Monday, April 27, 2009

The Tour de Bretagne: Stages 2 and 3

Stage three (of the six) in the Tour de Bretagne took place today. I wrote a super long post yesterday only to find out that the internet cost 8 Euro/ hour at the Mercure Hotel in Rennes, France. Ripoff. So here it is, a combined effort from stages two and three, but still worthy!

I am the official post-race baguette sandwich maker (cream cheese, ham, and cheese usually). I also happen to be the only woman around the races and the hotels who is of a relatively young age. I guess I never realized how rare women bike mechanics are. But more than that, I think it’s for the sheer ease of having only men around since most of the riders strip down without thinking and pull it out to pee mid-race. At first I was startled at this, all of it, but now, I’ve come to embrace it. And I can confidently say I have peed more in public settings at least once a day for the past week or so. It’s still easier for the guys to do this, obviously, but I have made a game out of those times I have to pee so badly while riding for 4 hours in a team car – I call it “try to find the best hiding spots”.

I share a hotel room with Phil and his Russian teammate, a quiet yet expressive fellow we call Borisov. He and I communicate a lot with gestures and pieced together sentences from his Italian/Russian knowledge and my Spanish/English. But mostly, as I said, we shrug our shoulders, or shake our heads, or relate on a medical level since he got water in his ear the first day and has been deaf in the left ear since. Poor Boris, the guys on the team tell him that he looks like Jack Bauer on 24. No, not Kiefer. Jack.

So I sat in the back of the team car yesterday and today. It’s one of three vehicles that we have here, but the only one that drives behind the guys as they race the 150-170 km through Northern France. Riding with the team director, Roberto Gaggiolli, is really… interesting. It’s like a riding in a race car in a video game or something. The way he and every team car operates is absolutely beyond me. It’s like the same person is behind the wheel of each one since they magically know how to speed up to 120 kph and slow down perfectly behind bumpers and cyclists. Then they swerve around roundabouts excelerating the entire time and honk at every little thing. I was loving it even though I think I went into cardiac arrest on a few dozen occasions.

Normally, the mechanic accompanies the director to help the riders. But yesterday and today, it was a special case since we’re short-staffed and the huge bus vehicle thing (with washer/dryer, refrigerator, freezer, suitcases, and a back bike shop) had to get to our final destination: the hotel. I don’t drive a stick too well, so our poor Polish mechanic reluctantly sped it there and made it back to that feed zone by the time the tour arrived, including us - their stationwagon posse of over twenty team cars.

But let me back up by saying how surreal it is to become a part of this sport. In so many ways, I found myself relating my experience in the Amore & Vita team car to the Wizard of Oz. I know, it’s trippy, but let me explain. It began when I noticed the “Gendermerie”, or race officials, on the motorbikes as they ride up next to your car, staring straight ahead and not flinching when buzzing past cyclists and weaving between cars. Since the roads are narrow, they’re literally in line to take out the side mirrors if a rabbit were to hop in front of their wheel or something.

(Side note: they have so many rabbits in Northern France it is unbelievable. And they eat them after storing them in their freezer>fridge with entire body intact, including the head which has poked out eyes and a bloodied face. I was shown this at Franck & Steph’s place and lost my appetite. It hasn’t actually returned yet either, especially when we’re served boned animal meat.)

But back to the land of Oz: The brightest yellow fields of fluorescent flowers are everywhere. Not sure what they are used for… maybe mustard? But wow. My favorite part though is that the people who step outside of their farmyards and tiny town gates are in such awe - many are old men and women with thick french bellies, but entire schools of little kids come outside to watch too. They seem fascinated and mesmerized and you can tell they feel graced by the presence of the Tour outside of the windows in their sleepy towns. I have a feeling that most people in Minnesota, San Francisco, or anywhere in the U.S., might find the traffic noise, the blocking off of streets, the caravan of team cars to follow, and the fact that a sport that their tax dollars pay for some element of would come invade their routine lives a bit obnoxious. But here, as I’ve mentioned before, people live for cycling even if they’ve never gotten into it themselves. They could only hope that after 364 days or so, the Tour de Bretagne will choose to pass through again.

Yesterday, Amore & Vita’s Yuriy Metlushenko took 2nd place by only 6 seconds. This was astonishing as he had flatted about halfway into the race and had to catch up on a hill which seemed to be pretty difficult. Today, the German rider, Phillip Mamos, was in the lead group. I forgot to check which place he got, but he won each of the climbs and was rewarded heavily with many points for them. My Phil has been racing better each day, and I can tell that he’s feeling stronger because of it. It’s so fun to watch him race these grueling hills and understand why he’s been training so hard all of this time.

From this moment on, I think cycling is quite possibly the most mentally and physically challenging sport I've ever witnessed. But for these guys, it's like "another day at the office".

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tour de Bretagne

It's been awhile since I've posted for various reasons, but we're back on the road in an hour. Phil and Amore & Vita will be doing the 6 stage Tour of Brittany (Tour de Bretagne) beginning this Saturday that lasts through Thursday.

France has been an incredible journey for us. Especially for me. Initially, I found myself observing everything and wanting to inform the entire world of the marvels that make our cultures different. Then, out of nowhere, the very dark side of living in a world where your expression meant nothing. The language barrier swallowed me whole. It was only about four days ago that things began to turn around, as I have started understanding the basics of French, I realized that our time here was coming to an end, and there was no use in dwelling in the frustration of being silenced verbally. Therefore, I made an outward declaration to Phil while playing Scrabble one evening that I would no longer be feeling depressed and down. He thought I was crazy since I hadn't really worn the initial mood change in the first place (which probably attributed to the problem now that I think about it!).

In any case, we embark now for the next phase of our adventure and I look forward to our return to Italy, where the language makes more sense to me (thank you Spanish), but I will definitely miss the friends I've made in Franck, Steph, and the entire Flers gang. They've all been wonderful to us.

More to come!!!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Week #1 in Flers, France

Before I sit here regurgitating events, I must say that this week has been simultaneously delightful and very difficult for me. I'm so incredibly fatigued. I have raw emotions that cannot be expressed to anyone but my boyfriend, so they tend to pour out or be held in.

I can see how silence is a good thing sometimes - a way to reflect and find peace - but I have experienced the same frustration many who emigrate to new cultures have. I can see how deep depression is possible with such huge language barriers, and I cannot count how many times I've been in a room full of people who are laughing and talking and introducing one another as I stand there... just staring. Trying to smile. Trying to be "myself" among strangers. Most of the time, I pretend to understand. If I don't, I look rude. But if I pretend to engage and they learn I cannot speak French at all, then that is confusing for them. At dinner parties, the best expression I have found is it busy my focus. I read the french headlines of newspapers sitting on the mantel, I watch distant cartoons on tv screens, or I eat my food very slowly. The moment you seem bored, they stop their flow of conversation because they feel bad. And I don't want that, I just want to seem comfortably invisible until I can start to understand or at least say a few words back instead of having to rely on Phil to stop his conversations in order to translate what is typically a topical discussion anyway.

It was Franck's cycling team's picture day last weekend. It took place both in the parking lot of a huge Home Depot-like company that sponsors them. The rain was pouring and we were taking a break from standing outside in it by sitting in the backseat of their nice stationwagon. Phil, Christian, and I were laughing about something. Before I knew it, Phil's elbow snapped back toward my middle seat. Fast, hard, and perfectly cocked, it got me dead in the nose. Now, I've never had a bloody nose that I can remember, but whooooosh do the tears and blood stream out! Phil and Christian were in shock, I was in shock, and we were all trying not to laugh. 'It wasn't on purpose' he apologized over and over again. Thinking we were almost ready to go home, I didn't care that much. But three minutes later, Franck said it was time to go inside for a reception. Phil pointed me in the direction of the bathroom as we got inside and insisted that I take my time and clean up. (That's how I knew it was bad - he doesn't wait 10 minutes for me to get ready to leave anywhere without getting annoyed with my girlish ways...) Sure enough, my face was puffy and I looked miserable, but wanting to be a part of the festivities, I dabbed the nose a few times with cold pink toilet paper (it's pink here) and hurried upstairs. I went to go stand by Stephany and Franck as Phil and Christian autographed posters for the kids. I felt alright (especially when no one was trying to talk to me through my watery eyes). Then, amidst numerous introductions, kissing each cheek once and shaking hands, I was introduced to someone in particular. In slow mo, I lean in, kiss each of his taut 70 year old cheeks, and resume upright position. He looked shocked, this very well-dressed man. I watched Stephany's face turned bright red and heard Franck crack some sort of a joke about my being from the U.S. or something. The man spoke in French to me, then asked in English if I voted Obama. I hooted and did a mini fist pump. Ugh, I thought, that was stupid!!! But it was the first U.S. reference I'd received in weeks. He laughed and smiled genuinely, saying that he was so glad that we met, and that I greeted him the way I did.

I felt like I must've done something right, eh? Not so much. As soon as he was more than an earshot away, Phany, Franck, Franck's friend Richard, and Phil were all laughing and pointing at me. They said that ONLY when they know someone personally am I allowed to kiss the person's cheek. This man, the one I leaned into and kissed not once, but twice, was the Mayor of the city of Coutances, and very important. They had never met him before. Still recovering from my injury to the face - and now a major hit to the self-confidence - I could do nothing but split. It was that, or make an even bigger fool of myself and my surrogate French family with the tears that were welling up in my eyes.

So, I roamed the store. I had simply had it with the language, with being made fun of without understanding why or how. Plus, looking at rakes, old people canes, dog food, and fake plants had never sounded so appealing - especially since they'd help me fight back round two of uncontrollable tears that day.

Since then, things have gotten better. My nose healed up just fine, and Phil and I took a spin on my Amore & Vita racing bike. It's measured perfectly for my body, which is still crazy to think about. I feel like Orphan Annie trying to clean the floors of Daddy Warbucks' mansion when I sit on it. I feel like she deserves to be in the Tour de France. That I don't deserve her at all.

I call her Black Beauty because I really think bicycles are modern day horses. And because they need to be trained in like colts do. Black Beauty decided to buck me off that day, and I haven't had the guts to get back on since since the flaps of skin that were torn halfway on my right palm are finally healing now from a "rocky" landing. But I still love her, and we'll eventually become one... that is if my friend Cloudy doesn't step in.

Cloudy is a miniature horse (really, he is) that I discovered on my run three days ago. I stopped to see if he wanted to hang out with me on one of my runs around the countryside. I held out my hand and whistled to him and to my amazement, he trotted over without hesitation. We sat there for a good 10 minutes chatting about life, and living in France, and everything else. He even stuck his entire head through the barbed wire to get a good scratch on his muddied nape. He's alone in there. We connected on a pretty deep level.

(I should add that I had attempted to make friends with some huge cows while we watched a nearby race last weekend. An entire road full of people watched me in astonishment as I approached them with outstretched arm. Phil was so embarrassed, but seriously, animals are the only beings that seem to speak my same language in this country.)

I must confess something though... the french language is actually starting to make some sense. I still don't understand the way they eat meat, but at least I can greet people properly and say goodbye, I can understand simple questions about the weather, and those who/what/where/why questions that the three year old Romaine asks. Above all, I think that I could probably do an impressive impersonation at this point. I've got their intonation down pat.

Some quick observations now:
1) The French put ham (jambon) in everything. If you are the guest, they serve you first, and watch to see exactly what you are eating - then they ask you about not eating much meat - on a daily basis. They sip coffee multiple times a day and use sugar cubes, not sugar granules to sweeten it. Very, very rarely is milk or cream added.

2) They don't recycle. It bothers me, so I bring the glass to the recycling receptacle myself. But I haven't seen anything for plastic yet... anywhere. Phil resists the idea of recycling too. It's backwards, in my opinion, and I let everyone know this.

3) French women raise their eyebrows when they talk. It's funny to watch. But deep down, I'm envious of the neat way their mouth has to move in order to pronounce French properly. It's ladylike and elegant.

4) They make fires in the fireplace nightly to warm the house when it's cool. Sometimes they thrown in plastic bottles. Don't ask.

5) The toilets have two buttons that I am still figuring out since it seems each toilet's two buttons operate differently. Oh, and they use light pink toilet paper.

6) Anyone who has been a part of Phil's riding career here has Canadian flags, Maple Leaves, Canada maps, Canada DVDs, Canada chairs, and Canada blankets, Canada mugs, Canada light fixtures, and even Canada tattoos. Ok, that was a stretch, I admit. But seriously, they love him almost as much as they love the red and white.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Mont St. Michel

We visited Mont St. Michel yesterday, off the coast of Normandy (or Brittany, if you feel so inclined to argue about it). It's not a place easily put into words, so I'll let the photos we took do the talking.

But if you want to see some history on this marvelous island monastery turned tourist attraction, the trusted Wikipedia site places words into our mouths agape still, a day later, from the splendor of this natural wonder of the world.

Another post to come later today with an assortment of observations touching on the following:
1) The issue of not speaking French while in France. Lots of time to reflect mid-conversation.
2) Don't be fooled by the slim stereotype, they definitely eat.
3) Getting injured in France. Bloody nose and scuffed, rock-embedded palms.
4) Cultural norms are to be followed: Do not kiss the cheeks of important French politicians when the French people here shake their hand. Even if you don't know better, it embarrasses an entire room of people.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The distance run

On rainy days like this it sometimes takes awhile to get motivated. It means a frustrated cyclist boyfriend because it's difficult to ride. Hours of sighs and staring out the window waiting for it to let up as we sip bottomless pots of coffee to stay motivated for the perfect launch. I used to be better at letting the depleted motivation of my cyclist man flow through me without really being affected. But strangely, the more time we spend together, the more I can see our emotions linking together. So witnessing him feeling down tends to soak up my energy too now. That is why I chose to make the concerted effort to deal with the weather in a new way today and depart from what could have ended up a boiling pot of indoor anxiety before the moping set in.

So today at around 1:30pm, the clouds broke and I saw sun for a few minutes. Instantly I yelled up to Phil that I wa going out for a run. My legs felt strong and endured the first 5 miles so well that I kept truckining outside of Flers for awhile. I'm guessing I was about 7 miles into the country, after stopping to pet a poor little mud-crusted pony and mooing at some responsive cattle with fluffy mopheads, when it began to sprinkle, again. Turning back toward town, I realized the rain was quickly picking up. At one point I noticed how hard it was hitting my jacket and bouncing into my eyes. Luckily however, I felt warm and cozy under my rain-repellent jacket and a baseball cap, making it enough keep body relatively dry. Sailing through the chateau gardens on a new return route, I ended up along the long mote that spit me out onto a road high above the train station that I kind of recognized from a drive we took my second day here. Thus overtrusting my sense of direction, I kept running toward what I thought was the Beucherie house. Two hours into my once serene and mind-clearing run, I was full bladder-stricken and had a couple of very sore legs barely holding me up. Not to mention, I was winding through unrecognizable gray streets in what is considered the Flers industrial park, I presume, that is surrounded by sheep farms. I saw a sign that says 'Charal' with a red graphic of a bull head that had disturbed me since the first time I had seen it about five days ago. It is an oppressive sign that looms over Flers from a distance, sitting atop a large factory that pumps out thick smoke. Previously while running around town I avoided running past this place like the plague; it looks like a meat camp. Additionally, I wanted nothing to do with it after hearing how the French regularly prepare their steaks: very bloody. Yet all of a sudden, I was dependant upon what looks like a grinding facility... and guiltily, I was so happy to see the unfriendly, familiar landmark.

Just 10 minutes later, I got home after my nearly 3 hours of running, yet I wasn't hungry.
C'est a vie :)

Monday, April 6, 2009

La Route Adelie de Vitre... and Normandy

Instead of pure speculation, I was assigned to be a feed zone person. This, I have found, is the perfect position for me at races because it reminds me of the days of relay races in track. There were around 9 long, 20km circuits that we held up retro cloth bags with a small panini roll, energy bar, and bottle of electrolyte-enhanced water from the right side of the road for the riders to swipe as they passed at what averaged at 45 mph. On the final 4 circuits of 8 km, they still passed by the feed zone. Here, they snagged water bottles mostly - those who were racing yet. It's not like a running race for this reason. It's so long (about 200km or so) and you're dependent not only on the energy you generate from your legs to carry you over the finish, but also on the bicycle you ride. Many mechanical problems each race take out even the best of the riders. If you add that to crashing into other people and getting injured, the list of race inhibitors gets longer and longer.

I thought the guys who "got dropped" (term for those who have to exit the race for whatever reason) would be upset. The majority of them from our team came right to the feed zone to wash off and drink water, eat a panini and discuss the day. Many of them were not upset at all. Nor did they seem stressed. It's sort of like living in Minnesota and how we deal with the weather. It can be nasty, but you choose not to dwell on that. Instead, you think about the next day. The way it can change at the drop of a hat. And that it's really not in your control most of the time.

Now, Phil and I are living at Franc and Stefanie's house in Flers, France. It is about 100 km from the race site this past Friday. Flers is a fortified town of 17,000 or so inhabitants. There is a main street clad in stone and brick, with tiny stone storefronts and banks and a huge flowered roundabout. It's got a huge park surrounding the castle that is now the city hall. In fact, Stefanie, her neighbor Isabel, and I went running at the park surrounding the preserved castle today. It has a mote and everything. Today it's about 70 and sunny - perfect for a morning run with two funny french women in their mid-thirties who loved the challenge of speaking to me in broken english. Needless to say, they weren't as keen on teaching me their french as they were asking me about english words, but I am hoping to get myself a book to work from soon. The people I meet aren't adament in teaching me their language I am finding. Franc and Stefanie's boys, Simone and Romaine, are two of the most adorable little kids on the planet. (I'll get a photo of them soon!) Romaine is just 4 years old. Stefanie describes him as "crafty" and always trying to get his way using his charm and humor. With huge coke bottle glasses and a tuft of hair on the top of his head that bounces when he walks, his tiny presence demands a lot of loving attention. Simone is 9 years old and he pretty much let's Romaine run the show. He's well-mannered and quiet, but his eyes speak for themselves. He loves listening to me speak in English and often looks down and blushes when I smile at his reaction to my lack of French.

The people of Normandy are some of the nicest and most generous people I've ever encountered. They're simple country folks really, but they live modern lives. In small, extremely efficient houses tiled in white and decorated simply, with huge sliding doors and windows that open up to big yard and farm across the way. The grandparents, Nanard and Dede, are constantly stopping over. They make large, multiple course meals for us and include anyone who decides to stop by. The internet is virtually nonexistant, and the kids play outside in the grass - they kick around inflatable balls, pick up bugs, rollerblade atop the newly paved road adjacent to their housing development, and most importantly, they all (and I mean every person in every community of Northern France) admire and respect the centuries old sport of cycling.

In the photo below, which was taken our second night here, you can see everyone. From the left: Franck (Phil's former coach and really good friend), Phil, Nanard (Stef's father), Dede (Stef's mother), Stefanie (Franck's wife and my running mate), and Christian (Phil's German teammate).

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Going to the race

Driving through the French countryside on our 2nd day of traveling to the Amore & Vita race in Northern France, I've learned some important lessons about many different things:

1) When you ride in a tiny Mercedes with two people who race for a living (bicycles), you must become comfortable traveling at speeds of up to 180 kph; and the passing, lots and lots of passing.

2) If you were to prevent the tiny Mercedes from passing when it wishes, you will receive the wrath of an angry German on your auto's rump, followed by an assortment of muted screams and middle fingers, along with drawn out honks blasted at your driver's side window.

3) Never tell two guys the severity of your full bladder. Knowing your abdominal agony only provokes poking, water bottle swishing, and waterfall and leaky faucet jokes. Not to mention the immature backlash of the death glare, the standby womanly weaponry, which can only be used in very extreme cases (as to not lose it's power).

4) No matter what seems normal to pro cyclists with regard to road trip consumption, do not be fooled. Normal people should be advised not to eat constantly. Only those who ride their bicycle for 3-7 hours a day, 6 days per week, may partake in eating cookies, chocolate-dipped waffles, bottle after bottle of waters, coke zeros, and juice, gummy bears, and other treats between each large meal.

5) Do not confuse french and italian coffee.

6) People who talk incessantly - even upon first meeting you - should not continue speaking while you pee next to them in the bathroom. It's not a good first impression to leave with your sole compatriot who defends your large size.

7) Those chocolate-dipped belgian waffles, sold packages at European gas stations, are absolutely incredible.

8) When your tiny Mercedes starts smoking from the hood. It's very calming have a German whose dad happens to be a Mercedes mechanic with you. Whether he actually knows what he's doing or not, it's better than my attempt at understanding any car, engine, or the men behind the wheel continue to drive a soot coated vehicle.

9) If you cut off your own caravan of team cars going to a race, to make an exit they're supposed to follow you on - especially when the one driving it is a mere 18 years old and from North Carolina - you'll end up having to wait for them to recorrect the error for a very, very long time by waiting at a pitstop. If you choose to pass the time doing handstands against a tree, be sure to align properly as to not hit one leg and topple onto your head in a pile of dirt.

Time to say goodnight from the tiny Northern France town of Fougeres. Tomorrow, I'll be making the sandwiches and filling 5 water bottles for each of the 7 riders. The race begins at 1 pm, and I'll be learning to how to run the feed station.

This should be interesting.