Thoughts on biking and Czech life through the Eyes of an American

Friday, September 19, 2008

Again to Austria

One of my favorite paintings that I had on the walls from my apartment in Bangor (constructed in 1836 by one of the richest men in the lucrative lumber industry (the McCrillis-Dwinell house build by Brown if I remember correctly...)
was a painting called "Again To Austria" (the provided photo does not do it justice... when seen in person, framed, I smile every time I see it). I would provide a nifty link with more info about the apartment but either I forgot the URL or the historical society has removed the link. If you like the painting you can get more info here: shown in 24x32 but also available in 32x44" or even (my recommendation 44x60". I used to enjoy lighting up the track lights, illuminating the archways and beautiful curved walls of the historic building with various large plants and tropical trees that I decorated the flat with. It was on a busy street and many people drove/walked by so since it was a historical building, I felt like it was my duty to showcase the place since Bangor (in the time the building was constructed - around the 1830's) was thought to be the most lucrative and busiest port on the east coast. A fire a few years later changed all that and the focus turned south to Portland.... which also suffered a major fire a few years later... turning the focus to Boston... and the rest is history. Perhaps people reading this know Boston but Bangor is either completely unknown or only known because of Stephen King (who also lives on Broadway, West Broadway actually, a few miles away).

Anyway, I had fun transforming a old house of the rich and famous to a modern day tech-saavy flat. I swapped all the light switches and sockets to new dimmable switches with little LED indicators... and every piece of electronics in the house was remotely controlled either via remote in the flat, voice control in the flat (ala... saying "turn on the TV" anywhere in the flat made the TV turn on - or saying "Dim bedroom lights to 50%" gave a nice sleepy atmosphere while reading just before bedtime). Or you could control everything from the internet... at the office, a friends house... or in a different country. Simply go to the apartment's web page and turn on the heat... or turn on the blender... maybe flash the patio lights for no good reason... or turn on every light in the apartment with a single click to make it look like someone was home... or blast your favorite techno song at 1am... you wouldn't be able to hear it but your neighbors would :) I could even drop down the movie screen in front of the triple doorway stained glass doors and play a movie from anywhere in the world...

For an apartment with a "Register of Historic Places" plaque in the spiral staircase foyer, it was pretty darn high-tech. Eventually 2 gay guys bought the building just before I left... I gave them a quick tour and I could see that they thought they just made a great investment by the way they looked at each other (or maybe they .... err, nevermind).... little did they know that when I moved out everything came with me... computer, light switches, outlets, tropical plants, voice recognition control, movie theater... it was still a pretty nice place though even bare. I think when I design my on home I will have at least one room that represents the architecture of the main living room (approximately 50ft [16m] x 12ft [4m] with curved walls and 14 foot (4.3m) ceilings with a lovely archway bisecting the area in two as well as a white marble fire place, 10 foot (3+ meter) high mirror with gold frame and my own personal decorations... typically cycling art or travel art. The centerpiece was a 4 foot (1.3m) long artwork of a nude female cyclist "flying" through the night on a french labeled bike (circa 1890's). Another was a painting of the marina in Saint Tropez... honestly I don't like buying artwork with places that I have never been.. but when I saw it, the colors and lights just jumped out at me... I hung it above the fireplace but was a bit ashamed when people asked if I had ever been there...

A few years later.... and yes, I have actually stood in the same place that the painter stood while painting the marina at Saint Tropez that I loved even without knowing the spot. My second (or third, or somedays absolute..) favorite piece of artwork at the Bangor apartment was a painting of a young woman with skis slung over her shoulder and a young boy in the same pose following right behind. With a mountainous background, the title stated, "Again to... " and then "Austria" on the bottom. I loved viewing that painting (#2 print of all produced) every time I walked in the door. I actually flanked the painting with my Rossignol B2 skis for the full effect especially as I waited the ski season in October and November.

And now, like Saint Tropez, I can wake up and wonder about the day and think, "perhaps I should ride my bike to Austria, again..." and I smile at the simplicity and coincidence of it all. Living just 40 miles from the border, I can easily ride my bike through the southern Czech vineyards, ride through the Austrian country side for a while and turn back home for a solid 100 mile ride.

Last week, I decided to contact an old friend who I apparently "lost" his email from memory... we actually go way back to racing in small races (meaning, 1st place gets you a water bottle and a sticker) but it was so coveted that we would sit for hours in the grass after the race joking around as the coordinators tried to tabulate the results. Years later, we both found ourselves racing for different schools in the Collegiate Eastern Mountain Bike Championships... We both raced and we were #1 (him) and #2 (me) with just a lap to go. I began to think how great it would be to have 2 Mainers (not exactly a cycling 'hot bed') finish #1 and #2... he was already multiple time national champion so I was in good company either way.... just then I hit a huge rock while navigating the tough leaf-infected trail that made it impossible to see the deadly rock traps that lie underneath the leaves. I think I fixed the flat and came in 4th or so... but still...

Living abroad is tough to keep in touch with old friends... So I contacted his mom, my former art teacher in high school... turns out I swapped the 2 words that comprised his email address but she said Adam had a mountain bike race in Austria in 3 days and would LOVE it if I came. I also discovered that an old college teammate was still racing Downhill and was going to race the World Cup Downhill race! I emailed Adam and Dave and called my girlfriend Linda, engrossed in an intense CELTA course in Prague to see if she was up for a weekend get-a-way to the Austrian alps to see some of my friends from home. She was all for it so I reserved a rental car. I decided to get some exercise on Friday since I had a long week of desk work and rode my bike to Austria and back (about 100 miles) then stopped at the rental car place outside our city to get the car. I imagined telling the guy that I had rode my bike from Austria and I saw a hill in the distance and was so tired of pedaling that I decided to rent a car...

Eventually, I rented a hot looking Skoda Fabia II and flew up to Prague to pick up Linda... then.... it was "Again to Austria"... only much further to the east this time and while I usually bike in the Austrian country side, we were headed straight into the heart of the Alps, just south of Salzburg, for you "Sound of Music" fans.

We drove through the night so we didn't see much but when we awoke, it was fantastic... we were nestled in a small alpine village called Schladming with jagged Alp mountains on either side and quaint church steeples that chimed every hour with Austrian charm. We checked out the World Cup Downhill Finals on Saturday... waiting to see my old college teammate from Vermont.. but apparently some racer got out of control on the course and hit a photographer... seriously injuring the latter. A helicopter had to fly in to rescue the photographer and (for good measure) the racer as well. The ordeal set back the schedule 90 minutes so we didn't see as much racing as we wanted to.

We headed back to the hotel so we could do some sport for ourselves... with Linda heading to the hotel's complementary fitness center / spa / sauna / indoor pool / water slides... and I geared up my bike for a ride up the alpine country roads in the area.... a route that surprisingly ended at the starting gate of the downhill race... the only road biker at the start of the World Cup Downhill Finals race for sure! I actually hadn't planned on bringing my road bike but if you've been reading closely, I didn't have much time between my ride to Austria on Friday, getting the car, getting back to the apartment, and getting to Prague, then driving to the Austrian Alps... so yes... the bike was conveniently in the back seat of the Skoda... some say I planned that... but honestly it wasn't the case.

Needless to say, the ride up from 700m altitude in Schladming to 1800m was beautiful even though it was completely cloudy and rainy... I found a nice Austrian country road that passed by several small farms and family owned B&Bs. The scenery primarily cut through the woods with hard intense climbing that eventually opened up with fabulous vistas of green grass and mountain peaks in the distance. Although, you had to keep alert because the roads were filled with loose sand and stones from previous 'flash floods' and the roads dropped off very steeply at the sides. In the steepest sections, it was common to spot several horn endowed goats on the side of the road... not more than a few arms length away... calmly munching on the green slope-side grass. Eventually, I intersected the starting gate of the World Cup Finals Downhill... I was easily the ONLY road biker there... but since it was raining, cold, and at high altitude.. most people gave me a little nod as if to say "yeah, that's hardcore, just like us about to head down".

I waited at the top for a while hoping to see my friend Dave... I saw on the results sheet that he was in 122nd out of 250 riders... so I didn't think he made it to the final round. I decided to head down the hill... and if you had seen the dirt, rocks, steeps, switchbacks, and rain, you would have known that this was much crazier that riding up the mountain at 170bpm for 60 minutes.

Luckily, I had outfitted my Scott with new brakes... KCNC CB1 brakeset... a (gulp) lightweight brakeset (just 167 grams for the PAIR with PADS!) but like all things super-light... you typically don't talk about performance. My first ride with the KCNC's was fine until 30 seconds in when I first entered a busy city intersection... "oh boy, these things are called brakes?" Luckily, I discovered that the stock brake
pads on the KCNC's are terrible so I swapped them with Dura-Ace pads in late August (I had also purchased KCNC brakes with Dura-Ace pads for my Scott Addict back in the US, so I knew the pads made a big difference). With the Dura-Ace pads, the KCNC's were perfect... I was extra careful (huge alpine decent, loose rocks, pouring rain, wet leaves... yeah... totally the stuff that normally precedes horror stories... but I made it down and really enjoyed it. After the ride the front brake, even with all the dirt, water, and mud, was covered in ultra-fine metal shards/dust apparently from all the braking power I had to use on the way down. Even a few rides later, nothing seems out the ordinary, ie, still aligned with brake surface, still fresh pads, no rubbing, etc. I'm sure the Ultegra SL brakes I replaced would have done well, but for 167 grams the KCNC's were pretty darn impressive. Not quite as impressive as the vistas or the horned goats on the side of the road... but impressive none-the-less.

We got back and headed into town hoping to catch up with either of my old friends. We found the apartment my friend from college was at and we had a nice chat with him and his mom... bringing back old memories when myself and 35 other bike racers arrived at her house at 2am looking for floorspace... they had just suffered severe water damage to their entire house after returning from a trip (ahh... spring in Connecticut with massive amounts of snow on the roof) but still welcomed us with open arms.

Time began to get away from us and Linda and I had to practically run back to our hotel for dinner. We were at a very nice 4-star establishment that offered everything from an indoor riffle-shooting range to a golf driving range, to bowling, to swimming, to cosmetics, to hair cuts, to saunas, to ... ok you get the picture.

We had the "menu"... a fabulous 5 course dinner with a few customary Austrian dishes mixed in. We were just finishing our main course when suddenly 2 people approached our table... I glanced up to see Adam Craig, numerous US national champion and US Olympian in Beijing with his girlfriend, "Hey John, what's up?" he says...

Being away for so long, my ears perk up even when I hear simple english... let alone someone calling my name! Turns out that Adam's Giant Team was a bit "lax" in the preparation for the final race of the season and somehow locked Adam out of the hotel/B&B where they had promised to provide dinner. On hearing this, Linda and I scootched over and we got our starving friends some menus. We had a great time taking about everything from travel, to languages, to Beijing, to Czech Republic, to Seattle, to Bend, to good ol' Maine.

Adam's girlfriend ordered tomato soup and our (non-english speaking) waiter said, "tomato.. in bowl... ok". Sure enough, he arrived with a tomato in a cup and quickly left before anyone could notice what was going on...
at first I thought perhaps there was some soup on the bottom but no... it was just a large tomato in a small cup. Trying to play along, I thought Dee should try her best to eat it... or perhaps ask for some freshly ground black pepper... but upon closer inspection... we discovered that the tomato was actually PLASTIC!

We got a good laugh out of that and in the end everyone got some real food, including the member of our party who was going to be racing against the best mountain bikers in the world in a few hours.

The next morning proved to be more of the same, but with less rain. As a "former" mountain bike racer, I would almost call it ideal... a perfect blend for breathing without the risk of overheating. The rain even held off all day. Linda used some A.M. downtime to catch up on a few assignments on her new snazzy Dell "chill pattern" 1525 laptop in a cafe just a few meters from the course... I poked around the start area and found Adam riding around town with a flat tire. I gave a strange look like "what the heck..." as he rode by... he then revealed in his right hand a 2.5" nail that had caused the puncture. Pretty rare that a nail causes a flat on a tubeless mountain bike system... even more rare that the nail gets lodged enough such that you can pull it out and hold it in your hand!

Adam beat me back to the Giant tent where by the time I arrived the mechanic was already filling another tire with the magic blend of Stan's tubeless formula and a fresh tire. It wasn't too muddy so Adam wasn't braking out the Super-Secret Michelin Muddin' tires for this one...

Being the #1 person in the US for anything has its perks... on this Sunday in Austria, it meant that Adam got called to the start line so he could have a front spot in the race (ahead of the 150 other racers from a plethora of different countries). The gun went off and, unlike Beijing, Adam knew exactly how to enter and clip in to his pedals. He had a great start an found himself in good company... surrounded by only 3 others... most of whom were world champions. Sounds like my normal every-day rides actually. Minus the world champions... but I usually do clip into my pedals..

Adam kept with the lead group of 4 for a few laps and realized that if he wanted to be on the podium for the World Cup Overall, he needed to drop one of the guys, Burry Stander (which the start list showed as being from RSA... but after the ink had smeared from the rain, I thought it said RUS... meaning Russia, instead of South Africa) maybe I was getting his name wrong too... Colonial Sanders, or Extra Krispy Tasty Kentucky Roast Sanders... or something very Russian like that were also possibilities).

So, although most Americans consider it a miracle just to finish a World Cup in the top 50, Adam was at the front... not just hanging on, but assuming the lead position, attacking the rainbow jersey. In Maine, we call that, "puttin' the boots to her".

The plan eventually backfired to a small degree and Adam had to pull back... Geoff Kabush, the Canadian champion, was leading the chase group and Adam spent a few laps either trying to catch back on, or trying to wait for additional troops (err... mounties) to formulate a new attack perhaps. But, knowing the effort it probably took to push the pace at the front, and the fact that the course was not 'made' for Adam's strengths, and the fact that it was the final race of the (long, Olympic) season, I pretty much knew that it would be a tough if not impossible task to regain contact with the leaders.

However, on the last lap, Adam made up a few places to finish a highly respectable 8th place. Still, none of us can help but wonder if the course was more technically difficult or if he could have hung on to the lead group.

My grandfather, a father who put 7 children through college and who lived through the depression, once told me after I finished my very first round of golf:

"The thing about golf is that you can make a mistake on almost every shot the entire day.., in the trees, in the water, the mud, the sand, the divots... but almost every round you manage just one beautiful shot that is so perfect that it keeps you coming back, hoping to catch a brief taste of that perfect moment.
That one shot is what keeps me coming back."

Congrats Adam on many beautiful shots in 2008! I think we'll see even more in 2009.

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