easy for a day.  We gradually made our way eastwards, increasing the mileage up to a hefty 85 miles on one day, but also into hilly inland areas, more vulnerable to heavy afternoon thunderstorms.  We had a bit of luck for a few days, avoiding them by diving into bus shelters on the edge of town at the last minute or sitting in McDonalds making use of the free wifi, before we were caught out.  Arriving at the top of a 1,000m peak, dark clouds hovered above us, and despite descending at 30mph, we weren’t able to out run the impending storm.  All of a sudden a barrage of ice cubed sized hail forced us to duck for cover under trees (not ideal in an electrical storm), whilst hailstones continued to ping off our helmets and chink our bike frames as thunder rumbled around us.  A few passing cars slowed down to see why the two resting bicycles didn’t have any cyclists on them, but it didn’t get us down the mountain any quicker and a cold and wet descent meant a break from camping in a ‘Chambe D’Hote’ was in order to dry ourselves and our kit out.

Spirits were raised the next day by a return to clear blue skies and scorching temperatures, as well as some lovely cycling through the Ardeche region, passing scented lavender fields, before we met up with our crooked companion, Andy, that evening.  His knee hadn’t quite repaired itself on the beach in Barcelona (blame the beer), but he felt up for the challenge to plough along with us for the second week towards Geneva, where he was then set to start another week of intense cycling through the Alps on a separate holiday.  Cycling predominantly with his right leg and a concoction of drugs that would make Lance Armstrong jealous, he more than kept up with James and I, leaving the prospect open of still being able to make it up Alp D’Huez.

Before that however, we had to stop off in Grenoble.  I’d previously heard good things about this place, but I reserve the right to call this city perhaps the most boring one I’ve ever had the misfortune to stumble across.  I’d say cycling 6 miles in the evening, along main roads, without finding even one bar open, makes it more akin to the nuclear decimated Chenobyl than a supposedly wealthy western European city.  At least we weren’t short of conversations though with our campsite neighbours well involved in their own domestic dispute and the campsite itself boasting toilets that smelt very much of stale urine.  A lovely place to stay, it was not.  Anyway, the Alps beckoned and at least Grenoble has a good cycle network, enabling us to make a rapid escape for the mountains.

Alp D'Huez - Andy 3rd, James 1st, Me 2nd
The name of Alp D’Huez rightly reverberates around cyclists conversations throughout the world.  It features regularly in the Tour de France and this year the cyclists were, for the first time, subjected to not one, but two ascents of the mountain.  This involves around 8.5 miles of continuous climbing with 22 hairpin corners ramping up the gradient to around 13% in places, taking you from the valley basin at 700m to the ski resort, at about 1,850m.  The tour and its 500,000 fans had filled the mountain the week before, so the roads were freshly ‘decorated’ with support for Froome, Quintana, Contador and co, all adding to the mythical nature of the climb.  James finished first in about 80 minutes, I was a few minutes behind and Andy’s ever expanding right leg managed to power him up not too long afterwards, a top effort from all of us.  We found a podium to get a photo in our new, and increasingly dirty, Union Jack jerseys, where the inevitable comparisons to Froome and Wiggins were made (!), they’d get up the climb in about 40 minutes or so, half our time and that’s an incredible average speed of over 12mph, doing it twice!  The information leaflet said around 400 cyclists go up every day in the summer, but I’d say this is a very conservative estimate, and the continual stream of weary cyclists that came passed us as we enjoyed a celebratory beer even included one guy with a baby on the back his bike!   These days are always the highlight of the holiday for various reasons, none more so than being surrounded by stunning scenery and feeling very proud of what you and your mates have just achieved.  Obviously  knowing that the climbing is just about done, leaving you to cycle down at 35mph, is pretty good fun too…

Unfortunately a visit to the Grenoble campsite was once again called for, where our rubbish bag from the previous stay still hadn’t been removed, but we treated ourselves to a rotisserie chicken and manufactured a fridge out of Andy’s pannier for the beer.  All that was now left was the 100 miles or so of cycling to Geneva, via a stop off at beautiful Lake Annecy, to complete another cycle tour across Europe and finish with a few well earned beers!  Geneva is as expensive as you might have imagined, and also full of prostitutes we realised, which you might not have thought of.  Consequently walking around slightly inebriated at 3am looking for a takeaway felt more like walking down the seedy Avenida Sexta in Cali or Amsterdam's Red Light District than a classy European city, but I suppose nowhere's ever perfect.  It does have free public transport to the airport though, which is a very advantageous when taking your 25kg cardboard box and bike back home!   

Last day's cycling at Lake Annecy
When telling people about these trips afterwards they are often astounded by what they entail, and when planning them you do think if you really want to put yourself through the long, hot days, sudden rainstorms and endless climbs all over again.  But that unpredictability for me is what cycle touring is all about.  Cycling with your mates, experiencing all these continual challenges can be occasionally frustrating, but when finishing in a new city together and being able to look back at how far you have travelled in such a short space of time, you can feel rightly pleased with yourself.  Obviously you also feel a hell of a lot fitter, maybe with a few niggling pains, but having seen a huge part of a country, eaten its food, spoken the language and shared the usual jokes and bugbears for 2 weeks we start to think where the next tour could take us.  Maybe the World Cup or something else will get in the way next year, who knows, but if not, I’m sure we’ll get planning and think of where we could go.  Europe's compactness, fine summer weather and beautiful towns and cities always make it an attractive choice, but across the pond The Pacific Coast Highway, from LA to San Francisco, is widely regarded as an excellent cycle tour.  Wherever we choose I'm sure there'll be the usual trials and tribulations - wonderful weather, stunning views, evening beers, as well as a scruffy campsite or two and some horrendous hangovers hanging on the handlebars...but hopefully we'll once again be able to look back on what we've done, have a few more stories to tell and some well toned and tanned legs to match!

Here are some facts and stats about the trip:

Distance travelled - 722 miles (I think!)

Longest day - 85 miles, Lavaur to St. Affrique

Average mileage over 14 days - 52 miles a day

Highest point - 1,850m, Alp D'Huez

1,000m+ passes - 3

Accommodation - 11 camping nights, 4 hotel/Chambre D'Hote/hostel nights

Hottest day - 40oC, Viviers to St. Donat

Punctures - 0

Thunder storms that stopped us cycling - 4

Hail storms that stopped us cycling - 1

Evening meals - 9 'Pasta Delights' cooked on the stove, 5 burgers/pizzas eaten in restaurants

Countries visited - 3, Spain, France and Switzerland

Song of the tour - Ian Brown - Stellify

Friday, April 12, 2013

Foreign Football in Cali and the founding of Aston Huila!

I recall living abroad for the first time in Chile 5 years ago.  One of things I missed most about  life in England was having a regular game of football with a group of mates, an event to get together every week, do some exercise and share a few jokes and beers afterwards.  I felt the same sentiment when I started living in Colombia, and it took me a year and a half in Cali to find a good group of guys who invited me along for a kick about.  The crew I stumbled across were a mix of foreign teachers and a rag bag bunch of Colombians from all walks of life, some of whom have been playing together in the same place, at the same time, more or less every week for the past 8 years.  Obviously some faces have come and gone due to moving jobs, changing girlfriends and the like, but the tradition lives on and we meet every Friday, at around 6pm, for a game of 5 or 6 a side, on top of a multi-storey supermarket car park, with a view of Cali and in the shadow of the towering Andes.

The two teams that kick off are generally comprised of foreign transfers, it could be said, with a few homegrown Colombian talents who've managed to penetrate their way into the first team.  The quality of the game varies and niggling injuries persist, backs crack here and knees creak there, but we normally play for at least an hour, sometimes running up a rugby score with a few 'Golazos' in the process, but then always sitting down for a few beers and a good catch up afterwards.  Post match rumours have occasionally circulated about possible 11-a-side games and potential opponents, but it has taken until last Saturday for a full sided game to be arranged on a good quality pitch, with kits, opponents and, the hardest bit, our own 11 players!

Pre-Game Team Talk
'Captain' John Driscoll, who christened us 'Aston Huila,' did the lion's share of organisation, sending the team out by facebook, buying the oranges and even arranging a fake German away kit to wear, with a few pairs of accompanying Liverpool shorts, raising eyebrows amongst certain team members.  The venue was Deportivo Cali's training complex, in the south of the city and on the edge of the Cordillera mountains, which comes complete with a few pitches, pool, steam room, gym and even a bar and restaurant.  Our opposing team were all big 'Cali' fans with the relevant club membership to play at such a place, which is how we got the invitation to come along, otherwise there's no way we would have got the chance to show our skills (!) in such extravagant surroundings.

Being the first time most of us had ever played 11-a-side football together, as well as with the game taking place in Cali's suppressing afternoon heat, we didn't exactly have expectations of a possession, pressing based 'tiki-taka' style of play รก la Barcelona, but we thought that with our virtues of organisation, communication and team spirit, as well as a few skillful players dotted around the team, we might be able to spring an upset on the Colombians.  However, like everything in life, preparation is paramount.  The star striker got lucky on his big Friday night on the town, with inevitable consequences, the intended left back couldn't make it due to his own toilet committments and the right back, myself, had barely eaten for the previous 2 days due to stomach problems of my own, as well as one centre back only just passing a late fitness test on his back.  All in all, not great and when we saw the size of the pitch we were going to play on, our childlike enthusiasm was replaced with a less gung-ho attitude, based around the need for energy conservation and maximising substitutions.

Being punctual foreigners we arrived one hour early, but being Colombia, the game was of course slightly delayed due to the referee's late arrival.  Eventually at about 3.45pm we kicked off and tentatively got to grips with our positions and sussing out our direct opponents.  Mine seemed to be a fairly silky skilled left winger, he wasn't having any of my banter intended to put him off his game and I opted not to put a Ron Atkinson 'reducer' on him early doors to make my presence felt, for fear of being turned and skinned, and then potentially sick chasing him down on my starved stomach.  Nevertheless, we had a fairly solid start with some good tracking of players and preventing chances, and even some good passing and a few chances of our own.  Having never defended a proper corner together, set pieces were never going to be our strong point, however, and it was from the first corner into the box that a towering free header put us 1-0 down after about 15 minutes.  The challenge now was to keep our heads held high and get ourselves back on track.  Luckily, a quick reply came thanks to some tidy build up play on the right and a nice finish from Canadian creative midfielder, Andy Harris.  1-1 and game on!

Unfortunately we couldn't hold on for long and we went off at the break 3-1 down after a few well worked goals from our oppenents.  Fitness was proving to be an issue, with most of our team sporting pasty white skin which was proving extremely attractive to the overhead sun, and the tropical heat wasn't helping the situation either, meaning regular substitutions, affecting the set up of the team.  It goes without saying that the half time oranges were a very welcome sight.  It turned out as well that the referee, who was having a pretty good game in general, had only given us a 40 minute half, but he said he'd rectify it by giving us a 50 minute second half, not that much of the team were interested in actually playing the whole official 90 minutes at that moment in time.

The second half started well for us, but the left winger, their best player, scored two goals in quick succession, leaving us an uphill battle for the last 25 minutes.  We still managed to get a few shots away and had we taken our chances, especially at 3-1, who knows what would have happened.  The game eventually finished 7-2, with the half highlights being Harris' stupendous second goal, a 25 yard screamer leaving the keeper hapless.  A mention must also be made for our goalkeeper, Luke Whelan, whose own goal was a sight to behold, clinically smashed in the top corner of his own net from 1 yard out after a goal mouth scramble.

So, the game finished, handshakes were exchanged and the rather tacky trophy was passed over to the victors, leaving us to reflect on Aston Huila's first outing.  After a quick dip in the pool and some time in the steam room to rest sore muscles and aching joints, a few beers slipped down easily in the sumptuous surroundings, with conversation revolving about when future possible games will be and areas for improvement as a team.  The sun, heat and humidity proved a lethal combination, and adding on our general lack of fitness, it was no surpise that most of the squad was left absolutely battered, so there we have one area identified for definite improvement in the future.

Post Friday Footy Beers!
Looking back a few days later after the knocks have faded away and we've all got our breath back, I'm sure we can all say it was a great day out.  It's not every day you get to play at one of the most exclusive places in Cali, surrounded by palm trees, the Andes mountains and with tropical birds serranading you as you run around a football field.  It might have been hard work, and we didn't win, but as with all team sports, it's not just the actual game that defines your enjoyment of the occasion, but more the actual people you play with.  Who'd have thought that all those Friday evenings running around on top of a supermarket, releasing the pent up anger from the busy week at work, would have lead to such a fantastic afternoon.  And so we'll meet again this Friday evening as the daylight fades, captains will pick the teams, the game will feature a few good goals, and a few scrappy ones, but of course we'll all sit down afterwards for a few (too many) well earned beers!