30 May 2009

A Good Giro

With just the final time trial left ahead, this year's Giro d'Italia has probably already been decided, with Denis Menchov holding a 20-second lead over Danilo Di Luca and more than a minute and a half on his next closest competitor. And while that doesn't leave a lot of drama for the 14.4-km time trial around the sites of Rome, I think this year's edition of the Giro has been one of the more (positively) memorable Grand Tours in recent history.

The 3-week stage races have too often been characterized by passive riding by the self-proclaimed contenders. Afraid to risk the very real spoils of their top-10 placings, there has been a lot of sitting in over the years, particularly when Mr Armstrong had a stranglehold on the Tour de France.

But this year's Giro was full of aggression and risk-taking. After losing the pink jersey to Menchov in the exciting time trial, Di Luca repeatedly and ferociously attacked Menchov on just about every climb. Stefano Garzelli, Ivan Basso, Carlos Sastre, and Franco Pellizotti, 4 of the next 5 places on the general classification (Mr Armstrong's teammate, Levi Leipheimer, is the 5th), have all taken their shots at moving up, sometimes succeeding in gaining time or the stage win, and sometimes cracking. Whatever the consequences for their compensation, it has made for exciting racing.

Hopefully we'll see that carry over to the Tour and the Vuelta.

22 May 2009

Ham-n-Cheese

In the last months at my former job, a colleague of mine took it upon himself to teach me French, sending me one phrase a day to prepare me for my impending cultural odyssey. The carefully chosen phrases ranged from practical business (My name is Rolf-- I need a job) to social interactions (Yes, I would love to attend the all-night Jerry Lewis film festival with you) to cultural sensitivity and ambassadorship (We saved your butts in World War II). But the lessons started with a single word: jambon.

I suspect my tutor didn't realize just how appropriate a first word that was. The French love the pig (and really, what's not to like about the culinary bounty it provides?), and here ham falls almost into its own food group. It's not so much that there are so many varieties available, though there are plenty of regional variations as well as Italian and Spanish varieties available, but rather it's the sheer ubiquitousness of it that's so impressive. In the States, turkey has displaced the bologna, chipped beef, and olive loafs of my primary and secondary school lunches as the king of convenience meats (and that's not altogether a bad thing), but poultry barely merits mentioning here in comparison to ham.

And since French cheese is its own marvel, the combination shows up everywhere. Several years ago, some friends of ours visited France. When they returned, they spoke glowingly of Alsace and the Alps, but when we asked what they thought of Paris, they were strangely unimpressed. When we asked about the food, they said the only thing they ate in Paris was ham and cheese.

I'd always assumed that answer was an exaggeration, but after being here awhile, I realize that with a little bad luck, one could indeed unwittingly eat nothing but ham and cheese for several days. Croque monsieur? Ham-and-cheese with bechamel sauce (the McDonald's here even offer the Croque McDo). Quiche Lorraine? Ham and cheese in eggs and cream. There are 3 named salads on the menu of our local brasserie with no description; when I asked what each of them was, the answer was that each had lettuce, ham, and cheese, and the type of cheese differentiated them. And of course that sandwich or crepe or gallette you're eyeing at the market is most likely filled with ham and cheese.

Of course, there's plenty else on offer in the City of Light. Which is why said friends owe it to themselves to visit, again. I can promise that they won't have to eat ham-and-cheese while they're here, unless they want to. But I wonder how they'd feel about a week of squid?

21 May 2009

Ridin' It Old School

As anybody who follows pro cycling knows, the Giro d'Italia ("Italy's Tour de France," for those who don't care anything for cycling, or just want to piss off the Italians) is roughly half-way through its 3-week run. We've already seen a team time trial, several days in the mountains, and though much of the world is watching just to see Lance Armstrong return to Grand Tour racing, Mr. Armstrong isn't really in this thing to win it, whereas the American team Columbia-Highroad has won an amazing 5 of 12 stages (a win in the team time trial, 2 by their young gun sprinter Mark Cavendish, and wins by 2 other riders).

Today's stage was an individual time trial (TT). Breathlessly called the "race of truth" by anglophone announcers around the world, riders in a TT cover a set course, alone, at intervals of 30-sec to several minutes-- drafting is forbidden, so no teammates (or adversaries) to shelter you, encourage you, or drag you to the last climb where you can show off your awesome power. It's just you going as hard as you can for anywhere from 25 min to an hour and a half, depending on the length.

Used to be that TTs were ridden on regular bikes, but since the 1989 Tour de France, when Greg Lemond won the final TT (and by just 8 seconds, the whole Tour shootin' match) using aero extensions on his handlebars, the individual TT has become one of the techiest events in cycling. Whereas climbing well is about power-to-weight ratios, TTing, where the rider faces the full brunt of air resistance at quite high speeds, is about power-to-drag. And so bikes, helmets, wheels, rider positions, and even clothing have all been optimized for this event to reduce wind resistance. As such, the races are quite the visual spectacle, something you might expect to see in a 1950s science fiction movie. The governing body of professional cycling, the UCI, is generally suspicious of technology and has issued rules that limit how aero the bike can be. Like any game of cat and mouse, the bike manufacturers constantly look for loopholes and work-arounds, to give their riders whatever small advantage they can, and to differentiate their bikes for marketing purposes.



TT stud Fabian Cancellara in full regalia


Now, I likes me a TT. Of all of the cycling disciplines, it's the event I'm relatively best at, because it rewards ability to pace onself, flexibility (to get into a low, wind-cheating position), attention to detail, and the ability to motivate yourself (and not get bored) without external input. So I always overperform in flat TTs (where position trumps power) relative to my raw strength/power.

But this flatland-TT-lover was totally grooving on the Giro TT today. It was brutally long, at 60.6 km, which on paper seemed to offer the potential for huge gains in overall time by the TT specialists. Indeed, Mr Armstrong had asserted that teammate Levi Leipheimer would be in the leader's pink jersey at the end of the day. But it was also very technical, with a lot of high-speed twisty corners, and had a lot of elevation changes, notably 2 substantial climbs (with substantial descents after them). It was roughly 90 minutes of full-on pain over a diverse terrain.

As such, the prominence of the equipment was downplayed. The funny thing about TT bikes is that while they're really good at going fast, they're only really good when going in roughly a straight line-- they're definitely not the bike you want to be on for an 80 kph winding descent. They're also relatively heavy thanks to the large airfoil-shaped tubes and deep-section rims. As such, equipment choices were all over the board: full Spaceman aero kit, road bikes fitted with aero extensions (with or without aero helmet), or full man-style, with no special aero equipment at all (except the skinsuit-- gotta wear the skinsuit). The stage was won by Denis Menchov, who would never be called a TT specialist, and the time gains predicted for specialists like team Astana's Levi Leipheimer didn't quite materialize. It was a great stage.

If the UCI really wants to limit the influence of technology on racing, it should encourage (not mandate, for once, please) courses like today's. The riders' all-around skill sets were definitely on display.

15 May 2009

May showers

It rained today in Paris. And yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that. And the forecast calls for rain through Tuesday. It's getting tiresome, but we've had such a great Spring here, it's hard to get too put out by it.

The shower in the bathroom, on the other hand, is another matter. Forgive me if we've already written about this, but the shower's been on my mind. In our (limited) experience, the quintessential French shower is a normal sized bathtub with a handheld shower head on a short leash (think kitchen sink sprayer) and with a 2.5-foot glass partition that serves as a feeble spray barrier. This was the set-up in our hotel when we came looking for apartments, in our hotel in Strasbourg, and in 14 of the 17 apartments we saw.

The alternative showers in the other 3 apartments were almost enough overcome the apartments' other faults, but we chose one of the 14. And even though we've pimped it out with a real shower curtain, I'm not a big fan. As someone who stands 6" taller than the average French male (and, perplexingly, seemingly only 7" taller than the average French female), the mount for our handheld shower just about reaches my belly button. And since the shower head tilts downward when in its cradle, hands-free hair washing requires contortion more commonly associated with prayer rugs or Twister. I can hardly reach into the rear pockets of my jerseys on the bike-- I'm just not flexible enough to bend that way first thing in the morning. Combined with unimpressive water pressure and an especially knuckleheaded ledge that slopes away from the tub toward the walls, so that water collects there like a moat and festers if you don't remove it all with sponge every morning, it's an underwhelming cleansing experience.

But just as I'd gotten used to its peculiarities, we spent most of a week in Vienna. Though the shower at the hotel used a similar head, it had a longer tether and a pole mount that allowed changing height and angle and even extended beyond the top of my head. Ability to stand upright, no fetid water pooling on the ledge? Sweet. Not to mention pressure enough to power-clean an elephant-- I ran it at about half-throttle to avoid injury. Coming back to Paris on Sunday was nice, and felt surprisingly like returning home, but that first shower was a real bummer.

For all of its failings as a shower, however, it turns out that our shower makes a darned good bike wash.

Literally 20 seconds into my ride, it started pouring and rained for the rest of the ride. At one point, when the wind kicked up, it was raining sideways and what was left of the blossom clusters on the trees at Longchamp were bouncing off my face. While I don't necessarily seek out that kind of weather, I like a good rainstorm if I'm already on the bike, especially if, like today, I have intervals to do-- if you're going to suffer, why not go all the way?

Anyway, the bike and I were filthy on returning to the apartment, so I rinsed what I could with the unused water bottle I'd brought with me (with all the dog poo on every paved surface in Paris, drinking from a bottle on a rainy day is too disgusting to contemplate), tried to get in the building and up the elevator without anybody else seeing and objecting, and then pulled the wheels off and cleaned everything in the shower. The handheld nozzle made cleaning the frame and wheels a breeze, and the low water pressure didn't threaten the seals or bearings. And now that the rain has stopped, for a while at least, the windy balcony is the perfect place to dry everything off.

So maybe it's not so bad, after all. Now if only I could find a use for that moat.


05 May 2009

A week in review

You know things are rolling when there have been a lot of cool things to write about but no time to write. That's especially true when you're temporarily retired and theoretically have copious time to write. So I'll let pictures do most of the talking.

The last couple of weeks have finally been good weeks on the bike. I can't tell you how frustrating a winter it has been, but now that things are looking up, it feels great. To give an idea of the slow going, I averaged less than 6 h/month on the bike in Dec, Jan, and Feb, March saw an average of 3 h/week, and finally in April I got weeks of 3, 6, 9, and 15 h. The build came thanks in part to finally being healthy and working hard on stretching and rebuilding core strength, in part thanks to the visit of a friend (Sean) of a friend (Allen) from Philly, who came here for some business and biking, and in part thanks to randomly meeting a British ex-pat on the way back from the Longchamp Hamster Wheel who invited me to join a Sunday anglophone ride out of the city to the Chevreuse valley. As such, I can now update Karen's comment than one can't ride seriously in the city to say that there are escape and entry routes that allow for good riding from the apartment without having to take the train. Not many, mind you, but any is better than none. Anyway, both the roads and the company on the rides have been great, and I'm ready for a week off to try to recover. Feels fantastic to have to recover from hard riding, rather than being sick or hurt.


The 16e from Champ de Mars train station waiting for a train to the southern riding grounds

Chateau de la Madeleine in the Chevreuse: well worth the climb up

Rapeseed fields and wind farms in the south: just flat climbing here in the wind
Labbeville in the north
Taking blurry pictures in the Chevreuse
The blurry Chevreuse
Pre-ride breakfast
Walled hamlet in the south
Torfou, in the south
Counting stops on the way back from Pontoise, exhausted from all of that videography

In the middle of all of the riding we had dinner at Hidden Kitchen, an "underground restaurant" or supper club where the atmosphere is rather like a dinner party: a small number of people eats together at one dining table in an apartment for a suggested, though not optional, donation that covers the food and drink. There are number of these types of establishments around the US and now a couple in Paris. The night we were there, the 16 guests started the evening at 8:00 with an aperitif and worked our way through the menu below, finishing the petits fours about 5 hours later. The food was teriffic, imaginatively conceived and then executed with fresh ingredients and precise technique. It was decidedly not French food (the "hosts" are Americans from the Seattle area), being brighter with more layers of flavor and more playful, but it complements the French food here in the city very nicely. Definitely a fun evening, and with wine accompanying 7 of the 10 courses, the next day's early morning ride was a bit rough for awhile.


The 2nd course of the dinner really resonated with me, because I'd been waiting for good peas to make pea agnolotti. I'd originally been thinking minted pea filling, but the fava raviolo at Hidden Kitchen used chervil in the pea sauce, which was just an outstanding pairing. Never one to shy away from stealing a good idea, I did a pea-and-chervil filling, instead, evened out with an ad libbed substitute for mascarpone (a mixture of fromage blanc and blended cottage cheese). I sauced them in an intensely saffroned light cream sauce (infused chicken stock with saffron threads, reduced with a little cream and creme fraiche from my local fromagerie) and topped it off with a little sliced prosciutto and some chervil. I wish I'd made 3 times as much and frozen the agnolotti for lunches, because they were heavenly.


01 May 2009

Biking in Paris

Well, it turns out you can't really do serious biking in Paris. The better alternative is to take the regional commuter train out as far as it goes, and then start from there. So that's what we did today to celebrate Socialist Labor Day.


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I'm still trying to figure out my French cell phone, and thanks to my cycling gloves, I managed to hit the video setting by accident. So no pictures today, only strange short video clips. After an hour on the train, we ended up in some pretty spectacular countryside and did about 40 miles in wonderful rolling terrain. Lots of farmland punctuated by old villages, touting such features as 12th century churches and lots of stone buidings. We both found this one worthy of pictures:


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Thanks to extensive planning by Rolf and an increasing sense of how things work here, we didn't get lost at all today. In the next to last town, we found an open bakery, so had goodies for the train ride back. Apple tart for me and coffee eclair for Rolf- prime recovery food...

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