2008: Ride Report #4 – Volta a Catalunya en 4 dias
As an adult, it can be hard - really hard - to experience happiness. No, not that typical thing we call happiness (when we mean contentment or satisfaction,) I mean joy - that unrestrained ability to ‘really live’ – to live and love life with that same exuberant energy we had as children at the beach when at some unseen signal we were all suddenly running pell-mell across the dimpled sand into the warm shallows, kicking through the smoothly distorted reflections of ourselves while creating a wake of turbulence in our path and launching forward, bellies flopping down on the water and laughing. Arms scooped we would then turn to splashing, water sparkling in the sun. Why is it so hard for us to re-create this feeling as adults?
It is so hard because, it seemed to me, the older I get, the more “have-to’s” fill my life – deadlines, requests, emails, texts, voicemails, bills, finances, maintenance, repair, painting, oil changes, lawn care, plants, fish, dogs…. Other things, other people… “Growing up” some would say. Responsibilities.
Sure, I can argue, by going on this trip, I’ll return refreshed – a better husband, father, boss, peer, employee, neighbor. If you read the research, and look at it in hindsight, this is truism, (but it tends to feel like rationalizing.) From another, more cynical angle, one could just write an adventure like this off as a “self absorbed escape.”
It is those warring thoughts, and the underlying emotions – excitement versus guilt, anticipation vs. fear – that I think keeps most adults from actually doing something like this trip to Spain for 4 days. Sure, many talk about ‘escaping,’ or that ‘someday’ trip, but actually pushing “purchase” button the website for the $900 ticket? Being away from your family, house, and job over a long weekend? That was one of the scariest nerve jangling things I’ve done in the last year. The thing is, it is hard to do something for yourself – because in that common narrow view there 100 other things that you could and “should” be doing.
The trip to Spain, admittedly was planned rather late and a bit ad-hoc – a last minute change in timing and location from a late May return to Italy to a mid-May foray to Spain, but still – I had done it all before, right?
Day 1 (An epic day): Thursday, May 15. Girona to L’Estartit, Spain, roundtrip
After leaving the outskirst of Girona, we immediately began a climb – a gentle (~6 - 8% grade) incline toward the summit named aptly ‘Els Angeles’ which we immediately Americanized into “Hells Angels”. The 10Km climb rose over 1200 ft vertical and as we began, the sun came out and about 15 minutes into the ride I felt that first blush of sweat and the blooming of my lungs and sinuses as I began to absorb the scents of the mountain.
As the Spanish sun continued to warm my skin, the internally radiated heat continued to travel all my limbs and soon my heart, lungs and legs developed a rhythm matched to the gentle curves of the smoothly paved road side-winding in front of me. Thirty minutes into the climb and I began to experience an irrational rush of pure joy. As Jeff and I rose, switchback after switchback with steady breathing and very little talking, I suddenly announced, looking out at all of Girona, corralling my giddiness, “I’m happy.”
We continued climbing into the sky, heart rates high but just below aerobic threshold and after a time I finally figured out what it was all about – “so… this is what climbing is really like…”
Not so steep as to make you anaerobic, but not so gentle as to where you have to make a choice about your effort, what I came to realize is that European climbs typical of the Tour de France have a steady incline that requires a strong aerobic effort, but not more. Unlike my steep climbs of 15% or more last year in Italy, these gentle grades allowed us to develop a steady rhythm and meter, and a sense of pride and progress.
We reached the heights of Els Angeles, passing spray-painted signs wishing Hincapie and Barry luck in the tour, and then descended the other side – considerably steeper, and far more rough. We descended the same vertical in half the distance (5K) but with both hands on the brakes bouncing numbly down the very rough roads.
Finally we entered the Mediterranean coast and sped down into a series of medieval villages, some from Roman times.
Unlike last year in Italy, where I rode in the bosom of the shrouded hinterland between mountain ranges where there were no winds, the Costa Brava was wild and exposed and the capricious winds often found us as we descended and passed through open fields. A bit of agoraphobia gripped me in a mild way and I sometimes felt like a tiny ant exposed to all the world trying desperately to cling to my lane against the forces of the sun and wind and the tides of the ocean.
We eventually made it all the way to the bright azure of the Mediterranean in L’Estartit and wandered north along the beachfront, hotels, yachts and harbors, slowly meandering, taking in the sights of the sea until we found a restaurant with ocean views and outdoor sunlit seating.
There we ordered some seafood and pasta and made calls home. All the while, between the wind and the quickly moving clouds, the open expanses exposed by the downhill slopes from the Pyrenees, it was almost with relief that we headed back into the protective layer of the foothills on our return loop.
We passed through several more stone medieval villages and experienced yet another dirt road traverse through wheat fields before we finally closed our loop and began our climb back to Els Angeles.
Along the way, we passed a wine store and I bought a bottle of locally produced wine for $1.55 Euros ($2.75) that turned out to be excellent when we finally uncorked it later: in the meantime it found a proud home in the back pocket of my jersey.
Meanwhile that magic thing happened. If I was happy before as we climbed the gentle heights of Els Angeles on our way out of Gerona, then I was enraptured with life as the setting sun preceded us and the fields lit up with warm golden contrasts of light and shadow, green, gold, auburn, yellows and black and all thoughts, feelings, and actions aligned with each pedal stroke. The gently undulating fields of grain glinting with the setting sun, punctuated by broad brilliant orange brushstrokes of poppies created one of those ‘perfect moments’ and as we rode, we said nothing, but with smiles of disbelief we gestured at the ruins, the fields, a village, a castle or a cathedral, while the jasmine hedges, red clay & tile and natural stone surrounds reflected the warmth of the Spanish sun.
It began to get steeper, but still we pedaled. We breathed. Auburn rock became molten soil became baked pavement and still up we went. The trees became more stunted, our breath came out louder, but still we climbed and breathed and the world expanded beneath our tires.
Another switchback and the entire Costa Brava lay at our feet. How lucky are we? How blessed to earn this view with our sweat? Warm and moving, out of the saddle and back in it, the trees passed and the world shrank below and we finally saw the heights and lights of the Cathedral at the top. 8pm and the sun is setting – not stopping now – just floating on the new pavement down to Girona and that incredible feeling of speed and control on the descent.
Almost an hour up, and now 15 minutes down. Switchbacks become a game – how fast can we go, how far can I lean? Rubber tires grip black asphalt and our sinuous curves grow ever more aggressive. We possess the land and fly across rocky ridges warmed by the fading sun and then drop into resinous valleys, sinking into the setting sun and absorbing the dark sap of the pines as the geology lost its eminence, and the trees took over - taller, thicker, darker.
We rocketed through the brackets of those final corridors of the setting sun, contrasts of cool damp and dusty sun like streetlights and smiled that giddy, crazy smile that only those who have suffered the ups can express on the downs – coasting & pedaling breakneck at 35 and 40 mph while tilting crazily and yet still trying to talk – shouting over the howl of the wind.
I skidded to a stop at the car. Wow. Now that was a day. “Hey – I’ve been in Spain for almost 36 hours!” I shouted to Jeff and then thought, “and I’ve experienced a ½ year of really living...” But the day wasn’t over yet…
We packed it up, drove to the hotel, showered, and at about 10:30pm we headed into old town Girona, and incredible maze of old stone buildings and cathedrals rising about the river, nothing about the exteriors of the buildings, plazas or walk ways indicating a date after to 1100AD.
But there were dozens of restaurants around a plaza and we found some decent German food before settling in on a wine bar for an after dinner cocktail.
After a glass of red wine, we thought about leaving, but Manolo, the owner, brought us champagne – gratis before we left.
I asked him about Lance Amstrong… and George Hincapie (his teammate).
“Oh yes, Lance Armstrong - he here many times – was living here just a few meters away, but gone now. George Hinacapie– he had one house here – just around the corner – I show you – but I think he too is gone. George Hinacapie – he likes this place very much…”
I told Manolo that I used to know George. He seemed excited “I think, maybe, he is back here – perhaps he will come?” He looked in askance.
I had meant to contact Rich Hincapie – George’s brother – before leaving the U.S. but it got lost in my to-do’s and so I didn’t know if George was in town, nor did I have any contact info. Nonetheless, something about the night, and the vibrations of that old city spoke and I started to just have that feeling we might see him anyway..
I told Manoloa we would look for him, and with that, and few pictures, we headed back to our hotel…
Day 2 (“…and then his bike exploded”): Friday, May 16. Monelles to Palamos, Spain
“I predict that the winds will turn around and we’ll have a tailwind on our route back” Jeff had said. That too became true, as did a dozen smaller predictions that day and the day before.
So, we headed up the Els Angeles climb in the car on our way to the Costa Brava. Then, suddenly, arbitrarily Jeff said, “We are going to see your old friend George Hincapie today on this road.” When he said it like that, like our weather predictions before, I didn’t doubt him in the least.
We passed the cathedral at the top of the climb and began the bumpy descent, still in the rental car. Just as we completed the majority the steep descent, at the foot of the hill, 5km later, we suddenly passed a passel of riders, 4 in total, one wearing white Oakleys with a classic visage obvious from 100 ft, “That’s George!” I said amazed.
Jeff swung a U-turn and we sped back up the mountain, amazed at the speed at which these riders were climbing. I hadn’t seen or talked to George in 15 years and suddenly that time and distance loomed and I began to wonder if he would remember me.
Yes sure, his brother Rich and I had roomed for weeks together at the Olympic training center, and yes, we had once followed the same circuit of high profile races through the eastern United States where I had experienced the single longest winning streak of my life (11 straight wins). Yes, during the same trip I had noticed how George, at age 12, was precocious enough to finish and even win races with the 14 -15 year olds, (that, and he was 6ft tall at this age)
But, now it is 20 years later since those times, and 15 since the last time I’d seen George at the Tour de Villa Italia in Windsor, Canada, and George has had a racing and tour career few could ever hope to obtain – a multi-millionaire rider, he’s finished the Tour de France 11 times, he replaced my old teammate Frankie Andreu as Lance’s first lieutenant (and raced all 7 wins with him.) He’s won a big stage in the Tour de France and many other classics and he also has had been a significant force in many of the big one day classics and was 2nd in the most prestigious one day race of all – Paris-Roubaix a few years back, and 9th this season.
As we approached the riders from behind, I suddenly began to doubt. These guys were too … skinny. Coming closer, we discovered that these guys were rail thin – leaner than raw meat - all of them. Remembering the oft repeated phrase from TV of “Big George Hincapie” as Phil Legget and Paul Sherwin always referred to him, I couldn’t possibly imagine it to describe one of these riders ahead of me.
Nonetheless, as we passed them on the left, I leaned out the window and taking a chance, yelled “George!”
Sure enough the guy who looked like a too-thin George’s head snapped around and looked right at me.
I paused, and then said, “Hey George, Its Coyle – John Coyle – how are you?” I was 2 feet away traveling 16mph on a bumpy climb, leaning out the window of the rental car.
He too paused, and then smiled and said calmly, “Hey John – long time. How are you?” and then offered his sweaty gloved hand through the window. I would be lying if I didn’t say I suddenly felt incredibly lucky.
We chatted a bit and then he said, “Why don’t you wait for us at the top and we can talk more?”
Little did I know at the time that this was one of the main Cat 1 climbs of the coming ‘Volta a Catalunya’ (the third oldest stage race after the Tour de France and Giro de Italia) starting only 2 days hence that was to serve as George’s primary prep for the Tour de France. (George was second in the prologue time trial, generating and average 565 watts for 4 ½ minutes)
We sped up the mountain and waited for them at the top. As it turned out it, the other 3 riders were George’s key teammates on the High Road Team – Michael Barry (whose name we’d seen on the road along with Hincapie several times), Michael Rodgers, and another teammate. .
Hincapie and Barry hammered into view first, followed several minutes by his other teammates. George and I talked a little bit about old times, and Jeff and Michael talked about local rides, and then eventually if was time for those guys to head back to town. George offered, “how about coffee around 6pm in town? I have to pick my daughter in about an hour, but after that I’ll be free.” It was 4pm.
Jeff programmed his local cell number and we agreed to call, but I knew we wouldn’t be back in that time frame. Meanwhile my mind registered the height and weight of this key professional: 6’ 3”, and 165 lbs. “I have to lose a few pounds before the tour” George had said. At 5’ 11 and 188 lbs, I suddenly comprehended, briefly, the whole supermodel anorexia thing…
Back down we went and parked at the beautiful little town of Monelles and then proceeded to make another route to the Med – another climb and descent, plummeting all the way to the sea. 6pm on day 3 of the 4 days and in Palamos we finally bought a map – only to confirm our suspicion that there was no road up the coast and that we’d have to spend time on a highway to head north to the next route back to Monelles, so we agreed to just return the same way and spend some more time in the next valley over to complete our mileage for the day.
Just before re-engaging the climb, we found another wine store and purchased the same local vintage we had enjoyed the day before. This time Jeff put it in his rear pocket and joked, “boy it would suck to crash and land on this!”
Predictions are great, but they can be dangerous too…
Up and over we climbed and then back down the other side. We had finished the final downhill and were entering the mildly descending flats to the valley when all hell broke loose.
Jeff was talking about his power meter and how he could, out of the saddle, hit a certain wattage threshold with a consistent pedal stroke and hold it. He chose to demonstrate on a long straight, slightly downhill section of the smooth narrow road.
I watched as he upped his gearing and then accelerated, out of the saddle, to the right of me, taking the speed, in three or full power rotations, from 22mph to 30 mph.
Instinctively I swung behind him to capture the draft, and it was just as I entered the eddies of air his body had created when World War III started. His bike just exploded – one second and he was cranking straight forward, accelerating, and in the next, his legs skipped a beat, his bike endoed, and then suddenly he was at right angles to my path skittering sideways with the sound of a train wreck before launching up and over, performing a perfect summersault, landing flat on his back and then tumbling over and over.
In his great book, “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell calls attention to the ability of experienced technicians in their field of expertise to “thin slice” – that is – to process or shunt a great deal of high speed information past the normal rational processing and come to informed and wise courses of action. In essence, ‘thin slicing’ is the ability to raise the ‘frames per second’ of your mental camera and in the same vein, to ‘slow down time’.
Just as Jeff passed me, time entered a new warp. I watched as his right leg, poised for a massive hammer stroke, suddenly ‘missed’ and then suddenly it was firing straight down and his left was lifting up and his weight was transferring forward while his whole body entered a slightly counterclockwise rotation to the right, pivoting forward on that front wheel – a sideways endo..
He rotated right before the rear tire reconnected with the grippy tarmac and that’s when all the noise – the shrieking, shrilling, vibrating of a composite carbon shell running through a grinder hit my ears.
In the next moments Jeff ceased to be my friend or someone I knew – he became an obstacle in my path and I threw my bike forward and locked up my brakes, fully expecting his body to be my next piece of road.
As his rear tire caught to the right and skittered, suddenly the rotational inertia began and he flipped up and over his right shoulder, performing a neat flip, his abandoned bike flying cover just above his rotating body as he hit the pavement directly, neatly, dead center and flat on his back, and directly on the wine bottle tucked neatly in his back pocket… exactly as predicted.
The next moments after predictable - the tumbling after the crash, Jeff’s body going end over end down the road and settling against the guardrail as I braked hard, and narrowly avoided running down both Jeff and his bike. A long bloody streak of red wine – or was it blood? – marking the disaster.
Most memorable of all during this 0.25 seconds of noise and visual chaos was a certain totally out-of-place sound. Just as his bike went sideways and caused him to flip, just after he rose and then fell landing squarely on his back from a height of 4 or 5 feet, just as his back, the bottle of wine, and the pavement formed a sandwich, I heard a sound…
The sound, and the mechanism to follow, will never fully be understood, but what Jeff and I both distinctly heard just as he impacted the pavement was a “thwock” - much like someone opening a champagne bottle.
After skidding to a stop I circled back quickly to assess the damage. With visions of half a wine bottle extruded from his spine, we were amazed to find that the final effects of the crash were bruises, tiny cuts from the glass, and a broken chain – the source of the whole debacle. Jeff’s sprint had broken the chain and all else that occurred fell out of that event.
Nonetheless, the find that started us laughing, and that caused a series of unstoppable guffaws during dinner, drinks, the car ride home after, and all during the next day, was the discovery of the intact top of the glass bottle in the ditch, and separately, neatly in the middle of the road, (see picture) the wine cork.
Somehow, someway, Jeff’s somersault onto the wine bottle had created enough pressure to actually uncork the bottle before destroying it.
Jeff has the unique designation of being the one and only human being on the planet who has opened a wine bottle at 30mph against the open road with his back.
Sitting at dinner that evening, when the waiter brought the first bottle of wine, I couldn’t stop myself, “no, Sir, don’t open it… Jeff can do that… with his back!” and then I broke up and the laughing started again.
We decided to eat at the same wine bar from the night before and proceeded to order an incredible sampler of local cheeses – several brie’s and goat cheeses, and a few other ‘moldy’ types – gorgonzola and blue cheese.
These were accompanied by the moist aroma and taste of fresh breads and a rich red “Javelina” wine. We gorged ourselves and discussed the day, fully alive and in the moment. For the next two hours, there was no yesterday and no tomorrow – only the present of the last few hours of suffering and joy, the feast and famine, desert and rich fields of the low flying experience of the cyclist. We toasted to ‘really living’ and to our families and jobs that allowed us this respite from the day to day of the working world.
I also showed Manolo the pictures with George Hincapie and Michael Barry and he was suitably impressed. We finally headed back to the hotel. One more day to go, one more story…
Day 4 (“Like riding the tour”): Saturday, May 16 – the finale’ :Santa Coloma De Farners to Sant Hilari Sacalm, then Girona to Peratellada, roundtrip.
We dragged out lunch of seafood and fresh bread and after hoping for a clearing, finally threw in the towel and headed back down the mountain around 2pm slogging through a cold drizzle and roostertails of frigid water that caused shivers to run down our spines. It was difficult to separate the vibrations from our brakes and the rough road from the violent shivers running through my forearms. Farther below, the rain stopped and the roads began to dry.
Finally, we reached the bottom and returned to the hotel where we packed up all our things and put them into a storage room in prep for ride 2 of the day.
We returned to our parking spot at the base of Els Angeles and set out again under brightening skies – up, and over the climb and on through several towns to Peratellada where we had a bocadillo (sandwich) and a glass of wine.
Finally, it was time to return. Legs were tired, hearts struggled to warm up and keep the blood flowing. But we again entered that special zone of golden light, still air, and rising roads that perfectly caricatured our days in spain. We climbed.
This time though, it was not with fresh legs and a naïve innocence to the views around us. This time, as we discovered later, we both felt like we had begun to understand what it was like to be a professional bike racer. Slightly numb all over from the long days, legs operating on a disciplined autopilot and that set to the jaw: “have to survive this climb.” We worked hard, though our pace was no faster than two days prior, and in that discipline and rhythm and suffering there was its own joy.
I can, I will, I do: pedal.
This discipline, really, was nothing new to Jeff – nor myself. Jeff is a former sub 2:30 marathon runner, ex U.S. military. Oddly similarly, I spent many years training in ice rinks.
Each pedal stroke required a sometimes laborious synchronizing of elements – legs, feet, pedals, bars – but more often it was just progress – higher, faster, stronger – the Olympic motto all over again.
It was only 5K and 1200 feet of climbing, but it was rated a Category 1 climb for the Tour de Catalunya, and it was with a feeling of pride that we mounted and conquered that hill after 5000 feet of climbing already that day.
We reached to top, slapped a high five, and then delved into the deep shadows of the descent – one last time to test our tires and mettle against the curves and pines of Els Angeles.
We caught a car. I thought about passing. The car decided it wanted to race, and so the squealing of tires began around the corners, and the accelerations on the straightaways, puffs of exhaust marking the driver’s aggressive slinging through his gears as he tried to lose us.
We sprinted the straightaways, and leaned ever harder into the switchbacks, losing ground on the straights, but gaining it all back on the curves. It was a game of cat and mouse and for once we were the cat and at the end we declared victory when we pulled within 1 meter of the rear bumper of the car around the final switchback before he roared away in a puff of exhaust and road dust on the flattening finish.
This was really it. 6200 vertical feet. Rain, sun, cold, heat, climbs, descents, - we’d experienced it all – but we still had dinner and a drive to Barcelona, and a few hours sleep before our flights the next day.
We returned to our wine bar and it took a while for my thoughts to escape the stony disciplined trap my mind had created in order for my body to get over that hill. We sat together but distant – both of us with a glazed look and a sense of numbness from the massive efforts of the day.
Finally I said, “that was hard.”
“Yeah,” Jeff said.
And in those mundane phrases all was acknowledged and understood – the effort, discipline, suffering, and joy of the day were all melded into two human beings acknowledging the struggles of each other. We toasted and ate and ate some more and drank some wine.
Then Manolo brought a bottle of champagne and was about to open it. But I looked at Jeff and said simply,
“No wait – Jeff can do that – just lay it here on the floor in front of him…”