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...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Graduate Travel Math

Now that we're older and wiser, we're getting more adept at taking advantage of the various transportation options that surround us here in France. This includes navigating the buggy, crash-prone, truly awful SNCF website. We recently visited Tours for an afternoon, with Jefe riding his bike the 116 km and Rebecca taking the TGV with an appropriate MFK Fisher book.

The bike ride north was fairly uneventful and Jefe made it to the main Tours train station (well, not exactly, more on that later) about 10 minutes before Rebecca showed up. We walked a few blocks through pedestrian streets to Rue Colbert, which is lined with restaurants and cafes. Thanks to a little research the night before on we knew of a couple restaurants on this street that were promising candidates.

We decided on Le Turon at 94 rue Colbert. They specialize in traditional recipes incorporating regional foods and their prices are pretty reasonable. Rebecca had a large salad with local specialties St. Maure goat cheese and chunks of fatty pork called rillons. Jefe opted for the full formule: terrine de Rillette, Perch with tagliatelle, and lemon sorbet.

Delightfully sated, we wandered over to Place Jean Jaurès and met Rebecca's colleague (and Tours resident) for coffee and a discussion of Tours sites and French foibles (they have too many national holidays in May, for example).

Post-coffee, Jefe went to the Centre de Création Contemporaire to check out Kasbah by Kader Attia while Rebecca wandered the pedestrian streets people-watching and window shopping. After reuniting we strolled through the twice-weekly flower market and stopped into Marché des Halles and found a spice booth selling Quinoa flour (hooray for gluten-free flours!) and a vegetable stand selling abnormally large, mutant rhubarb. It looked like a fossilized dinosaur femur and reminded Rebecca of that scene in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film with the giant daisies and the ooze...

giant rhubarb in Tours
Giant rhubarb from Les Halles in Tours

In his endless quest for calories, Jefe also picked up some raspberry tiramisu at a stall selling Italian specialties.

After so much walking, we had to take a break, with wine of course. La Gazette des Halles (bistro/wine bar) was just across the street and offered inviting street-side tables. We got to sample a few local wines from Chinon and Touraine while enjoying the passing scenery until our train departure. The last drink was on the house!

When departing from (or arriving at) Gare de Tours (Tours' central train station), it is usually necessary to take a shuttle train to St. Pierre des Corps (the less centrally located train station) to catch the TGV to your destination. Apparently, the central train station is a little too central, and the since the train can't pull through (it has to back in) the time-pressed TGV doesn't want to spend the extra few minutes it would take to stop at the main station. Thus, all the TGV trains stop at St. Pierre des Corps, making it, essentially, Tours' primary train station. Which is kind of a shame, since the Gare de Tours is beautifully built and otherwise very convenient. In any case, Jefe took the opportunity on the 5 minute shuttle ride to dismantle his bike for getting on the TGV.

Jefe dismantling his bike on the shuttle to St. Pierre des Corps

Now that we can manage Tours' slightly convoluted train system, we're ready to go back to visit the annual Fêtes des Vins (wine festival) for samples of the regions wines and other gastronomic specialties along with lectures.

Emboldened by the weather and the local scenery and food, we had barely returned to Poitiers before we were planning our next bike+train day trip. This time south, to Angoulême. While we were waiting for a break in Rebecca's teaching schedule and the sunny weather to coincide, Jefe rode to Bellac and took the TER (Regional Express Transport) back to Poitiers to see some new territory and check out the bike-accessibility of the slower, smaller, TER trains.

Jefe's 142 km route to Bellac was clearly not the most direct route, but he designed it to investigate all those small, squiggly, green lines on the Michelin map just south of Bellac that indicated narrow roads, scenery, and large hills. He found some truly lovely sights.

view from the hills south of Bellac
The view from Les Monts de Blond into the department of Haut Vienne

The last train for Poitiers leaves Bellac at 6:08 pm, so Jefe had to start his ride from Poitiers at 10:30 am to leave enough time for a food break and slower riding through the scenic, hilly areas. The food break didn't happen on schedule as all the small-town grocers were closed for lunch until 3 pm or later instead of the expected 2 pm. When he finally found some food in St. Christophe, he was hungry enough to devour an armload of fruit.

2 oranges, 3 bananas and pear in front of a 12th century church

He also picked up a few savory pastries in Bellac at the local traiteur before boarding the train.

The TER trains were very comfortable and were bike-friendly, no disassembly required (the limit of 4 bikes per car was far from met).

bikes on the TER
Bike spaces on the TER

An hour and half later he was back in Poitiers, ready to eat more food.

Once the weather and Rebecca's schedule cooperated we were off to Angoulême. Jefe by this 133 km route and Rebecca by the afternoon train after a morning meeting at work. The wind forecast at France meteo was mistaken (their forecast of rain was also mistaken, and thus France meteo is getting deleted from the list of weather bookmarks) and Jefe was a little late to the rendez-vous after riding into a headwind for 5 hours.

We wandered the winding streets looking at murals from graphic novels/comic books (Angoulême is the site of a graphic novel/comic book museum and annual graphic novel expo)...

mural near Eglise St. Andre in Angouleme
Comic book mural in Angoulême

...sat in cafes sipping and people-watching and picked up some quinoa flakes at a health-food store. The young residents of Angoulême all seem hot on the trail of the latest trends. Besides some gel-enabled hairdos, we saw lots of examples of the return of 80's fashion that is so popular (see here, here, and here) as well as numerous fanny-pack-as-reversed-messenge-bag.

fanny packs coming back in Angoulême
Slightly blurry, but you can clearly see the fanny pack on the chest,
with strap worn over the shoulder

Dinner time arrived and we were off to La Cité to fulfill our increasingly frequent seafood cravings. It was delectably satisfying. We had salad with prawn tails and sautéed fresh foie gras, pan-fried goatfish in basil cream sauce and a skewer of prawns, shrimp and scallops. We can still taste it a day later, any more trips to Angoulême will definitely include a stop at this restaurant. We were so stupified by the delicious seafood, creamy sauces and wonderful wine, we had to belatedly dash out of the restaurant, running 4 blocks to the train station to catch the last train to Poitiers. We hopped on just a few seconds before the doors closed and Jefe quickly dismantled his bike aboard before the conductor approached and punched our tickets. A little sweaty and happy, we were glad to be heading back home to Poitiers for the night.

Friday, May 1, 2009

2000 km later...

Jefe's Bontrager Race Lite Hardcase tire after 4000 miles on the rear wheel
My rear tire, which has been replaced after covering around 4500 miles since last August.

Our first visitors have come and gone and our next guests are a few weeks off. Rebecca's students are on vacation for their trimester break and the weather has been mostly sunny. With the free time and nice weather, I have been trying to cram in as much biking as possible. Some to get in better shape, but mostly to keep exploring the hidden corners of the Poitou-Charentes Region.

I won't be entering any races anytime soon (edit: apparently I will be entering races), but being able to go a little farther and faster allows me to cover more ground and keep expanding the territory available for exploration.

town of Le Blanc, France
The town of Le Blanc, which I visited for the first time on a recent 140km ride (not my photo)

After riding the same routes for much of the winter, I've been trying to map out a new route at least twice a week. The spring greenery and sunshine have also added new life to old routes.

The thing about riding around Poitiers that I will miss the most is the infinitely varying terrain. The gently rolling hills with the roads that gracefully twist and turn to find the path of least resistance across the undulating landscape. A road system diametrically opposed to the rigidly numeric grids of Central Illinois.

Champaign-Urbana, IL
Those boxes aren't lines of latitude or longitude, those are ROADS!

So, while Rebecca was charting her increases in speed, distance, and incline on foot, I decided to set some goals of my own. I came up with the relatively arbitrary goal of cycling 2000km during the month of April.

This didn't sound too bad, it is more than I've ever done in one month, but there seemed to be enough free time in my schedule and the sunshine was becoming more frequent.

I got off to a slow start, with rain and the threat of rain keeping me off the bike for a few days each of the first two weeks of April. If you've seen pictures of my bike in earlier posts, you know that it is equipped to handle the rain with full fenders and a mudguard. These are fine for running errands around Poitiers in the rain, or sightseeing in Berlin, Paris, Toulouse, or Bordeaux in winter showers, but the prospect of riding for 3-4 hours in soaking rain makes it seem more like a job than a pursuit of happiness.

Jefe's April rides
My bike rides during the month of April

I barely made it to 2000 km for the month. The last few days were a little rainy and I wasn't able to ride as much as I would have liked. The last day was overcast for the first two and a half hours of riding, then it started raining and I had to keep going for another hour and a half to make it 2000 km for the month.

In pushing the boundaries of my cycling universe, an unexpected hurdle was consuming enough food to sustain me for the occasional 140 km ride. Eating breakfast, lunch, during-ride snack, post-ride meal, pre-dinner snack, dinner, and making sure there are enough calories in all those meals to replace the ~3300 burned during a 5 hour ride (plus the 1600 burned when I'm not on the bike) can be a little disconcerting.

After riding for a few days in a row, I found myself very lethargic. I mentioned this to Rebecca and we did a few calculations and found that I was not eating enough to replace the calories consumed during 4 days of riding. This came as a bit of a surprise since I eat a lot of food, snacking throughout the day and consuming 4-5 normal portions at dinner.

So now I've been trying to eat a little smarter by consuming more fat (hooray, duck fat, butter, cream, etc.) and protein (beans and meat) and fruit.

This has worked out great so far. I'm not nearly as tired after multi-hour rides and can actually accomplish things around town shortly after getting off the bike. Now that I feel more comfortable going longer distances the train+bike adventures will continue farther afield. We are going to visit Tours tomorrow. It is an hour away by train and 116km (4+ hours by bike). We picked Tours partly because one of Rebecca's colleagues from ESIP lives in Tours and has volunteered to steer us to interesting sights (thanks Ann!), and also because it is the right distance away through the interesting terrain of the Indre et Loire department.

We've been told that Tours leaves a little to be desired from the tourist perspective. Perhaps this is because it was bombed heavily during WWII and its Palais de Justice was the site of the Nazi headquarters for central France. Nevertheless, it is a little larger than Poitiers and hopefully we'll find some interesting things there to tell you about.