Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bikes are for riding...

Among the perks of being back in Illinois is access to our fleet of bikes. Really old bikes for hauling stuff, newer bikes for going fast, folding bikes for traveling (a Raleigh Twenty and two bikes with S&S couplers), and a tandem. When our friends Tom and Jessie moved from the car heaven of Raleigh, North Carolina (#3 on the list of most sprawl-icious cities in America) to the bike heaven of Portland, Oregon, we were sure Tom's tinkering side would kick in and their newfound bikes would be transformed into rolling tributes to the DIY philosophy. We were right.

A few excerpts from his latest inventions:
Since Jessie and I have a massive pile of broken electronics downstairs (over 10 CRT monitors, a couple LCDs, some TVs, several desktops and laptops, stereos, DVD players, record players, receivers, etc etc) I figured I'd just take a gutted desktop computer and remove some more of the framework inside and make it into a box. It even has a lid that can open and close really easily (and will be waterproof once I cover up the holes in the end with some tin and silicone).

I know I need a light to be safe at night, so I took some old neon wire (pretty cool stuff, just white neon wire with a red cover, less than 1/8" thick) and made a light on the back face of the computer...err, bike box. At least this way everyone will know what I am cruising around at night.

In response to Tom's tinkering, I thought I would detail all the ways I've modified my bike to make it great for cruising around town in all kinds of weather with a week's worth of groceries. While I certainly try DIY as much as possible myself, I also don't mind occasionally buying off-the-shelf stuff, since a large part of the challenge with bicycles is attaching various accessories so they don't get in the way of some other vital component. A loose wire, nut, or something rattling at 20 mph can quickly turn into a spectacular crash, something I've been trying to avoid more and more in the last few years.

The grocery bike is a 1965 Humber Sports. It lived through many winters in Traverse City, Michigan until it made its way to Champaign via Scot McCollum (the friendliest, most knowledgeable bike person you're likely to meet). It was covered in a thin layer of rust, and the rust had eaten through the fender in a few small spots. I sent it to get sandblasted and powdercoated at Coating Specialties. It came back rust free, beautifully (and durably) coated, ready to be built up.

I retapped the bottom bracket shell so it would accept a more modern bottom bracket and I could ditch the old cottered cranks, which aren't unreliable, they just require much more effort to service than newer cotterless cranks. I replaced the wheels (and donated the wheels to others looking for old English three-speed wheels) with a three-speed/drum brake rear and front dynamo/drum brake. Drum brakes are especially useful in adverse weather conditions. When using brakes that engage the rim to stop the bike, rain (plus the road grime it contains) and snow (plus the salt that has been added) gets caught between the brake pad and the rim, quickly eating into the rim until the braking surface is so thin it gives out and the tire and tube pop off the rim. Coaster brakes, drum brakes, disc brakes, and Servo brakes all help to solve this problem.

And if you plan on riding in all that rain and snow, you better have a good mudflap on your front fender. I made this one out of gasket material and put it on with three pop rivets. If you want a little bit better protection, you can make the top a little wider and attach it to the fender struts. The mudflap will curve around the tire a little bit more, keeping the spray coming off the tire more confined.

make your own mudguard

If you're going to be carrying much, you'll need a rear rack. And while you could put a basket (or computer tower) back there to carry stuff, I prefer to use panniers that hang off the side of the rack. They are waterproof and I can take them into the store with me, so I don't keep accumulating plastic bags. This particular rack (Axiom Odyssey) has the extra guards to keep panniers from getting caught in your wheel and it has one of the highest weight ratings I could find, at around 150 lbs.

rear Axiom Odyssey rack

And sometimes it's nice to be able to see what you are carrying--in case it is delicate or otherwise in need of a watchful eye--and to have a front rack, also. This one is a CETMA rack from Oregon. I've also mounted the (hub-powered) light underneath the rack, so it doesn't get obstructed by anything I might be carrying. Among other things (plants, trash cans, cardboard boxes, dishes, I've also carried a complete bike on the front rack. I removed the wheels, bungeed the frame on the rack sitting upright, then sandwiched the two wheels on.

CETMA rack and light mount
You can also see the curtains Rebecca and I made in the upper right side of the photo.

If you are using your front rack a lot, and carrying heavy stuff, it would be better to attach the rack to the frame (which doesn't rotate), instead of the handlebars and fork (which do), like this rack from WorkCycles. Either way, you'll want something to keep the front end from rotating while you're trying to load up your rack. I put a small spring between the frame and the fork to keep the fork/wheel from rotating too far. Normally, it doesn't affect steering since you don't move the handlebars very much. It makes tight, low speed turns more difficult and also make maneuvering the bike inside your front door a little harder, but otherwise works great.

front-end spring

In one last safety feature (besides the front and rear lights), I found these pedals with LEDs in addition to the reflectors. They don't require any batteries, the rotation of the pedals powers the lights, very convenient (similar to these, but mine don't have a capacitor that keeps the LEDs on when you stop).

dynamo pedals

Any other noteworthy DIY projects and modifications going on out there?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Don't drink the water...Seriously.

Russell on the left, Jefe on the right

In our last few weeks in Europe, we went to visit our friend Russell in Kraków, Poland, a place very unlike France and a nice change of pace before we head back to the United States. We didn't know much about Poland before we got there, and Russell has only been living there a few weeks, so no one knew what to expect. (You can read Russell's summary of our trip, without pictures :( on his blog)

Russell has been slowly learning Polish for more than a year, but (as we have also learned, here in France) jumping into a conversation with a native speaker is still a daunting task. He was kind enough to help us as much as he could and we all learned a little more Polish vocabulary. We learned the words for "danger, mean dog"...Uwaga Zeypies

The sign says he's a mean dog,
but he looks more like an awkward ballet dancer

and that night we made home-made tortillas (we brought some masa with us from France) and carnitas, he learned the word for shoulder blade at the grocery store (łobotka, as in pork shoulder, the cut used for carnitas)

Of course there was a little bit of culture shock. The small grocery store across from where we were staying remained open all night, we couldn't believe it. Instead of thinking "how convenient" like an American, I thought "who would work those hours" like a French person.

church tower in Krakow
The clocktower across from our hostel.
Zoom in to see the odd typeface of the numerals.

The food was also surprising. After a few meals in a row of various kinds pork paired with piles of french fries, we were excited to find something a bit different...for instance, a place using local specialties in creative ways. Oscypek is unpasteurized, smoked sheep's cheese that has been pressed into cylinders with designs on the outside. In this case it was sliced, grilled and served with strawberries. In true Polish fashion, they managed to sneak some meat in, since it was tasted like it was grilled on the same grill used for fatty pork products, which made it even more delicious. Baked camembert with strawberries is a similar dish, which we've found here in France. We'll definitely be looking for this Polish cheese in the Polish grocers of Chicago.

smoked cheese in Krakow
Grilled Oscypek with fig jam and strawberries

After a meal of pork, or things grilled in pork fat, there is nothing like finding a good bookstore to relax. With the population of English speakers in Kraków--some residents, some tourists-- comes the local English language bookstore: in this case, the very welcoming Massolit. With three rooms of books, English language periodicals, comfy chairs, and a small cafe, it's easy to spend a whole afternoon here. I was able to catch up on a fairly recent copy of the New Yorker, which was addressed to someone in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, and had made its way to Poland, probably thanks to Chicago's enormous Polish population.

Massolit in Krakow
Taking a break at Massolit bookstore in Kraków

For better or worse, it seems that Poland is taking a lot of its cues from the United States. There are the twenty-four hour grocery stores, the poor bicycling infrastructure, and the occasional lack of government oversight. Case in point: the tap water is unsafe to drink, which I didn't believe at first. When I initially heard this, I had already been drinking it for a day or two with no ill effects. I wondered if it was unsafe like in Central America, where the effects were immediately apparent, or if the effects were more long term. Turns out the contaminants in the water cause long term in liver damage.

In the American spirit of exploiting loopholes, we noticed another phenomenon, that I though might be a quirk in the advertising laws. There were bikes covered in advertisements, locked to street signs and fences. I wondered if putting the ads on bicycles exempted them from normal advertising restrictions, or perhaps just the costs associated with renting ad space.

bike ad in Krakow

Of course there were plenty of used clothing stores, and even a used clothing market every Sunday in Kazimierz, south of the city center, but we especially liked the one in the photo below because of the frankenstein mannequin out front. They stuck a small head on a regular body...

used clothing in Krakow
...and somehow made it seem kind of gangsta

Besides all the previously mentioned American imports: greasy food, crazy drivers, the idea of convenience over sanity, there was one last blow that was especially crushing after living in France. This is a snapshot (see below) of a menu at a mid-priced restaurant. The American wines available are Sutter Home and Carlo Rossi, two wines which are particularly well known for their disgustingness and popularity amongst underaged drinkers. So why import it to Poland and feature it on the menu? I assume it is mostly to keep prices down. And to make us feel even more uncomfortable with the way Europeans imagine Americans. On the other hand, both the locals and tourists here clearly expect things pretty cheap. The French wines we found in wine shops usually cost three times as much as they would for us in France, which makes them true luxury items when you take into account Poland's otherwise low cost of living.

crappy wine in Krakow
Sutter Home can be yours for only 17 złoty ($5) a glass, the same price as bottle of good wine in France.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Poitiers Rocks...Sometimes

Despite the 6000 miles which separate Champaign-Urbana and Poitiers, coming from one university town to another carries certain expectations with regards to the availability of late-night food, weird art, and music.

Champaign-Urbana's music scene was perhaps more developed than its modest size and distance from major metropolises might suggest. Jefe helped with a live local music show on the local independent radio station (WEFT 90.1 fm) for long enough to appreciate the quality and sheer volume of continuously maturing local talent.

It took us a while to wrap our heads around the music scene in Poitiers. Besides the various arms of the university, Poitiers is home to two music conservatories and a surprising number of instrument retailers and repair shops, including a luthier. But these vestiges of musical education are no guarantee of music that speaks to and evokes passion in the audience. Modern French music is notorious for borrowing from other people and cultures. Unfortunately, mimicking music far from its geographic roots can be a tricky enterprise. Case in point: Jefe has seen a few "blues" bands in Europe that, while adept musically, lacked the urgency and passion of their stateside counterparts. It was "blues," it just wasn't "the blues."

With a few exceptions, the bands and DJs performing at Poitier's local venues are mostly visiting groups. Sometimes from elsewhere in France, but just as often from Spain, Norway, Czech Republic or even from the U.S.

Besides mentioning a few noteworthy examples, I won't attempt to provide a critique of all the foreign and local groups that have passed through Poitiers. Partly because writing about something as subjective and ambiguous as music is extraordinarily difficult, but also because the venues are as interesting as the music they are hosting.

Our first ever music experience in Poitiers was at Le Pince Oreille (trans: The Pierced Ear). Located on the periphery of centre ville near Eglise Montierneuf it also houses a semi-upscale restaurant above the bar/music area. The offerings vary between DJs, repeater bands (various nights of week are swing, jazz, or blues) and the occasional foreign visitor, usually of the world music variety. This venue caters to a slightly older crowd. One that doesn't want to be forced to wear ear plugs or fight for space with the sweaty, drunk student crowd.

The big-name acts that come through town are generally showcased at the Confort Moderne. This is a one stop shop for all your alternative needs. Part music venue, part art exhibition space, it also houses a used/vintage record store, a fanzine library and even a small restaurant. It's located outside of centre ville in the area populated by many students & conveniently close to late-night pizza and kebabs. It's most interesting because it includes all the extracurricular activities that wouldn't appear at a normal venue. The problem is that the employees that make these interesting operations happen (young, inexperienced) are also really poor excuses for bartenders, lighting technicians, etc. Oh well.

The fanzine library at the Confort Moderne

For those members of the younger set who prefer to dress up a little, there is the recently opened Minima Cafe. Situated closer to the center of the action in Poitiers, the bar is located on the ground floor, with a beer garden out back and space for bands/DJs/dancing in the basement. The decor is minimalist (thus the name) and modern with new locally produced artwork/photos exhibited on a regular basis. Besides being frequented by mostly DJs, there are only a few drawbacks to this location. The clientele often orders labor-intensive mixed drinks, leaving someone craving merely a beer or glass of wine to wait while the lone bartender turns out armloads of pineapple mojito-margaritas. Also, with France's indoor smoking ban, the clope set is forced to fill the narrow sidewalks out front (on both sides of the already-narrow street) making entering and exiting a little more difficult, not to mention the danger posed by cars passing through this drunk, absent-minded, bifurcated smoking party. We saw the Czech band Sabot here.

Concert poster for the Czech bass-drum duo Sabot

Moving down the social ladder a rung, we come to Le Cafe du Clain. Located on the edge of centre ville on the banks of the Clain River it is a small, cheap, traditional restaurant by day and a punk- and alcoholic retiree-populated watering hole by night. A little idiosyncratic to be sure, it is a good bet for metal and punk bands traveling through town, often from Spain. Since it's a little out of the way, the patrons have only this bar or the nearby, more upscale establishment to choose from. Thus, the disparate crowd. If you come for bands, you'll want to bring your ear plugs (unless you're one of the retirees and/or already deaf).

Punk rockers from Spain at the Cafe du Clain

Just around the corner from the Minima Cafe on the Place Charles de Gaulle, Cluricaume Cafe hosts generally talented acts and is welcoming enough you might actually hang out there when there isn't music on the menu. As a Irish/French Celtic Pub it is frequented by a beer swilling, sometimes dreadlocked, underclassmen crowd that can get a little crazy if the musicians are too enthusiastic. If the music is of the metal/punk variety you won't have any trouble hearing it from the slew of tables on the sidewalk out front and across the street.

Meringue Alcohol and Us at Cluricaume Cafe

Finally, on the DIY side of things is 23 avenue de Paris. Resembling (and smelling like) a glorified squat, they host bands, art, and theater acts. The bands hosted are mostly local. I'm not sure if they sell alcohol, but most of the spectators seem to bring their own anyway.

Monday, July 6, 2009

French Fashion, Unromanticized

"Fashions fade, style is eternal"
Yves Saint Laurent

As Americans, we sometimes imagine the French as living in a sort of hazy, idyllic world of wine, cobbled streets, and perfect, timeless chic. These myths of the well-dressed Frenchman or Frenchwoman are perpetuated by lovely sites such as The Sartorialist and Garance Doré.

Scott and Garance live in a world where everyone looks like these girls and him or her and this lady.

The myth is beautiful, but the reality is that -- even despite some of the things we've said on this blog -- everyday French people don't look so different from Americans.

everyday French folks -- except for the 2-hour lunches, they're just like you!

Of course, there are some exceptions.

1. Anachronistic Trends
You may or may not have heard that the 80's and early 90's are making a comeback. I have spotted a range of anachronistic trends...

Man in 80's/90's-inspired monochrome track suit

Gladiator Sandals: Dating back to 1st century BCE
and Summer '08.

2. Punk Ladies
There is a distinctly punk-inspired, Mad Max element to current French trends. Extraneous zippers, studs, gatherings, asymmetry, etc.

Actually, these are a couple of SDF guys.
3. Runway-to-Street
Fashion-forward runway looks, converted for the everyday woman

Leighton Meester in Louis Vuitton at the 2009 MET Costume Institute Gala

Everyday French lady version

4. Pointy Elf-inspired shoes

This trend seems to work better in men's shoes than in women's

Um, i think the price listed here is a joke.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Restaurant Philosophies and Food Epiphanies

fresh artichokes, a lot of work, but worth it

Everyone knows that the French take their restaurants pretty seriously, but it's interesting how small variations in attitudes and the philosophy of patrons and staff can add up to a big difference.

Case in point: In France, waiters leave you alone. Many foreigners interpret this as laziness or arrogance, but they're wrong. For the most part, French waiters ignore you because your interaction with the food and your fellow diners is supposed to be more important than your relationship with the staff. The waiter is not your friend. Your dining companion is your friend. And most importantly, no amount of saccharine sweetness from the waiter is going to make up for a sub-par meal.

But beyond this there are other, larger, departures from standard restaurant philosophy at work in France, and in other European countries, too. In fact, we met with one of the most novel of these approaches in Germany, at a restaurant called Perlin, in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin. Though it's technically labeled a wine bar, the classification is misleading on several fronts. To begin, you pay a one euro deposit on your wine glass, which gives you unlimited access to a selection of red and white (albeit German) wines. If you would also like to eat, a fixed two-course meal is available. There are no prices listed for food or wine, instead you are asked to pay what you think the meal was worth after you have finished eating. This is an interesting idea, but must sometimes lead to a little awkwardness for the patrons.

inside perlin

First, it must be said that the wine is totally unremarkable. The food is simple, but well made. The ambiance is nice and the staff friendly and helpful, but you may feel obligated to pay more than you otherwise would because the restaurant is putting so much faith in your generosity. In addition, with liberal access to wine, you're likely to be at least a little drunk by the time the purse strings are loosened, perhaps letting out a few more euros than intended.

In talking to the staff, it appears that customers from more food-oriented countries tend to pay less. It is not hard to imagine people from France, Spain, or Italy being unimpressed with the wine. The selection is similar to what you might find at a budget brasserie in France, though the mood is closer to chic bistro. Perhaps this is a sleight-of-hand to trick people into parting with their money in a competitive restaurant environment?

Instead of offering a novel payment system, the Parisien bistro Ober-Salé focuses on the food. With only one chef (Stéphane Corcessin) and one waitress, and thirty seats (seats, not tables), this isn't hard to do. A veteran of other well-regarded bistros (Villaret, Bristol), the owner-chef is alone in the kitchen, and it shows. Lacking the delegation of duties of multi-person kitchens, every dish at Ober-Salé is fabricated from start to finish by one very skilled, technically adept chef with a very real monetary stake in the satisfaction of the clientele.

facade of Ober-Sale

The food is stunning without being pretentious. Flavors are refined, and they harmonize perfectly without being muddy. The presentation is delightful without being overly artsy or minimalistic. Artichoke soup with poached egg evokes the very essence of the artichoke. Having cooked both baby and full-size artichokes, I still can't imagine how much labor went into producing this dish to obtain a flavor that an artichoke itself dreams of.

Your local cafe's spinach-artichoke dip, this is not.

Overcoming the battle between food-obsessed chef and tight-fisted owner is no small task -- imagine the stress involved when they are one and the same! Let's hope that trying to do double duty never begins to detract from the delightful flavors constantly coming out of his kitchen.

Ober-Salé was the site of my second food-epiphany, changing the conception of what food can be and extending the limits of what is possible. The first, not surprisingly, was also in Paris, at the now closed (and soon to be reopened elsewhere in Paris) Un Drôle d'Endroit Pour Une Rencontre (trans: "A funny place for an encounter").

The name seems to be based on a title of an old Deneuve/Depardieu film

People come to Paris for lots of reasons, some of them for the food. Explaining what makes it so unique can be difficult when speaking to people who have never experienced this level of cooking. Yes, it's possible to get cooking like this in the United States, but you are only likely to find it at the most expensive, exclusive restaurants. That you can find such eye-opening flavors at a small Parisien bistro that is half-empty is a testament to the nearly inexhaustible supply of unassuming restaurants that would magically grow three month+ waits if they were transplanted to any American city.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Biking further afield

Yes, we've been doing lots of stuff...and to prove it...

Trevor and I took a trip to Southern France (the region surrounding the Dordogne River) in order to do some biking. We took the train and arrived in Brive-la-Gaillarde, home of a foie gras factory...

After taking a circuitous route to Proissans, we stayed in a Bed and Breakfast outside of Sarlat-le-Caneda, and went to the Saturday market in Sarlat. It was pretty hectic. There were lots of tourists and a lot of stalls selling lame clothes and other crap to tourists, we even saw one stall selling gear plastered with characters from American professional wrestling (WWE). We also caught this guy, who left his car parked overnight in the lot used for the market. Now he's trying to back out between the vendors...good luck.

Of course the region is known for their castles perched on the cliffsides, not their intricate parking maneuvers. We spotted plenty of the former, but opted not to take as many pictures as the tour groups being chauffeured in tour buses through the winding roads. I like this one because of the ivy-covered small building beside the main residence.

Near the end of our second day, we took a break in Assier after riding 125km through rolling hills. Luckily, there was some entertainment in the form of a tiny kid riding his bike around like he owned the place. He was jumping it up and down the steps of this gazebo and generally acting like a pint-sized bad-ass. Keep up the good work.

After riding 140km through almost continuous steep hills, we were worried we would be too sore to complete the third day's riding to make it to Cahors where we were getting on the train back to Poitiers. Fortunetely, a good nights rest and a decent breakfast helped a lot. We were on our way, just outside Capdenac, when we encountered this in the way...

The road had been washed out. We tried to get around it, as the shortest detour by road was an extra 15km out of the way. The wall to the right supports a railway, we were able to climb up onto the railway. One of the tracks was still in use, but veered off into a tunnel going the wrong direction. The other set of tracks were unused, but were overgrown with thorns and we were stymied. We had to shorten our journey and head back to Capdenac to catch the train there. On our way back into town we found a notice from the city regarding the temporary closure of the road...dated February 21, 2006.

Luckily, Rebecca was waiting for us in Poitiers with a rabbit stew....Mmmmmmmm.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


Our visitors are arriving on the heels of each other. We said goodbye to Erika on Wednesday morning, and Trevor arrived with his bike in tow the same afternoon.

Erika's last day in our lovely apartment.

Hello Trevor...with Saturday afternoon oysters. (In case you're wondering what you're missing)

then a nap...

Late afternoon in Parc Blossac

Moules Frites and Muscadet

After all that relaxing, it's time for a trip to the bottle depository.

Stay tuned for more photos and info from the recent adventures and possibly some guest-authored posts.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Athletic Anecdotes and Another 10K

post 10k, part deux

New Personal Best : 65 minutes, 51 seconds
(nearly 6 minutes faster than the first one)

When I am running, even when I am running inside, at the gym, I see many interesting things. I suspect that many strange things also happen at gyms in the US, but here in France, gym culture is especially peculiar:

(1) yesterday, when I got to the gym and went to the locker room, I watched as a young lady who was changing out of her work-out gear into her street clothes
removed a large set of hoop earrings from her ears and replaced them with a larger set of hoop earrings. She has designated exercise jewelry.
(2) also yesterday, a large asian woman -- who is new to the gym-- was working with one of the personal trainers. she was wearing a very small leotard with no...erm... supportive undergarments. the trainer tried to get her to run on the treadmill next to me, but when he increased the pace, she fell. not stumbled. fell, all the way down, and then rolled all the way off the treadmill to the wall. She didn't seem hurt, and I was impressed that the leotard remained intact.

Have you seen strange things like this happen at your gym? Feel free to share your anecdotes in the comments.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Saturday AND Sunday in Hell...

I came across this poster (link now broken) on the internet a few days ago. Initially, I was almost giddy...the 20th of June?!?

Having participated in this glorious hypercycling race only once, in 2006, I had resigned myself to missing it in both '08 and '09 because it is normally held in September each year. Even if our visas had arrived on time 10 months ago, I still wouldn't have made it to the 2008 edition, and in September of this year, we'll be cosying into our new place in Champaign-Urbana, gearing up for the academic year.

"But June 20th?" I thought to myself. "I could actually swing that."

And then my newly cultivated Inner Voice of Reason said, "What are you trying to get us into?" While my experience racing in 2006 was sometimes enjoyable, it was also plagued by periods of intense pain and delirious soul-searching, and many questions of "What the #@!* am I doing this for?"

Here's my account of riding in the same race (a little shorter and with different cities) which I wrote after finishing in 2006:

The 23rd of September was the start of the 3rd 24-hour race in Holland. I'd seen somethings online about the previous ones. I was planning on being in Europe for my friend's wedding in Scotland a few weeks prior, and decided in July that I should stay and do the 24-hour race in Holland 2 weeks after the wedding.

I got to Holland on Thursday for the race which was scheduled for Saturday. I spent most of Thursday and Friday finding maps, getting a rear rack for a track bike, helmet, bottles, bottle cages, and adjusting fenders.

track bike ready for 400km ride
My bike from 2006 that is currently in the U.S. in storage. I miss you.

The race started in Utrecht, about 35km from Amsterdam. There was food and drinks at the start to try and build up the energy reserves. I had 2 water bottles, extra clothes for the night time, nuts/fruit, cell phone for emergencies, mp3 player, 4 maps of Holland or parts of Holland, rain gear, and bike tools.

24 hour race 2006 start banner in Utretch
The start of the race in Utrecht: hot bikes + random cute toddler

Almost 60 people took off at 12:10PM from Utrecht to Amsterdam for the first checkpoint. I was riding a 46x16 fixed gear (with a 17t freewheel on the other side) 'cause I wanted to be able to keep up with the leaders as long as possible. About 15km outside Utrecht I lost the leaders. We were cycling mostly on bike paths which were too narrow to do a lot of passing. When the group in front of you got dropped, so did you. Soon after we lost the leaders, there were navigational problems. We managed to ride an extra 4km from what race organizers stated it would be between Utrecht and Amsterdam.

At the checkpoint in Amsterdam we had more food, drink, and a quick group map-check and we were off to Zwolle, 138 km away. Much more getting lost ensued in the suburbs around Amsterdam. We never got too far from the intended path, but we spent a lot of time looking at maps or asking directions. Around 15 km from Zwolle my legs were hurting, and I was no longer able to go very fast. Our group of 6 from Amsterdam (Eva, Hannes--both from Stockholm, Louise from Dublin, who lived in Chicago for 6 months, Pedro from Madrid, Chris Berling from Amsterdam, and me) was still together. I got leg cramps just outside of Zwolle and I wasn't sure if I would continue after that.

After more map checking we found the checkpoint in Zwolle. We spent 45 minutes there. More eating (rice and pancakes), drinking, switching to the freewheel (after 90 miles), stretching, putting on some cold weather clothes, engaging front light, hooking up the mp3 player, and we were off, plus one lone German (Tibor Sillo, from Hamburg) who had showed up while we there.

We made pretty good time to Arnhem, with Tibor, Louise, and I sharing most of the pacemaking. The freewheel made all the difference, so did the music I started to listen to; it really took my mind off the monotony. It was nice to be a group because you had more eyes to look out for signs in the dark pointing the way. We went through one decent-sized city, Apeldoorn, and the cobbled bike paths and streets were brutal on the hands. I knew they would only get worse in every town for the rest of the trip.

Arnhem was the site of the Open Dutch Messenger Championships a month before this, which Tibor attended. So he showed the way to the checkpoint, a messenger service headquarters. After 30 minutes of food, drink, and a little beer, we were off again to Nijmegen.

Outside of Nijmegen we asked a man pushing his bike for directions. He said he was going to the same neighborhood and would show us the way. En route, his bike broke down twice while he was riding. Once, his bungees got caught in his chain, and then his chain fell off. Luckily, there were three people there who had tools to work on the problem all at the same time. Nijmegen checkpoint: more food, drink and we were off to Eindhoven.

arrival times at the checkpoints
Checkpoint times for our group. Left Utrecht at 12:10.
Arrived in Amsterdam at 13:50, Zwolle at 20:00, etc.
By the time we reached Eindhoven, everyone was lagging except Tibor and Louise. I didn't quit in Eindhoven because there was no place to sleep and there was a drunk guy yelling at at everyone about how they 'had to keep going, it is ONLY 85 km.'

We left Eindhoven for Maastricht as the sun was coming up. About 30 km outside of Eindhoven we started encountering clubs out for a Sunday morning training ride. There was a lone cyclist from Eindhoven following us. Once he found out where we were going he decided to join us and show us the way because he was out for a 'leisurely' 160 km training ride. We followed a canal for around 60 km, it was really boring, and clogged with morning exercise traffic, but it was the shortest way.

Once into Maastricht we had to ask for directions every few kilometers. There were a few small hills, but there was one leading right up to the finish outside Maastricht that was 2km long. It was torture after riding for 24 hours. Everyone in our group finished except Chris. There was a short awards ceremony after the race, not really any prizes, a few trophies and patch kits.

Tibor Sillo at the 2006 24 hour race in Bemelen
The race finish at a campground in Bemelen.
Tibor getting an award for finishing in exactly 24 hours; 2 minutes ahead of me
It was a lot of fun, even if it wasn't as much of a social event as it would have been in the States. The checkpoints along the way were more fun than the finish.

Race checkpoint in Arnhem at the headquarters of Velocity Couriers
Race checkpoint in Arnhem at the headquarters of Velocity Couriers

So back to the present...

Tickets from Paris to Amsterdam aren't too expensive, I'm better prepared both physically and equipment-wise for something like this than I was three years ago. But it still kind of scares me. Any misadjustment of your bike's fit or minor discomfort will be enormously magnified after performing 90,000 pedal revolutions. Not only is this year's race the longest version yet (490 km=305 miles), there are only 23 people registered so far, nearly all of them Dutch. The more people that race, the better your chances of finding a group to ride with that is going your pace. And the Dutch aren't much help: they are cycling robots, capable of inhuman speeds over vast distances. The 2006 winner (Dutch, of course) finished the 400km race in 14 hours, for an average of 18 mph, an incredible pace for 14 hours straight.

Now the Inner Voice of Reason is wondering how I'm going to consume 10,000+ calories while riding my bike for 24 hours straight...