Thursday, August 27, 2009

Austria's MTB Worlds and the future of Barcelona!

Last week Phil and I were in Northern Italy for a couple of his team's races, and after that, we trekked up to Austria for his Worlds Mountain Bike race in a tiny town north of Graz. It was a beautiful area, with huge, lush mountains, people willing to help you regardless of the language barrier, and with the worst city planning experience of our lives. Honestly, they have no restaurants in that entire Graz Metropolitan area that are not tiny bars serving only wiener schnitzel or ultra fancy spots in the "Zentrum" of the city. We did manage to get great service at a last resort - Hooters, where the waitresses were quite pleasant and not-so-well-endowed - and then at a small Italian restaurant where they spoke no italian whatsoever (he couldn't understand what Phil was saying when he ordered the "Gnocchi Pomodoro". Quite funny, given that it's on the menu written that very same way...

We stayed at a tiny little B&B in a suburb of the tiny city where the race was held. And by tiny, we mean one street with my estimation of about 43 people living there. It was adorable, we thought, until we realized there was no front desk, and quite frankly, no one anyone who could tell us how the tv and internet might work, after they let us in the room. Speaking in complete Austrian-German. I ended up knocking on random houses around the neighborhood to find the old woman who had initially spotted our car drive up and had given us the keys to our room.

All in all, it was an awesome adventure. The mountain bike race was going so well for Phil until his handlebars became loose, mid-climb, and flipped around so that he couldn't brake well. After waiting for a fellow Canadian's allen key and fixing it himself, he got back in the game.... only to flat his front wheel after about 50 km. Sadly, the race was over then, so we jetted onward to the other feed zones and helped out the other Canadian rider, Tim Carlton, as he came through. After the race ended, the Austrian mountain biking community livens up even more with fresh beer on tap and music. This culture is much different than that of the road biking community. Both have their perks, but we both find the mountain folks to be in such great spirits regardless of the outcome, that it has become a new group of people that I feel right at home with.

As for my Fulbright plans, I'm in the thick of finalizing our apartment situation. Phil will stay in Italy through the end of September, while I move there and dive into my research. The tricky thing with the two apartment finalists are that they are so unbelievably different! I can't even describe them (probably because I'm judging off of emailed photos and words from the owners in text form), but also because one is outside the city about 15 minutes, and it's a little more expensive, while the other is in Barcelona, a bit cheaper, and has wifi internet (but may be a bit more crowded). Sigh. I have faith that without worrying, I'll be able to truly enjoy my last few days with Lucca and Phil than if I take even one more minute to stress about not knowing where I'll put my minimal "stuff" once I'm there.

Off to go for a run now, as the temperature seems to be cooling a bit (from 90F to 87F or so)!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Femminamorta, I was.

Three days ago I went for a 4 hour+ group ride with 9 others.

This was one day after a very heated relationship discussion that resulted in us deciding that riding together was perhaps not the best for us... but I went along anyway, figuring there would be enough diffusion for us to focus on the fun of riding a bike instead of riding the line of significant other/coach.

The day was hot, but it the ride started at 4:00pm from Lucca. We took off down Via Pesciatina toward the little city of Montecatini. There were two women, and seven men total (and I am going to assume they've each been riding for upwards of 20 years). Rides like this are fun for me even when I don't catch 10% of what they're saying while riding. I've come to realize they're probably discussing points that I'd find very useful - like where we are going, how far, what the climbs are like, where you can stop for water, etc. - but instead, I focus my energy on not crashing into vehicles and others' back tires and stuff. I feel like I can relate to someone who is deaf actually. I silently ride along until someone (normally Cristiano) says "Sonja, questo é una salita di quindici kilometri... vai piano ora, ok? ´E molto lungha." (In english: "Sonja, this is a climb of 15 kilometers (10 miles or so) ... go easy now, ok? It's very long.") It's at that point that I have to readjust my mental spedometer and calculate how hard I can afford to go. But because I enjoy being organized and prepared for things, this tiny factor of not knowing until I'm in something typically brings some unnecessary anxiety to my pedaling.

After 6 km of climbing the 15km climb, I got there 4th. Two people had departed already, and another couple were taking the climb at a very, very slow pace. I don't know why exactly, since it was moderately flat in some parts, and very shaded. They were even in seemingly great condition. Once we waited for another couple of people to arrive at the T in the road, we continued onward. This climb was very, very long in the last 5 km. In fact, the 15km of climbing turned out to be around 18.5 km, finishing near a tiny mountain village that was seriously called Femminamorta (Dead Female). I saw that sign and took a very deep breath... although I was proud that I'd climbed the entire mountain, and proud as can be, I rarely claimed last position (I always pretend I'm racing. It's slightly stupid - and a bit overcompetitive during a training ride, I admit - but hey, so is climbing a mountain inch by inch on a bike, right?)

The descent back down towards Lucca was on a very thin, shaded road that wound down the opposite side of the mountain. It was a bit too easy to go really fast and at one point, I was keeping on the tails of Phil and Cristiano to see how fast I could go when all of a sudden, my back wheel jumped twice and skidded on some sand, right before a curve. Keep in mind, there were rarely guard rails, and I have no idea how far down that fall would've been, but I kept her under tighter rein after that scare. I have a problem though: I am addicted to descending. Fast. Really fast, if possible. I don't know why it doesn't scare me very much. I mean, it should. I can get going up to 65 km, like 40mph and I'm not in a steel box or with padding (other than on my bum, which is barely functional as it is). But I can't stop myself from wanting to get really good at the science of descending with the angles and the braking/not braking when you're all crouched down next to the handlebars sucking in the fresh air.

Next week Phil has a race in Northern Italy after which we'll continue Northward to Austria for his Worlds Mountain bike race in a small mountain area called Stattegg, just outside of the large city of Graz. I put my former executive assistant skills to use and booked the coolest, family-run mountain lodge called Pension Lindenhof. They have internet access and a "generous breakfast buffet" that sealed the deal. I've never been to Austria, but I really look forward to the trip. Then at the end of August, I will have to leave our beautiful Lucca life for the big city of Barcelona in order to find us a little apartment for Sept, Oct, and Nov. It's been such a pain trying to figure out where to start, since our situation is limited to 3 months (it's not enough to sign a lease, but not small enough to splurge on a vacation rental).

Time to go out for my own little ride, or run, or yoga session on this beautiful Saturday morning within the farming country of west-central Italia.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Whit, Luci, Lucca

Here's my friend Whitney and I, outside of Lucca's city centre: the walled fortress. She's awesome. The wife of Phil's team director, Roberto Gaggioli, and originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We normally find time to ride and run when the team goes out of town, while taking along her adorable little son, Luciano wherever we roam.

Whitney's son, Luciano, working on his cell phone promo skills. He's been training very hard for this shot. The monstrous choocha-in-mouth effect brought in the ironic element he was describing earlier that day over coffee in the plaza.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The cafe on Via Pesciatina has closed.

Today is Tuesday. It's 11:47 a.m. Phil is on a bike ride with Flavia. And although I hopped on my bike at the same time, I did so in my street clothes since I was simply heading down to the nearest cafe to nourish my morning hunger. But instead of it working out nicely, I find myself sitting in the cafe's parking lot with no food or coffee. The cafe has been permanently closed. Cleared out. Finito. And it sort of throws a wrench in my multi-tasking morning of internet + food... but I will deal with it.

Last night we went to our good friend Carla's house for gelato. Since we don't have a car to use these days, we embarked down the winding hill at 9:30pm - Phil, with a beaming, miner's light on his head, and me, with a tiny blinking light attached to my handlebars. I've noticed before that when Phil talks while riding, he looks at the person to whom he speaks every so often. Last night, it was like the kiss of death each time his violent white light shone directly into my peripheral vision and momentarily blinded my overly-concentrated gaze at the ground ahead of my front wheel. Thankfully, after a long conversation on Carla's front porch, she opted to drive us back.

Tomorrow, Phil will leave for the north of Italy for a one-day race somewhere. The race takes place on Thursday, actually, but of course they leave a day early since they normally begin pretty early in the afternoon. He will also race on Saturday, near Lucca, in a place that I know quite well (since it's one of the only longer rides I go on alone around here): Camaiore. All in all, the week should shake out to be a pretty interesting one.

I am now going to search for another little bakery/espresso spot to quiet my digestive organs once and for all.

Monday, August 3, 2009

My computer tree friend

We've been back in Lucca since July 23rd and it feels more like home here since I found a new friend. She is a tree.

Let me explain...

About 5 days ago, it was blistering hot and Phil had a dental appointment in the middle of the day next to the walled fortress we call Lucca's city centre. While he went in for major tooth rehab, I had an hour to kill. So I stole his blackberry phone from him and went on a modern-day beachcombing expedition. Except instead of using a metal detector to encounter nothing on the beach but pennies and trash, I used a blackberry with a wi-fi scanning mechanism that allows one to find free internet. For the next 45 minutes, I walked throughout the most populated, tourist-ridden area in all of Lucca to find a sign(al) that would make my life complete. Winding through the cobblestone pathways, over the nasty stream that passes between walls of ancient apartment buildings smelling of euro sewer, my hope was lost. All wi-fi signals that I found required the personal password to access them. Just as I almost completed my large swoop, clicking the "Scan for wifi" button on the phone every 2 minutes or so, I finally walked up into a park on my way out. Just for fun, I thought, I'd try it again.

Sure enough, under the shade of a huge tree and next to a low sitting dark green park bench I received the fastest internet I've seen in Lucca since I sat outside of that hotel, illegally squeezing wi-fi about 2 months or so ago. I must've been quite the sight when I realized what a treasure this tree was. Instantly I plopped myself down, sweating and tired, and whipped out my laptop from the shoulder bag that left semi-permanent creases along my back and arm from carrying it in 95 degree humidity.

My new spot next to the wall, the bench, and under the satellite tree. My new leafy and computer-savvy best friend.
I won't ask you how you came to be so 21st century at your ripe old age, and quite frankly, I don't care.

It's funny. When we awoke today, I asked Phil what his plans for the day were. He told me all of his errands and riding that he had on his mental to do list. Afterwards, he asked me if I was going to go visit my tree during my ride today. Naturally, I said yes :)