Monthly Archives: March 2013

More manageable cycling trips

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Having done of number of these spring riding trips, and trips to Europe in particular, I’ve learned a few things along the way on how to make it reasonably affordable and more enjoyable. Most of it I learned the hard way — by making mistakes.

Collect frequent flier miles
Airline tickets are usually the biggest single expense, so it helps if you can eliminate that right from the start. You don’t need to fly a lot to do this. Get a credit card that allows you to accumulate miles and then use it for everything.

Go in the off-season
Tourist season, that is, which is late spring and through the summer. Early spring, or fall is better. Hotels, flights, and other things are cheaper, and it’s less crowded.

Don’t do an organized tour
It’s way cheaper to do a cycling trip on your own. Yes, it can be a bit intimidating to do the first time, but if you’re willing to be patient, to make mistakes, be confused at times, you’ll be rewarded not only by saving money but by experiences you won’t get if someone else does it for you.

Find affordable housing
For young people that could be hostels. Also now there are many ways to book private housing where people rent rooms, apartments, etc. (e.g., AirBnB, HomeAway). In Alicante I found a small apartment with kitchen for 34euro per night). The main point is avoid large, American-style hotel chains.

Get a credit card with no international fees
That goes for ATM cards too. CapitalOne is the primary one that I know if. This can be a very big savings, as some will charge up to a 3% transaction fee. Use the ATM card to get cash; don’t change money here in the US or at airport kiosks as the exchange rate and fees will be terrible. Although it’s a good idea to at least have a little cash on arrival, just in case your card doesn’t work. Also a good idea to inform your credit card and bank companies that you will be making international transactions.

Make your own breakfast and lunch
And/or find a hotel that includes breakfast. Personally I like going into local stores and buying food that I can then make myself. Way cheaper, and often more fun, than eating every meal out.

Rent a bike
I’ve had pretty good luck renting bikes, rather than hassling with bringing my own. Airlines now charge ridiculous prices to fly with your bike, and then you have the added hassle of renting a car big enough to hold the bike case, putting the bike together, packing it up again, etc. I accept that a rental is not going to be as nice, and may not fit perfectly, but to me the reduced hassle is worth it. An alternative is to ship your bike — an option if you’re staying within the US but not to Europe.

Don’t overplan
I’m often guilty of this. Then find that it makes me even more stressed if things don’t go exactly as planned. One of the harder things can be finding and planning bike routes. It does help for this to do a bit of advanced planning to find recommended routes. You can do this with sites like mapmyride, or looking for local bike shops that have route maps, or local clubs, or just doing some Internet searching for recommendations. I remember coming across great routes in the Girona area via pro rider Michael Barry’s web site.

Carry a map, money, id when on the bike
That really should go without saying, but there have been times when I’ve forgotten, or feel (over)confident that I know where I’m going. Then make a wrong turn, or run into a detour. Or forget my water bottles and need to stop for something to drink. On this last trip I stuck a (car) GPS in my back pocket as a last resort in case I got lost (which I ended up using). See below.

Bring a GPS with local maps
If renting a car and driving, this is pretty much essential to reduce stress. On the bike, I would ideally like to have had a handlebar mounted unit rather than fishing maps out of my pocket all the time. Those tend to be too big for racing, but for riding in strange places would be very nice. On my “to purchase” list.

Choose more off-the-beaten-path locations
Especially if you are going to ride, but also I think this applies in general. For me, anyway. Seeing big cities is nice, but for me it gets old after a while. I am happier to find somewhere smaller and more manageable, where I can easily ride, walk, hike, have coffee, and experience some of the local culture. Even in Alicante, it took me about 20 minutes of riding to get out of traffic congestion. Somewhere like Barcelona would have been a mess.

Learn a little of the local language
At least some of the basics: greetings, please & thank you, do you speak English?, how much? where is the bathroom?, another beer please! etc. A little travel dictionary is very helpful. In some places, it doesn’t seem to matter. In Barcelona a waiter made fun of my daughter saying “your Spanish is funny.” But they are dealing with a mass of tourists every day. In other places, people seem appreciative when you try to speak their language rather than assume that everyone speaks English.

Most of all, keep and open mind and at least a bit of a sense of adventure.

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Ride lots

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When I returned from Spain, people at work asked how much I rode. When I said “about 33 hours over 8 days” (not counting the first day’s 45 minute spin), the common response was “I can’t imagine riding that much.” A few other cyclists even said that.

It does sound like a lot, but having done a number of these kinds of weeks now, my experience is that it’s quite amazing how quickly your body adapts. This is true for multi-day races like Superweek also. After the first couple of days you think there’s no way you can continue doing it, but then at a certain point it switches and you feel like you have to do it. Your body doesn’t feel right if you don’t go out and ride (or race).

I understand why the Grand Tour racers go out and ride for 3 hours on the race’s “rest days”. They feel worse if they don’t ride.

Coming back home, I had a full day of travel where I couldn’t ride. The next day though I was back outside again, riding for 2 hours. Then every day since then. Not at the same volume or intensity, but I wouldn’t feel right not riding (both mentally and physically).

I’m sure it helps that I have been riding for quite a few years now, and have built a pretty good base of fitness. I don’t think I’d tell a beginning rider to go ride 30 hours in a week. But I think even beginning riders can do a period of increased volume.

There are a couple of secrets to it: you have to back off the intensity to what you can ride every day. I’ve learned what happens when you ride too much at too high an intensity: you dig hole that’s hard to climb out from.

The other secret is that when you don’t have to work and can just ride, rest, eat … well, you can ride a lot more. So I just need to figure out how to solve that problem of needing to work.

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Riding to eat

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The week before I left for Spain, a bunch of stories on the health benefits of the “Mediterranean diet” were hitting the news.

Nice timing. I was already looking forward to eating in Spain. This just gave me a good excuse to indulge even more. If it’s healthy, I should do more of it, right?

We talked about this at dinner with the host family with whom my daughter is living, over homemade paella (which was, in a word, fantastic!) They said that yes, it seems healthier. But there were a number of ideas as to why: they tend to eat what’s in season and available locally; lots of fruits and vegetables in addition to all the olive oil; the big meal is in the middle of the day with the evening meal being lighter; wine with meals. But then an interesting thought came up: maybe it’s because we have nice weather and people are generally in a good mood.

Hmmm. Coming back to the awful “spring” weather at home, I think there might be something to the weather idea.

But I was more interested in the food ideas. Most cyclists I know will admit that they “ride to eat”. When you combine big rides every day with being in a great food location, you have a recipe for a good cycling trip.

Each day while riding I found myself thinking about what would be good for dinner. And then found myself taking pictures of every meal and emailing them. It was too good to keep to myself. Paella. Iberian ham. Seasonal vegetables. Many different kinds of tapas.

The best part was seeing my daughter before my eyes being transformed from the “picky eater” into someone willing to try octopus.

My first trip to Italy permanently changed the way I looked at food. It was there that I learned of the “slow food movement”. We ate simple, but amazingly-prepared, meals. Family-style, and in no hurry to finish. I can’t say that I always follow that at home, where I’m often more concerned with just getting something in my stomach after riding.

But trips like this are always a good reminder for me to practice slow food whenever I can.

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All the roads go up

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Climbing used to be my favorite thing on the bike — racing, training, or Just Riding Around. But that was before I officially became “old”, and before those extra 5 or so pounds. It’s not that I dislike climbs now. It’s more that I just don’t look forward to them like I used to.

That was going to present a bit of a problem riding around Alicante. Once you get away from the city and the coast — which you have to do to escape congestion — all the roads go up. If I was going to actually enjoy riding every day I was going to need to adjust my outlook.

It’s not too hard to change your attitude when you’re going up a climb and you look down and see paint on the road from a race — encouragements for favorite riders. Imagining what the race might have been like, it just makes you want to keep going up.

And then you get rewarded by the views from the top.

The climbs in this part of Spain are very different than what we have at home, which are usually short climbs of 3-8 minutes. Instead, I was doing climbs lasting 20 minutes to almost an hour. And then the long descents after the climb.

I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much extended time riding in the small ring. It seemed the road either was going up or going down. Which also made for some of the slowest average speeds I think I’ve ever had. I just had to accept that it was going to take me 4 hours to go 100km.

The hardest part was doing it day after day. In 8 days of riding I did about 45k feet of climbing — roughly 5500 feet each day. I have to work to get 5k feet in a day at home. But surprisingly, you just get acclimated to it.

I think I now know why the “Spanish climbers” do so well in the mountain stages of the grand tours.

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Enter the roundabout and take the second exit

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Shortly after my daughter decided to do a semester abroad in Spain, she told me she wanted to do a program in Alicante.

I pulled up Google Maps. It was in southern Spain, right on the Mediterranean. It looked gorgeous.

I said, “you understand this is school and not a European vacation, right?” But I understood. Given a choice of location, who wouldn’t choose one that’s sunny most of the time and where every day you can see the blue waters of the Mediterranean? And secretly, I was happy that my spring riding trip — I mean “parent visit” — would be in a nice weather location.

And fortunate that it was right on the coast, because the water served as a point of orientation for me while riding. I love riding in new places — new and unfamiliar roads and sights. I pay more attention to what’s going on around me. The downside is that it can be stressful not knowing where you’re going.

So for the first few days in a new place I find myself stopping often and looking at maps. Or asking for directions.

In the US, where roads are most often laid out in a grid, it’s generally not that difficult to navigate. But in Europe it seems that roads most often go from one town to the next. And around Alicante, they weren’t always well-marked.

And then there were the roundabouts.

If I wanted to ride CV-800 from Alicante to Xixona, I needed to know that first it went to Mutxamel. I could see this when I looked at the map pre-ride, but then while riding there was no way I was going to remember all the little towns.

So I ended up drawing up my own little cheat-sheet, connecting one town to the next on the route that I had planned. Several times the first few days I still found myself a bit disoriented. But somehow I was able to tell which way the coast was. Often I could get a glimpse of it, as pretty much all of the roads went uphill from the coast.

What I wanted at times though was to have my (car) GPS giving me turn-by-turn instructions. One day that’s what I did. I had stuck the GPS in my back pocket, just in case. It had started to rain, I was a bit lost, and wasn’t in a mood to be just exploring. So I turned on the GPS, turned up the volume, and listened to it calling out the turns from my back pocket.

I didn’t mind getting wet at that point. It was warm, and I reminded myself that I was RIDING IN SPAIN!

The GPS speaking English from my pocket did draw a few strange looks from pedestrians.

Day 1: 45 minute spin after picking up the bike
Day 2: 4+ hrs, Alicante – Xixona – Busot – Alicante. ~4k feet of climbing.

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You don’t really need an excuse to ride in Spain


I wasn’t much of a traveler until 1997, when my wife gave me a Christmas gift of 2 weeks riding and racing in Italy at the Velo Veneto camp. Before that trip, travel seemed like more hassle than pleasure. I even remember thinking at first that I didn’t really want to go, but it was a gift, so I should go.

I now count that trip as one of the handful of life-changing experiences I’ve had.

I distinctly remember the feeling of getting on a bike that first day, and thinking, “holy shit, I am riding in Italy.” Since then I’ve had the good fortune to travel and ride in a number of different countries in Europe, including an 8-month stretch of living and working in Germany. And always loving it.

So when my daughter said she wanted to do a semester abroad, in Spain, my response was, “that will be a great experience”. My internal response was, “I will have a great excuse to go over and ride!”

Which I just did. 9 days of riding, visiting, eating, drinking on the Costa Brava in Spain. I’ve now been spoiled by the scenery, climbing, food, coffee. I can’t think of a better “spring training camp”.

Over the next week I’m going to indulge in a few more posts to share some things from the trip, if only to divert my attention from the cold, rain, and snow I’ve come back to.

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