How to Live (almost) Forever

How to live (almost) forever… “I can't stand it to think my life is going so fast and I'm not really living it."

"Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters."

Robert Cohn and Jake Barnes in chapter 2 of "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway

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We have been trained since children to view time as linear – that it plods along like a metronome – ticking predictably forward into the future, tocking consistently backward into the past. This is a myth, a lie, and it matters…

I am dying. Like you, I have a terminal disease called “life,” that, assuming it runs its normal course, will result in my death in roughly 41 more years according to actuarial tables of an American male my height and weight.

          "Every man dies, not every man really lives." - William Wallace in Braveheart

Coincidentally, I am 41 years old, so this means that my life is nearly exactly half over as the math goes. But for most people, time begins to assume an ever accelerating pace – a summer from our childhood casts the same shadow on our memories as young adult’s year, which starts to feel remarkably similar to a whole decade by middle age. Assuming this logarithmic scale continues, my life as measured by a sense of the passage of time and the depth of my memories may already be 80-90% over. But it doesn’t have to be this way…

I have concluded that despite logic, intuition, and what we have been taught, time is flexible – and that the sense of time, as tracked and measured by our brains, can be created and expanded or condensed and squandered.

Are you “killing time” or are you “making time?”

“Wait,” you say, “What are you talking about? Measurement of time is linear – isn’t it based on some oscillating electrons somewhere in Colorado? Are you talking physics? Don’t tell me you are talking metaphysics?”

I’m discussing neither. I’m talking about practical, everyday life and the real sense of time and how it passes. To prove time is flexible, let me walk you through two examples.

First, imagine, that you are trapped in a small room where your job, day after day, is to enter a series of randomly generated strings of letters, numbers and symbols into a monochrome computer screen. You sit there, hour after hour, reading the string of numbers off an endless stack of papers, typing them slowly, complete with mistakes and backspaces and corrections onto the screen, losing your place almost every time, and then you review and double review for accuracy, before finally pushing “enter”, whereupon the flashing code disappears, and then you type the next 30 - 50 digit letter and number combination.

The string of letters and numbers begin to tumble and blur as the flashing pixels start to whisper their sibilant confusion to your brain, a foreign language which your mind tries and fails to translate into the keystrokes your fingers peck. The “check digits” algorithm causes the computer to reject your entries as often as they are accepted, which also proves your inability to accurately remember more than about 10-15 letters and numbers in combination.

As you can imagine, while performing such a mind numbing repetitive task alone, each hour begins to stretch on for an eternity, each minute expanding, bloating with the boredom, the tedium, the lack of purpose. After a while, the ticking of the second hand on the clock starts to slow, and as your eyes twitch watching it tick, you realize that time has nearly stopped… A half a day and an eternity later, you emerge and return to your dorm room to begin studying for a physics exam, trying to make sense of yet another grouping of seemingly random symbols. (This, by the way was my college job – entering the long strings of periodical codes for the thousands of obscure journals into the ‘green screen’ of the school computer at Stanford’s Green Library “Stacks”.)

I worked at Green Library for an entire year, and no, I don’t have a single picture of the ½ year of my waking life that I spent there…

Contrast this with another scenario. It is a Friday morning and you have just arrived to work full of manic energy. You have a huge list of “to-do’s” for the day, because on that afternoon, after a half day of work you are flying south to the beach, or driving up north, or heading west for vacation. You slate ½ hour for your first task and are horrified when you look up and find 25 minutes gone – in what seemed to be the equivalent of 3 seconds. The hands race around the clock and you race with them, checking off items from your list as the time to departure evaporates. Seemingly 5 minutes after you arrive (but actually 5 hours later) it is time to go and you run for the elevator… Then, perhaps you forget your tickets, or you run out of gas, or you go to the wrong terminal, or your daughter throws up in the security line – (it seems it is always something) but a few hours later, you manage to arrive at the resort or cottage or campsite, explore your room, go for a hike, walk down to the beach, have a cocktail, watch the sunset, have an amazing dinner, take an evening swim, have a great conversation, read a few chapters of a great book – whatever and…yet…somehow the day seems to be over as quickly as the ephemeral and fabled “green flash” of sunset over the water…

If you are like me, by now you’ve taken a dozen or a hundred pictures – here’s one from a recent canoe camping trip with my daughter – I caught her tossing golden sand in the golden sunset for a “golden moment.”

A day of "really living"

Both of these examples include about 12 hours of linear time… But in the perception of the conscious mind (the part that lives in the present), the first scenario initially felt like an eternity and the second initially felt like a fleeting moment in time…

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Contrast the real-time experience of the ‘eternity’ and ‘fleeting moment’ scenarios with the subsequent memories of those two periods a month or a year later when they have become part of your “temporal past.” Odds are good that the 12 hours of the first example (typing numbers & letters) disappears altogether leaving no trace in the software of our brains and hence takes up no actual memory time (in contrast to the “eternity” it was in the present). Is it fair to say that except for its role in enabling the second scenario that that time was lost?

Example 1

The second example, however, leaves more than just a trace in our mental hard drive. Despite its fleeting presence in-the-moment, this day and evening, as is often the case the first day of a vacation, likely contained some unique and memorable events, and its share of memory has expanded significantly from the mental blip it started from.

Example 2

Lets add one more wrinkle – if perceptive time has three main elements - present, past, and future, then these vignettes continue their odd juxtaposition when viewed from the “future temporal state.” The vacation most likely consumed a great deal of future anticipation or of a mindset in the ‘future temporal state’, whereas the mundane day of work at the library followed by study was again a complete cipher – a zero in the future temporal state.

Example 3

So what does it all mean?

 

Example 4

It means that time is flexible – that the perception of time and hence of life can be expanded or contracted, and, to take it one step further, that it might be quite possible to design a life, to design a set of experiences to expand time, and hence to really live longer.

 

Example 5

If we are mental and spiritual beings, if time is truly relative, if the measure of a lifetime is the sum of its perceived time here on earth which is a function of our plans, experiences, and memories, then we owe it to ourselves to maximize the perception of time. In particular, we owe it to ourselves to plan for experiences that create the most memories.

 Let me say it again – we should plan experiences that create the most memories.

 I call these moments that expand time, “really living.”

 Here’s a question – is it possible to “live” more in one day (say, on vacation, or doing something you love) than in a week doing something meaningless or unimportant?  Are there certain days you have experienced that you would trade for a week of doing something else?

 Let’s take it further – is it possible to live and create more memories in an afternoon, than in a whole month of a boring repetitive, mundane task or situation?

 If so, then is it at least remotely possible, at the extreme, to experience enough in one shining supernova of a minute to equal the memories an entire year? Is there a certain moment in your life that you would trade a year of mundane living for?

 I have lived the value of a year in one minute.  Sadly, I have also lived the value of a minute in one year, probably more than once in my 41 years here on earth.  

 One last twist to this tale….What is it that makes a week - a day - an hour - a minute, full of life giving memories? It is not, as one would assume, necessarily always a positive, uplifting experience. It is not always, “golden moments.” One of my most significant memories is the several hours I spent at risk of hypothermia on a cold rainy and empty stretch of the autobahn in southern Germany while hitchhiking across Europe. I was miserable. I was terrified. I ended up stripping naked in an empty field, putting on dry spandex racing suits and burying myself in a pile of hay to survive.

 http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/07/31/walden-principle-2-racing-is-the-best-training-sleeping-in-a-haystack/

 I survived (this part is important). And the memory of those hours is almost as real today as the present reality those moments were 19 years ago.

 Consider this possibility: if it were possible to live a year in a minute, what if you could create a string of “year-long minutes” in your life? How many “years” could you then live? If I could create 10 year-long-minutes each year for the rest of my life, that would be 410 years of “really living.” If this concept of the flexible nature of time is true, if time can be “created” then it seems possible that the fountain of youth, the sorcerers stone, ancient alchemy are not only approachable, but practical given how our brains process time.

 So, how is it possible to expand life, to stretch time, to “live (almost) forever”? My intention is to document strategies for doing exactly this in future posts. In the meantime, some thoughts about the role of “stories” in creating time:

 That perfect trip? That first kiss? Getting lost in a Moroccan Souk? Making the team? Losing a close one? Teaching your daughter to snorkel? Missing the train and racing to the next train station in time to catch it there? Think of your stories – what are your best stories, the ones you tell again and again with friends, the ones you will tell your kids?

As a general strategy, the best answer I have heard for creating “really living” moments came from a book I read by Dr. John Izzo, “The Five Secrets You Must Discover BeforeYou Die”. In the book, Izzo interviews a large group of ‘elders’ selected for having discovered happiness and meaning in their lives. In one of the anecdotes of the book, one elderly lady stated her perspective on living a full and fruitful life like this,

 “When life gives you choices, choose the one that makes for the best story.”

Great stories tend to have a conflict, or suffering in them – so the avoidance of pain, the pursuit of pure happiness does not, in the end bring us more time. Comprised of pain and agony or bliss and adventure (or often both) moments of “really living” can be sought – can be pursued – indeed a life can be designed to help create them… However, they cannot be orchestrated – they must, ultimately, “happen” – hence the magic of life and of unique experiences.

To “really living,”

-John

PS: If suffering expands the present, then perhaps the single best way to continue to expand time is to plan an experience of “beautiful suffering” full of anticipation and memorable both in the present as well as the future. Say…. That sounds a lot like climbing a mountain, completing a marathon, doing a triathalon, competing in a bike race, or fighting a bull...

 I’m looking for ideas on how to expand time in the present – in a memorable way. Please write and tell me your thoughts.

2009 Race Reports #22 & 23: Tour di Via Italia (Erie Street)

2009 Race Report #22 & 23: Tour di Via Italia Another drive to Michigan in the perfection of late August skies: the sun warmed my skin even as the wind cooled it and a ribbon of gray and black highway snaked out ahead of me, shadows of trees left and right. It was 78 degrees, the perfect temperature to drive cross country in a convertible. Mine is a black 22 year old BMW 325i, a finely made, battered German car with a finely made, battered Italian Colnago in back. Buffeted by the winds, my bicycle was headed for the last race of the season, upside down, chain dangling on the worn leather of the back seat.

I had been looking forward to this race all year. Tour di Via Italia, or “Erie Street” is in its 51st year on the same flat rectangular course and is always the Sunday before Labor day. Erie Street is in the Little Italy of Windsor, Ontario and consists of a string of coffee bars, restaurants and night clubs backing to clean, carefully manicured working class neighborhoods. Stroll into any one of the dozen or more bars and cafes and odds are you’ll find a gregarious older male behind the bar or greeting patrons while keeping an eye on inevitably young and attractive female wait-staff, the only thing they appear to have in common is being Italian and frequent trips outside to smoke a cigarette.

I was looking forward to my first trip to Casa-de-Dybowski and hanging with my Wolverine bretheren. I was also looking forward to some tiny coffees on Erie street before the races, and to tipping a few glasses of Chianti (or better yet, Brunello) afterward to accompany some excellent freshly made pasta. In between, of course would be hours of beautiful suffering on the bike.

I knew the drive to Michigan would drag on forever, yet would disappear the instant I arrived, just as I knew the weekend would be over in a flash, yet would leave its imprint on my memories forever. This inversion of time experienced vs. time remembered is something that I have pondered for quite some time. I have concluded that despite intuition and what we have been taught, time is flexible – and that time, as tracked and measured by our brains, can be created and expanded or condensed and squandered. More on this in the nest post.

Hanging with Ray, Melissa and family along with Ben Renkema and Randy Rodd eating some fantastic freshly made pasta in heaping quantities and a few glasses of wine, we then felt the need to educate Ben on an important American cultural icon, “Caddyshack” and whiled away the hours chatting in the living room – a scene that would repeat itself the next night as well.

Neither of my races at the Tour di Via Italia worked out as planned, yet the possibility of victory filled my thoughts filled my mind with the anticipation of raising my hands in victory. No, I didn’t win – I was fourth in the Master’s race after a long headwind shot to the line that fell short (VIDEO below)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNjnmK-_iXI]

Meanwhile, after a freshly made cheese pizza, a couple shots of espresso, and a gallon of water later, I found myself on the line for the 100 kilometer Pro Race. The race rotated in fits and starts, fading into the evening as a breakaway of 8 got away, only to be brilliantly in the final laps by the lit by the sideways sun and the surging hope for a field sprint win. I hydrated carefully and conserved to the end. Finally it was my time – 2 to go. Never mind the 8 man breakaway that the lazy peleton had failed to chase – my eyes were on Renkema, Cavendar, Eugeni, Candless and a surprise bid for the sprint from Mr. Finkelstein.

Power was available for my command and as we entered the final two laps, I was full of life and energy noticing everything, every movement, even the color of the tires of the competitors before coming around the final corner about 10th. I knew it would require a miraculous hole in the lead group to find a path to the finish for the field sprint win, but I was prepared to exploit whatever came my way and loved that I was feeling capable of delivering all out power after 2 races and 90+ miles of racing in the heat.

The video misses much, but if you watch closely, just after the corner, in just a few frames, I leap forward, and then you a flash of Luke Cavendar’s hip, and then I stall and fade.

What takes place in those two seconds is a lot of activity: coming off the wheel in front of me, I put power and energy into the carbon fiber of the bike and it leaps forward and I start to have visions of a field sprint victory. Then a movement to the left – Luke avoids an erratic move and sweeps right and I hit his rear wheel hard with my momentum.

I slide forward in my seat while hitting both brakes hard – I saw it coming and was ready. Still, afterward, ¾’s of my front tire had a black mark from Luke’s rear wheel. I rocked forward and almost endoed over my front wheel, but Luke regained his trajectory and so did I.

Just as I let my hands off the brake hoods, my chain fell off – thank God I was in the saddle – and I almost fell off my seat as my legs rotated fiercely forward. I tried in vain to shift it back onto the big ring, but it would only re-connect with the little ring even as I pedaled softer and softer, but to no avail.

All this took place in a few frames of the camera… (See VIDEO below)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6ZHYEOcjCI]

Left index fingers still throttling the shifter, I windmilled my legs to the line on the small ring, settling for 8th in the sprint, losing ground.

Afterward, I meandered to a street side cafe' where Randy was busy entertaining three older women. "I may have gotten dropped, but I got voted the 'best looking' cyclist by these ladies here," Randy said. The 20 year old Randy promptly received the phone number of a pretty, but 46 year old woman (using Cory Dubrish's phone,)then we took a team photo in the street (below) and then headed across the street for a real dinner, swapping true stories and tall tales as a team.  It was all worth doing and all worth remembering, so we took pictures.

Erie Street at night and the WSC

WSC elite team

I crashed that night late at Randy Rodd’s lake house, completely exhausted, but fully alive. What a full day it had been… As I drifted off to sleep with the windows open, I could smell the fragrance of fall creeping into the room, and the chirping of the  optimistic frogs was no foil to the sense of the coming winter.

Now what?

To “really living…”

-John

2009 Race Reports #20 & 21: Tour De Gaslight Criterium

2009 Race Report #20 - Tour de Gaslight Criterium - Masters. Attending the gaslight crit required waking early on a Sunday morning, loading the car, and waking my daughter who definitely did not view 4 hours in the car as something she wanted to do. But memory is a tricky thing and despite knowing that I, as a child, had dreaded some of the long car trips my parents took me on, I also accepted the reality that they were significant memories - rites of passage. Who am I to deny her such important milestones? The fact that my own mother was in town and that it would be a tri-generational trip made it much easier and we sped out through Chicago traffic to Grand Rapids.

Unsurprisingly, while talking in the car I missed the 80/94 split in SW Michigan and ended up racing up country roads to make up time. But we arrived with 45 minutes to spare and I even got a warmup. I felt ready from lap one and handily won a prime on lap two. Then, somehow the race split despite a slow pace and I found myself chasing the breakaway in a two man group with Rob D. This is NOT a strength and I didn't even last a full lap before Rob dropped me and I trickled back to the peleton.

The video captures the sprint. My limited strengths were put to good use - I hit it hard 150 meters prior to the final turn, cornered hard, and then hit the jets up the slight incline prior to the finish. John Sammut lead out and I put it all into the pedals, catching a lone breakaway rider en-route. I was amazed to find anyone on my wheel and then unsurprised to find Rob D. right there - contending despite surgery a month prior. A fun race. Katelina cheered every lap along with her tiny stuffed animal "Totoro" who sat on the haybales near turn 4.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSox6_vdeGM] 

2009 Race Report #21 - Tour de Gaslight Criterium - Pro 1/2

I'm convinced that the challenge of doubling up on race day (doing two races) has little to do with fitness and much more to do with hydration. When the summer heat, a prior race, and a long second race combine, dehydration is probably the most significant limiting factor for success.

I'm no rookie and I knew this so I tried to drink a decent amount in the hour between races. But I had to get more money from an ATM, re-register, switch numbers, pin them on, and refill my water bottles, so I did not have a great sense of 'thin blood' when I hit the line for the Pro race. The laps sped by and I metered out my first water bottle and just as it was almost empty 2/3's of the way through the long race, my second, and full water bottle popped out of the cage on a magically destructive hole in the road just out of turn two.

I knew I was in trouble immediately. Despite hoarding water, conserving energy and even getting a nice hand-over swig of gatorade from Cory Dubrish, my hamstrings were giving me the 'long pull' in the final laps whenver the pace called for significant power.

I tried to minimize massive power outlays until the final lap and saved one mouthful of water for the same, but in the end, my system was well beyond hydrated and as I tried to accel on the backstretch both hamstrings tried to lock into my glutes and my quads were firing and staying hot. I was not over my max and normally would have shot into position, but I just couldn't do it. I conserved all down the backstretch and then saved one final 2 second effort for the 'post-haybale' mark on the second-to-last straightaway. In the 2 seconds that I was able to fire my jets I jumped up about 8 places and weaved past receding cyclists and then entered the final straightaway with nothing, finishing 9th. Cory Dubrish was 6th, Luke Cavendar 2nd, and Ben Renkema first.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RowyPXbngyg&NR=1]

It was good to hang out with Finkle, Demerly, Fear, Cavendar, Dubrish,  Dybo and Rodd, but as the air quickly cooled in the late afternoon and the scent of the haybales seemed more robust, I realized that summer's last sprint was nearing its end, and that the shadows around us had that certain impenentrable blackness of the still bright but dying summer sun. I was sad and the drive home was filled with melancholy broken only by the bell tones of Katelina's pronouncements, "Totoro and I want sushi...!"

Like all childhood memories, it was something ridiculously mundane that Katelina will remember from this trip. After a stop for Chinese (not sushi), we were nearing home but she needed to use the restroom, so we stopped at the Des Plaines overpass. After arriving home I asked her what her best memory of the trip was. Her response?

"I finally got to go to the bathroom!"

Sometimes pleasure is merely the relief of pain...

2009 Race Reports #18 & 19: Downer's Grove Famine and Feast

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TreJry21jTg] Day 1: Downer's Grove Pro-Am Challenge

Yes, you can have the post-race vibe, even if you don't finish the race...

So I discovered Saturday night after the Downer's Grove Pro-Am. I won the race to the race and warmed up up well and got the front row of the huge field of 160 riders. The pace steadily escalated during the race, and my pulse never dropped below 180 during the hour plus that I was in the race. I stayed in the top 30, using the corners to wing up a few spots and dropping back a few on the long hard stretches. I made it to the halfway mark and then to 15 laps to go - and then there was a crash directly in front of me and I had to stop.

The crash was in the downhill corner leading back into the slight uphill finish stretch so I needed to accelerate from zero to 35mph uphill which really took its toll. Meanwhile riders were sitting up all around me to take a free lap (even though they had not crashed which is supposed to be the rule) and I was bridging gaps left by riders who had sat up. By the time I reached the hill, I was already off the back (along with 50 other riders) so I decided to throw in the towel and take a free lap as well.

But I made a significant mistake - instead of dropping down the backside of the course to get a push into the downhill section of the course (and get an extra half lap of rest, I dropped back down to the base of the uphill and joined about 25 riders re-entering there. With no push and an immediate accel up the hill I spent the remaining arrows in my limited quiver just rejoining the field near the rear, and meanwhile the pace had pushed even higher and it was single file.

A lap later and several bridging moves to stay connected, I threw in the towel and dropped backward, amazed at the stream of riders still attempting to regain contact with the field. Over those few laps, the peleton went from 150 down to 50 - over 100 riders dropped, spread all over the course - I've never seen carnage quite like it, and did not feel bad at all for it - in fact I felt a real thrill that I was able to ride up front with the top pros in the country for the majority of the race. I joined Gary and Matt for a glass of wine feeling great. But the night did not end there - oh no...

9 people joined me at the house and the pool party began almost immediately at 10pm when Randy Rodd took the balcony leap to the pool and Gary and Monica (their two sons sleeping), Katelina, Ray Dybowski, Brett Bedow, Matt Dula, Randy Rodd, and Alan Antonuk splashed and dove and talked with a beer or glass of wine in the 85 degree pool or 105 degree hot tub. At 11pm I put Katelina to bed, and at 1am, I headed in myself - I was racing just a scant few hours later. Meanwhile the boys continued to party in the pool until the wine and beer ran out.

Day 2: Downer's Grove Elite Category 2 Championships

2008 was the first time in 8 years that I didn't step on the podium at Downer's and I was determined to regain those painted wooden steps. I warmed up well and felt 'on fire' during the race - the pace was significantly easier than the pro race, and I felt I could do anything. However with 3 laps to go there was a crash directly in front of me (see video) around turn 2 that threw me backward in the peleton. Still I followed my instincts to navigate through the pack from the inside, shrouded from the wind. With 2 to go I moved up into the top 20, and with one to go, as the pace slowed, I pulled into the front of the pack and then slotted back into third up the hill.

There was a breakaway of 3 riders that had been out for a number of laps, but we hit the hill hard and ate them up by the top. Then it was decision time - the strong rider in blue hooked right and made a move... to stay or go?

I paused and then hit the jets, swinging into the contrails of his draft and we accelerated through the corner and down the backstretch, approaching 40mph into the final 3 corners.

I didn't know where the pack was and considered a counter move with 2 corners to go, but was worried about the headwind into the second to last stretch - sure enough even the rider in blue couldn't avoid slowing as we headed toward the final corner, and I should have hit it as soon as he slowed, but I waited, and two riders that had attached from the field attacked up the inside off camera. I jumped as well and by taking the corner wide, hoped for a slingshot to the finish line, but rider 2 took me to the barriers with his momentum and I had to slow a bit and by then had nothing left and could not come around, finishing third... Still I was happy to stand on the podium...

2009 Race Report #17: Wind, Rain, Cobblestones and the Grand Cycling Classic

2009 Race Reports 17: Wind, Rain and Cobblestones  Friday, August 7: A long drive, like the 5 hour trip to Grand Rapids the night before the Grand Cycling Classic, unearthed for me a host of echoes of the travels of my youth, and the associated conflicting thoughts and feelings. I dreaded the drive and the packing and the worry over forgetting something, yet at the exact same time, I was eager to depart and couldn't wait for that cloistered freedom of being on the road where the tyranny of choices – which email to answer, what project should I be undertaking, should the lawn be watered, does the pool have enough chlorine, what should I eat – is replaced by the quiet comfortable monotony of driving.

Once the traffic of Chicago cleared, so too did my mind and I found myself happily alone, listening to music, without choices save one – to drive or not.

I once read in a book loaned to me by a friend at work about a man who sailed alone from Canada all the way to Tahiti, who was marooned in the doldrums of the Pacific (a place with very little wind, calm seas and brilliant sunshine) for over a week. Someone later asked if he was bored.

He gave a considered response, one that I still think about now… No, he said, boredom is an emotion that comes when there are things you should be doing, but can’t. On the sailboat, once he had checked the compass, the keel and the horizon, there was nothing else to be done. Everything that could be done was complete, and he was peacefully alone in the freedom of his thoughts. So too was my experience as I passed into the hall of trees lining the highway north into Michigan as the sky darkened, brooding.. a foreshadowing of the weather to come.

I arrived late to the home of my friend Dave Heitiko, who had apparently forgiven me for crashing him the year prior (by accident) in the same race. Joining us were Randy Rodd, Ray Dybowski, Luke Cavender, and Adrian Fear, along with Dave and his wife. Wines were poured, stories were told, and as is always the case, we ignored the sprawling spaces of the large house and stood around the kitchen island until the wee hours even as coronas of lightning began outside the shelter of the house.

Saturday, August 8: I slept in the basement on a couch in a sleeping bag and was perfectly content, though I did not want to wake up at 7am when the household stirred. We met again in the kitchen and prepared our various breakfast preferences before heading out in a complete downpour to the course.

Slick black and red cobbles worn into ruts from 100 years of traffic, off camber corners, manhole covers like black ice, metal barriers sharpened like guillotines from the rain – this was what greeted us as we arrived and fear ran cold like the rain pouring down from overhead. The sky lightened a bit and it finally stopped raining as I registered, then began again as I “warmed up” gingerly taking the corners of the course at low speeds.

The race itself was almost the exact opposite of my feelings prior – my tires felt sticky, my legs strong, and for once I felt I could do whatever I wanted within the small peleton. It was a small field, but full of names I was familiar with – strong riders. I stayed mostly in the top 5 for safety and even won a prime (which I donated to the Randy Rodd fund) and as we came around with 2 laps to go there was not really any doubt in my head that I would win this race. I tried to turn on the camera, but it errored out – either from the rain or low battery..

I remembered that feeling – I used to have it most races as a junior and often as a speedskater, but as a part time cyclist the last few years, my fitness has always been right on the edge and most of my energy in a race was spent just hanging on. To experience, for a day, that old feeling of control, to be able to move when and where I wanted, to sling up the outside of the pack in the wind – these were real joys despite the rooster tails of water, the skittering of tires on the wet cobbles, the death traps of icy manhole covers dotting the road like landmines.

With one to go a leadout emerged and a Bissell rider shot to the front. Behind him was Rob Daksowicz (sp?) last year’s masters winner, and I sat easily in third. I knew exactly where to go and how it would play out, and it went just as I had imagined – 150 meters prior to the final corner, I hit the afterburners and jumped out front, gapping the field before braking hard on the slippery pavement of the final corner and then leaning my body while holding my bike upright around the bend.

I took it quite fast, but had the perfect line, avoiding the white paint strips and the off camber cobbles to the outside, and as soon as I returned to vertical, I shifted up and got out of the saddle and poured every thread of energy I had into the pedals for the next 150 meters.

Then I did something I have never done before in 33 seasons of racing  - I looked back…

I was sure that no one could have matched the first accel, the hard cornering in the rain, and the second accel, so I risked the look back, potentially putting the win at risk.

But no one was close by – I had 100 feet or more, and as I approached the white stripe of the finish line I did a second thing I have never done before. Sure, it was a small race, sure it was only the masters group, sure it was in the rain with only a few spectators, but I wanted to do this, I needed to do this, and as I screamed across the line, contrails of water spouting above my head, I removed my hands from the handlebars and shot them straight up in the air to celebrate in this fashion for the very first time in my career…

It felt good, really good.

The Wolverines had a good showing in later races, with Randy Rodd in 3rd, Ray in 4th, and Adrian in 8th. I raced the BMW back to Illinois with a large heavy brick trophy from the cobblestone streets on the seat next to me inscribed with the race date and name, its heft belying the own lightness of being I was experiencing. Now, if I could only bring this same feeling to Downers Grove – 7 days away….

2009 Race Reports 14 – 16: The Race to the Race

2009 Race Reports 14 – 16: The Race to the Race It was a carnival freak show caricature of the real thing. Everything that took place during those swollen seconds was a bloated, leviathan equivalent of the norm. Reminiscent of the movie Wall-E, every healthy element was eliminated and replaced by a supersized, unhealthy counterpart.

In the race to the race of the Chicago Criterium, I desperately needed food “on-the-go,” and the Lake Forest Oasis became my “feed-zone” where I received my “hand-up.”  To explain: the feed-zone is the area in bike races like the Tour de France where racers pick up “musette bags” full of healthy carbs and proteins, “hand-ups” by helpful members of the staff who run along side the racers as they slowly climb the steep slopes. Shoulder straps allow the racers to sling these bags of healthy calories over their shoulders so they can eat as they ride. I might as well have strapped it to my face…

In my case, the mountain was the small hill of the Lake Forest Oasis overpass, and the “musette bag” was a folded McDonalds to-go bag containing two fatty hamburgers on white bread with ketchup. The “racer,” (me) was not pedaling a 15lb carbon fiber frame… instead I was casually pushing the gas pedal of a rusting RV getting 7mpg - a 10,000lb hulk of fiberglass and steel zooming awkwardly over the top of the oasis. My friend Matt, unwittingly involved in this sordid satire, stood balanced on the curb in front of McDonalds on his tiptoes holding out my feed bag as I snatched it from his grasp at about 10mph, wallowing back down the overpass to I-294 spewing fumes en-route to the Chicago Criterium.

Thus continued the single worst preparations for any race of my life…

Race Report 14: July 26, 2009 – The Chicago Criterium, Grant Park Chicago – Masters 1 / 2  

The night before the Chicago Crit started way too early, involving copious quantities of Red Zinfandel out of a plastic cup while hiking the Downer Avenue course with my 21 year old teammate Randy Rodd and my great friend Matt Dula while watching the Pro Race. We ended the evening with the usual routine of entertaining guests in the RV by the start finish line and then hit North Avenue, staying up until 2:30am. Randy had to leave just 3 hours later for his race and successfully woke in time. He’s 21 and gets no sympathy. I on the other hand had difficulty waking up at 8:30 when I needed to, and when I finally did get on the road, found myself racing the clock for the 12:05pm race in a vehicle that can’t go much faster than 60mph at 7mpg.

I began chugging water just like the year prior, but this time had no food. I polished off 9 20oz bottles of water in the 3 hour drive, but could already feel the lack of calories. There was no way I could race without eating something, but I didn’t have time to stop… what to do?

I called Matt who was speeding on ahead in his car – and we arranged the now infamous “Lake Forest feed-zone hand-up.” I had asked for a relatively healthy breakfast sandwich and was suddenly thwarted by the switch to lunch. I was stumped - I should have gotten a grilled chicken wrap rather than plain burgers – what was I thinking?!

Finally, 20 minutes before race start time, I parked the RV for $40 and sped to registration, where I received my number (104 – hence there were 104 race participants – once again I was the last to register) and then sped to the wheel pit where Jose and another mechanic helped to get 4 pins in my number just as they called out the racer instructions. The fourth safety pin was latched just as they shot the gun and off we went – and I joined the rear of the peleton about 200 feet past the start finish – no warmup, tired, dehydrated, and fueled with fatty ground beef, ketchup and white bread. I felt like hell.

The race was relatively short and I actually wanted it to be longer, because the longer it lasted, the better I felt. I started lazy and lethargic and gained a little bit of energy every lap. It was an easy race and it was amazing that the peleton let 4 riders escape.

Finally it was the last lap and I woke up. It required the urgency of the bell to finally spur me into motion. The video below captures the action of the final lap, beginning right as we cross the line with one to go where I’m still sitting probably 60 deep or more in the peleton. I learned later than a couple guys were watching my wheel and determined I had given up on the race when I hadn’t yet moved up with less than one to go.

I tried to sling up front into the second corner, but others had the same idea and it was a bind around the corner and I had to brake hard. Swarming continued on the backstretch and I was trapped in the middle and dropped from 12h to 25th before turn 3 of 4 where I had intended to be 2nd – 4th. However, as we passed turn 3 into the short uphill, I still had my one little match, and I lit it out of that corner, getting out of the saddle and shooting up the outside, passing about 15 riders over the top to slot into 4th place into the final corner. I’m sure the same move from 8th or higher would have earned me the field sprint win, but I was just too far back, and by the short final sprint I had no juice left and finished 4th in the field sprint, 8th overall. The video makes it look all in slo-mo, but in real life I felt like I entered hyper-space up the hill and loved that feeling of acceleration. I do love that course…

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mhpbVuI2D8]

Race Report 15: August 1st, 2009 – Elk Grove Cat 1/2 75 Kilometers.

I arrived on time, warmed up, and suffered like a dog. For each of the 37 laps I determined that the next lap I would drop out. There was a crosswind and the peleton was spread out single file from lap one, and each long (1000m) finish stretch had me on the rivet. I quickly determine that I would quit at 35 to go (2 laps in), then I lied to myself and said, “at least make 5 laps”.

At lap 32 to go, I lied again and said, “10 laps would be at least a decent showing for your teammates in town” (I had 4 fellow Wolverines visiting and staying with me – Randy, Brett, Pat, and Sarah).  So with 27 to go I determined to quit again, but there they were, cheering, so I decided to go one more lap. Then another, and another. Even with 5 laps to go I wasn’t sure I would make one more lap. The idea of moving up did not enter my oxygen starved brain until 2 to go, and with gaps opening and wheels single file, I only managed to get into the upper quarter of the peleton by the finish despite using every possible fragment of energy in my body (see video below).

Race Report 16: August 2nd, 2009 – Elk Grove Masters 1/2 45 Kilometers. Every POSSIBLE mistake…

Saturday night ended nice and early despite my teammates being town, and after only one glass of wine with Randy and Pat, I hit the hay early and then returned to the course with them the next morning with over an hour to register, pin on my numbers and make the start of the race.

I registered, returned to the car with my number, and then started scrambling, tearing the car apart, searching for, but not finding my skinsuit. Mistake #1 – I forgot my skinsuit. My God – even when I’m early I’m late. I had to head all the way back to get my skinsuit – but Pat Robb had my keys, so first I had to find him… I did get somewhat of a warmup chasing him down while coordinating with Randy via phone. Once I had the keys, I had the traffic lights perfectly timed as I raced back to get my suit, and then returned to the course. When I parked, it was 10:27am, and I still had to get on my numbers, helmet, shoes, gloves and get to the start/finish line in less than 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, they were apparently calling my name at the start/finish, and co-workers John Cregier, Ed Perez, and Dave Torgerson were scratching their heads as I succeeded in becoming a caricature of myself by skidding to the line during the final race announcements with an unbuckled helmet, un-strapped shoes, no gloves, no shoe covers, and no number on. Randy was there to help put the number on, but a couple of ladies by the barriers took over and managed to get 3 of the numbers pinned on before the sent us on our way.

I felt quite good and stayed mostly mid-pack, biding my time for the very long (700m) sprint. Near the end I dropped back, and then as we came around and I saw 3 laps to go, I started making my moves to the front. Mistake #2 – I never looked at the lap cards again…I’m sure now, that when I looked up with 3 laps to go, I was probably dead last, and they had already flipped the cards, so there were actually 4 laps to go, not 3.

But I moved through the pack as though there were 3, then 2, then 1 lap to go. Around the final bend there were two riders off, and the pack, as expected in the headwind, bunched up and I launched off the front, bridging between the pack and the lead riders, knowing the race was mine… until I realized it had all been too easy, and, glancing back, seeing that the pack had done nothing. A sudden cold feeling rang through me with the bell as I sat 100 meters off the front of the peleton… “One Lap to Go!, one lap to go riders!” yelled the announcer. Mistake #3 – sprinting with one lap to go…

No what? I had burned most of my match and couldn’t possibly hold the lead… so I sat up and waited, and then jumped back into the accelerating peleton in about 15th. Over the final corners, things played out well and I was in perfect position, but had no match left and merely followed wheels to finish in 6th place, the taste of blood and pennies in my mouth like yesterday…

Still, my legs felt like they were finally coming on… and the Grand Cycling Classic – in Grand Rapids Michigan – where I had had my first win in a while the year prior was coming up next… I liked this feeling of possiblities...

2009 Race Reports 12 – 13: Superweek Racine and Kenosha

Race Report 12: July 23, 2009 – Superweek Racine Master’s Criterium: a study in tedium – bumpy, lots of corners, single file, breakaways, and a slightly uphill finish stretch. After an hour and fifteen minutes of hanging on following the wheel, I ended up 9th – five or six guys were up the road. Yawn. Race Report 13: July 24, 2009 - Superweek Kenosha Pro/Am: 100 Kilometers, 100 laps

I ate well, rested well, arrived on time, warmed up, and was hydrated and motivated. With the retirement of the Manitowoc course, Kenosha remains my primary hope for a top 5 spot in a Superweek Pro Race. Over the years, the true sprinter’s courses have dwindled, and so too has the body weight and musculature of the racers atop the podium. 4 years ago it was the Robbie Ventura with his swelling thighs and massive calves atop the top spot. Now, 4 years later, after a 40 lap onslaught by the “new criterium pros” of today, 4 of the 5 top podium spots fell to men who weighed under 140 lbs and whose thighs were not much bigger than a typical male bicep. Pro criterium racing has fundamentally changed and rare are the huge field sprints so typical of just a few years ago.

The race was fast from the gun – 31, 32, 33mph on the straightaways, slowing to the mid twenties in the corners. I was sitting maybe 80th in a 120 man field for the first half. It was hard, but I was on my game and hit it hard each time out of the corners and felt fast. Then, just around half way through the 100K race, the teams decided to start chasing the breakaway – and we went from three abreast to two-up to single file. And there it stayed – for 5 laps, then 10, then 15.

I was nailing it full out from the corners and slotting up a few spaces each time – creeping forward through the pack – from 80th to 75th, to 70th, to 65th and so on. The pace was brutal and my pulse was straying higher and higher. At one point I looked back expecting to see the other half of the 120 rider field strung out behind me and I found myself 3rd to last – we had already dropped 50 riders. I panicked and tried to move further up, but the pace never relented and after 72 of the 100 laps of the race I found myself in a 3 man reverse breakaway that I couldn’t close – having bridged several gaps already.

 Rather than a heart bursting burning defeat, this was cold deep down searing pain close to the bone – I physically could produce no more power from my blood and bones and I watched the peleton pedal away as the wind roared around me for a few seconds until I bowed to its pressure and slowed as it quieted.

Getting dropped is the cold essence of defeat – no semblance of “almost” remains – you fall off the back as the wheels in front disappear around the corners even as you still pedal at 25 mph, and then you are alone, and the people who know nothing (spectators) continue to cheer as though there was hope. “Keep going!” “Good job!” “You can catch them!” No, no and no. True cycling fans turn their back and pretend you are warming up – they know the shame you carry. There is not a single solitary hope and I hate – absolutely abhor – those moments of drifting off the back of the wake of the pack. I can't wait to finally find the solace of anonymity on the sidewalk or backstreets. Ultimately the feeling you carry is one of shame.

 “I wasn’t good enough.”

 That’s what getting dropped is – it is admitting, “I wasn’t good enough.” We competitors usually find some excuse though – mechanical issues, improper warmup, too much racing, not enough racing, a dangerous course, dangerous riders.

At Kenosha I had no such excuse – I rarely do anymore. “I wasn’t good enough… TODAY.” That’s the only qualifier that allows some saving of face – adding the word “today” allows the possibility that it isn’t lack of talent, isn’t inborn, isn’t forever that I’ll fail again. “I wasn’t good enough, TODAY” provides a hope for the future. For me, I’ll have to wait until next year’s Kenosha race.

For the record, laps 50 – 72 were the fastest I’ve ever raced – over 30.5 mph average speed, AND (this gave me a little comfort later) three of the four Garmin Slipstream riders were already in the wheel pit when I drifted in – I had outlasted some highly paid pros. In all, only 45 of the 120 starters finished the race and it was a ragtag frayed line of riders that straggled in single file over the final laps.

 ‘Til next year…

The best part of the day was retiring in the RV to Gary and Monica’s house – a beautiful house on a hill in Lake Geneva, with a pool and courtyard, 2 and ½ acres. Yet, we never left the RV…

I can’t explain it, but there’s something special about the close (but not too close) space within the RV – once you are in it becomes the perfect place to tell tales and laugh and joke. Gary, Dave Dohnal, Eric Hankins, and Randy Rodd – yes his real name (don’t Google it – especially at work) a member of my Detroit based Wolverine Sports Club hung out in the RV until the wee hours, eventually joined by Gary’s wife Monica and Dave’s wife Kim, who were up to no good decorating the RV with fishing line and duct tape.

 Randy, almost 20 years everyone’s junior, was a bit of an amusement for the ladies and at one point in the evening as they continued their intrigues he announced, “Yeah, its true, I’m pretty awesome…” which had us all laughing.

The following night was spent in the usual Downer Avenue fashion – parked in the center of the course afterward, sipping some wine and snacking after watching the pro race and walking the course. Randy and I stayed up way too late, and he had to head out super early for his Cat 3 crit. I, surprisingly, overslept and in the morning began the usual “race to the race.” But that's a story for the next post...

2009 Race Reports #10 –11: Superweek Evanston Masters 30+ & 40+

Sunday, July 19th - Evanston, IL: I decided to register for both of the Masters events early in the day, and if the legs felt good, to return for the evening Pro race. As it turned out, the legs felt good, but circumstances interfered and I was unable to return for the pro race and had to settle for racing twice. The Masters 30+ and 40+ races were similar - pretty fast paced with a lot of breakaway attempts - all of which were reeled in. I sat in the middle/rear of the field in both races as usual.

The two races were back to back, so I only had time to pin on my new number and I was back out racing.

Masters 30+: The video starts with a lap and a half to go as I start moving through the field in prep for the sprint. You can see that the field is strung out over 200meters down the finish stretch with various small breakaways trying to get away. I used the draft and moved up into the lead of the field and then got a great stroke of luck - like magic, 3 Bissell riders lined up directly in front of me for a leadout, their first guy swinging off on the backstretch, their second guy taking us into the long (400m) slightly uphill finish stretch. I really didn't have much left and tried to come around but couldn't and meanwhile Clayton Goldsmith - who was on my wheel, went winging by and I ended up 3rd.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbISeFThImc]

Masters 40+: Some days you just seem to know exactly what to do - and this video picks up with one to go as I shoot up through the field to move into position  on the backside. There I hopscotch from Robert Krohn's wheel to Paul Swinand, and then neatly onto the 3 man leadout on the backstretch. This finish was quite close - almost come around by the line but again don't have quite enough juice and end up 3rd again.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzXMceVeD_k]

2009 Race Reports #6 - 9: Superweek, suffering & sprinting

In a  couple of days Superweek will be over yet again and I'll have to wait a whole year yet again to try and achieve my ever fading hope of standing on the podium for a pro race... but right now my legs are very good. Tomorrow I head out in the RV for the end of Superweek, and then the Chicago Criterium. I'm cautiously optimistic that if I play my cards right I might have a decent shot at top 10 and an outside shot at top 3 at the Kenosha Pro Tour for Superweek. We'll see. 2009 Race Report #6: Superweek Blue Island Pro/Am July 11th

62 laps, 62 miles. Easy math. The first 30 were surprisingly un-horrible. Rare in my career is the race where I make the half-way mark and don't finish - and usually in the money. That said, a breakaway launched prior to the halfway mark put the whole peleton into single file mode shortly thereafter and I went from a mild suffering to "on the rivet" within the space of a couple laps. 10 minutes and 5 laps later I was part of a section of the long snaking single file peleton that broke off the back and quickly it was over - I had failed. Today I wasn't good enough...

2009 Race Report #7: Elgin Masters Road Race,  July 12th

After the humiliating defeat the night before, I did not really feel like showing up for a road race the next day (i.e. a race with hills - granted relatively small ones - but still something I try to avoid) But the course was only 3 miles from my house so it felt rude not to make an appearance.

I thought I had suffered at Blue Island - no, I just got summarily dropped. This small hill on each of the eight 6 mile laps (100 ft vertical or so) was steep and came after a 110 degree turn that was hard to keep momentum on and I was full of lactic acid each time up and suffered immensely. At first I stayed up front so that I could drop 50 places on the hill and stil stay in contact, but after lap 4 (of 8) where I almost got dropped again, I tried a new approach that worked better. Instead of staying up front and dropping back, I dropped back on the downhill before the turn and then took the corner hard and coasted into the middle of the pack before pedaling, essentially removing the need to pedal on the lower 1/3 of the hill. This was my saving move and allowed me to finish the race.

I finally brought out the bike cam and below shows snippets of the final lap and my mad dash to the line for fourth. It was a race that was pretty technically and strategically sound... I was pleased with 4th (2 guys got away, and I didn't quite catch Andy Kerr who was on the inside, off-camera.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bl6wIjxfuJo]

2009 Race Report #8:  Superweek Arlington Heights Masters,  July 14th

Relatively uneventful - arrived on time for a short warmup from work - and returned back to work right after. Got caught out on backstretch in the wrong place and finished 7th.

2009 Race Report #9: Superweek Bensenville Masters, July 15th

Such an odd race. Prompted by my admin, about 9 or 10 members of my team at work showed up for a lunch break bike race to watch - so my biggest cheering section at my smallest race -  only 32 masters showed up - the smallest field I've ever raced in. The wind was blowing about 15 - 20mph down the homestretch, so the field began to shred, and with 2 to go it disintegrated into several small parcels. 2 guys were well off, and then a group of 7 re-formed about 10 seconds out from my small group of 7, and there were other pieces behind us. Our group did little until a half lap when a Western Michigan rider finally kicked it, and then Tom Cox hit it HARD pulling us close - within 5 seconds after the final corner. I used what remained of my match and caught the 7 man break and pulled in one or two of them. Officials had me 9th, but I was either 7th or 8th for sure... See video here:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGzJOvGaGks]

 

2009 Race Report #5: ABR Cat 1/2 Illinois State Criterium Championships

July 5, 2009: I was too lazy to show up for the master's event at Wooddale - the day was just too nice and I was enjoying sitting outside by the pool reading and writing. Finally I dragged myself into the car for the 20 minute drive to Wooddale for the Cat 1/2 race. A few thunderclouds threatened but only threw a few drops our way. The pace was hot and cold - we only averaged 26.8 for the race, and one rider ended up getting away solo with 6 laps to go. Oddly I didn't suffer much and started to realize I might have a shot a the "W" - that is until the solo rider escaped. Still, I felt I had jets on my legs up the small hill to the final straightway and determined I would use them.

My plan was to sit about 10th on the last lap and then hit the afterburners 2/3's of the way down the backstretch into the final two corners with the short hill in between. My assumption was that with a hard accel in the draft, combined with the corners and the climb, I might not get caught despite the long (1 minute?) sprint.

All the best laid plans... Well, the pack was swarming and the pace too low on the last lap so I found myself sitting third across the finish stretch and down the hill into the back stretch. I could sense the pack ready to spring and knew I'd be buried in the swarm so I did the unthinkable - I made a leap from the front into the lead with 700m to go. Instead of the my planned stealth attack from bowels of the pack shrouded from the wind, I was completely visible and had to fight through the suddenly howling gale as I accelerated up to 37mph down the backstretch by myself.

I was already dying by the time I hit the 3rd corner into the hill, but shifted carefully and was able to put some energy into the pedals up the hill and then shifted up just before the final corner and cranked some cold hard low rpms toward the finish line 250 meters up the road. I could feel the chasers on my tail and just before the finish I saw colors to my left, (Ken Delo and Robert Krohn) but I had it - the field sprint win, and 2nd place.

I enjoyed a post race vibe talking to Ken Delo, Ara, and  Robert Krohn and others before finally heading back to swim in the pool with my daughter, the yellow sun and warm water a perfect aperitif to a successful race.

Saturday is my re-entry to the Pro races of Superweek with the Blue Island Pro/Am. Last year I got dropped - I'm shooting for a top 10 this year - but we'll see...

Tour of Albania #7: Switchback Five & Epilogue

Llogara Pass: Switchback 5 - the top and the future Switchback 5: I was nearing the top of the pass as marked by the appearance of a graveyard of stunted Cyprus skeletons, their bony limbs pointing toward the sea. It had become steeper, but no cooler, and even now, 3000 feet up a cliff from the endless sea, not even a wisp of air moved and my body shined darkly with sweat and oil and pain.

 Picture 367 (Medium)

The unrelenting pressure of each long pedal stroke, the rise and fall of each quadricep, tendon, shin, calf and ankle required an exhausting concentration of physical focus so as to not immediately stop and fall. I had slowed to 3.8 mph – I could have walked faster. Worked by the magic red hydraulics of blood, the slow pistons of my legs moved, up and down, over and over...

The nausea had returned - the pale green poison spreading out from my stomach to share its enervating lethargy. It spread slowly through my body and removed all care– I was no longer a man with hopes and dreams, instead I became an empty wrapper of waxy skin coating a viscous green ooze of gray despair. I desired nothing other than to stop and wallow in my fear and misery. Death began to feel like a cool relaxing alternative to this bruising monotony and pain.

By chance or plan, Peter Gabriel’s Passion was playing on repeat on my iPod, putting a voice and sound to the anguish. I felt, rather than heard the music and the startling agonizing crescendos crackled through my overheated brain, altering it somehow. I was on the landward side of the road in a strobe of shadows and sun and in the flickering light, life became dream sequence: I lost all sense of sea and sky - just flashes of broken rock and gray pavement and obliterating white light. Inside me, I sensed a thin red filament soaked in blood being pulled from me and dipped in a green gray wax. My mind and body were fraying, unraveling, and something new was emerging. My new brain, intertwined with the growing evil sickness in my stomach began to invent alternate realities. A grand and insane idea occurred to me and began to repeat itself with each flashing pedal stroke: I was Albania.

Shimmering in the heat and hard stone, bound to an arbitrary and ever reversing cruel gray road, I had been toiling for an a minute, an hour, a day, a year, an age exposed to the sun in the unmoving air trapped by mountains: I was Albania.

Scaring myself with these odd thoughts I tried to regain some perspective and abandoned the shadowy lane on the right, riding blindly out into the constant brilliant sunlight where I could peer over the rails to see the zig-zag slashes in the broken land beneath me.

I was in trouble. Six hours of hard riding over very rough terrain had elapsed, the last seventy-five minutes of which were right at my maximal effort. I had run out of water a while back and my vision had started to narrow and darken – yet brighten at the same time – everything had become more and more overexposed – the blue had drained from white hot sea and my ears were buzzing.

I crested the top of the pass and suddenly the view changed from the scorched shrubs and brilliant stone of the coast to the deep green grasses and trees of the interior and the first tendrils of the cooling, perfumed air of the lush river valley in front of me. With the release of the unrelenting pressure of the climb came a feeling of expansion and a separation from the fear lurking in my brain. I shuddered thinking about where my mind had strayed. I was so relieved I felt like I could cry.

There was an overlook with some tour buses to the left so I coasted to a stop and dismounted, shaking with weakness. Nearby a group of gray older men – bus drivers - huddled together smoking and talking – white and black outlines of grey men surreal against the brilliance of the distant mountain. The sound of their voices seemed to grow in volume while receding in the distance. Straightening out after the long effort, a wave of nausea washed through my limbs and I tasted the sheeps brain soup - the "Paçe" yet again and then all thought, sight and sound were muffled in a velvet cloak.

Bent over, the sky throbbed and the world exploded. Like a sailor in a gale I held onto my bike, holding the top tube, rocking forward and back, knuckles white, riding the roiling sick. I dreaded sight, dreaded sound and clamped down my eyelids and inner ears. Then the storm passed and I tilted on my cleats, the voices of the bus drivers resuming their discussion. I wiped the dangling white tendrils of spit and vomit from my lips and decided I had better get down the mountain quickly and remounted my bike.

For the first time in well over an hour, I could coast, no pedaling – what a joy after the unrelenting pressure of the mountain. I drifted around a bend, and then another, relishing in the cooling air rushing over my burning skin. I sat up and finally began to smile: I was a shell of myself filled with green gray blood - but what remained was dizzyingly happy. It was accomplished – I had conquered the mountain and the poison. Back up out of the saddle the razor sharp ridges of my forearms glistened as I resumed the futile efforts against the accursed mountain. I finally understood: this is the real Albania, there is no end to the suffering, there are only riddles and turns, cruel mysteries and arbitrary hardships. I put everything I had into the pedals but it was beyond the green gray power of my heart and there was nothing left.

I had transformed. Transfixed by the road and the illness within me I had become nothing. Head down, arms draped over the bars, I dry heaved a vomit of the emptiness and fear inside me, my abdomen clenching with incredible power but finding nothing to release. When the first wave subsided, beyond all care or embarrassment, I began to sob, and couldn't stop.

CRW_0530 (Medium)

albania 392 modified (Medium)

Cypresses

Near the top, voices...

--------------

When Hoxha’s form of communism finally fell in late 1991, throngs initially filled the streets in celebration. All across the country graven images of Hoxha were decapitated and destroyed and a new freedom was born. Gone was the unrelenting pressure to conform – to toil for the machine of the state – gone was the glaring scrutiny of the sigurami and the compression of freedoms. When the winds of freedom finally blew, they brought a release of joy demonstrated in mass of celebrations across the whole country. A new hope was in the air – of choice, of color, of prosperity.

No one knew it could actually get worse – that the five hour lines for bread would be replaced with no lines and no bread. The ugly rusting machine of communism had managed to provide a modicum of the basics – food, water, shelter, and safety from traditional crime. As the shackles fell, the prisoners began to run the asylum – mobs began to rule once safe streets, robbery and rape become daily occurrences, gunfire echoed off the bleak communist apartment blocks at all hours, and then the food ran out. During the chaos, privatization of the banks occurred and along with it, a pyramid investment scheme was created that subsequently collapsed taking along with it the life savings of 70% of Albanians. The guardrails were off, and anarchy ruled.

Which is worse? To have no hope for the future and to toil in ignominy, or to find the promise of a hope and then have it summarily crushed?

Communist Mural on Llogara pass

The wheels began to turn again in Albania only when the Italian government, the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups stepped aggressively into the gap, sending a large peace keeping force, food, and loans. This time of chaos and anarchy only last a couple of years, but for the citizens of Albania used to the exact opposite, these were devastating times. Slowly but surely, in the late 1990’s the country began to regain control and move forward.

For me, my savior was my friend Kirk, who had waited at the real top of the pass and answered his phone when I called in desperation. He drove back down the mountain bringing hope in the form of water. I shakily filled my bottles and said little. Oddly, Kirk didn’t say much either and did not chide me in his usual fashion – I think he could hear the urgency in my voice when I called and when he arrived, merely asked, “how’s it going, pal?” and handed me the water. After some huge gulping swallows, tears came streaming out of my eyes as sweat suddenly came out of all my pores and I shined from head to toe. “I’m not crying,” I assured him. Those were old tears anyway.

I resumed the climb and a relatively short while later made the top of the real pass where a restaurant and bar, scenic overlook, and garbage dump awaited my senses. I stopped in this nether region between worlds: the hot dry cruel mountain was now all below me to the left, and to the right the towering cypresses, gurgling streams, wet foliage, and dappled meadows of the river valley.

the "real" top - complete with a buried bunker and a garbage dump

I bought and drank a Coke, and looked into the gap in the mountains that would take me down towards Vlora, its beaches and hotels and, at the end, a great friend and as much fresh seafood and pizza as I could possibly eat. Several of our protective Albanian friends had suggested that this ride was impossible and I had scoffed at their disbelief – it was only 130 kilometers (and, I still had 50 kilometers yet to go) but times and distances are different in Albania – this time they were almost right. I had climbed 8300 feet today, burning 6300 calories.

I turned my back and prepared to depart the source of my suffering – the hot stone cliff cut with the switchbacks of my pain. The sweet brown fizz of the Coke having tackled, for the moment, the residual taste of Paçe, I again mounted my bike and began to coast downhill, then quickly gained speed as the descent began in earnest.

In the 2000’s Albania has moved into fast forward – copying western fashion in dress (if not in behavior), music, and a desire for coolness demonstrated that even in one of the poorest countries in Europe, Mercedes are the choice of vehicle by 80% of the population. Some suggest these are stolen vehicles brought over in the black market - but regardless, more than every other car is a Mercedes.

Everywhere there is construction and the associated destruction. Roads that were once donkey trails now find themselves hosting these Mercedes racing each other four abreast while the drivers smile at the sheer joy of driving. Everything is new territory, and expertise in basic infrastructure, sustainable development, safety practices and zoning laws are completely missing. The country is speeding to catch up and at the same time putting its environment and culture at risk. Still, it is a heady energy this new freedom, and behind it all the ever brightening color of hope.

The high speed route down to Vlora

The route forward for me was lost in the shadows of the trees and the roads were damp and slick and there were no guardrails – I had to ride the brakes to maintain some semblance of control. I had no fear though – instead a real, sustained and tangible flush of joy thrilled through me and I noticed everything – the smell of the jasmine when passing a garden trellis, the aqua water and taupe limestone of a crystal clear mountain stream, the braying of a donkey stamping his feet as he prepared for another trip. In the distance a shirtless man cleared a field of fragrant hay against a backdrop of the gigantic mountain I had just climbed using only a scythe. I slowed to watch his strokes and found in his rhythm an echo of my climb up the mountain.

Clearing a field - the hard way

Clearing a field the hard way - 2

The wondrous scale and golden colors of the evening found me yet again feeling different. With the final release of the compression came a new expansion – I felt open, observant, ready for what, I didn’t know.

Eventually I broke free of the forest entirely and the road leveled off and I began re-entering civilization, coming upon the first of several unmarked intersections – the first choice of road I had had since leaving Saranda 7 hours previously. I had flown down the mountain on eagles wings, red blood re-circulating, taking more risks than I should have, passing several cars that, upon glancing back, were still well out of sight. It wasn’t courage and it wasn’t flight though it had elements of both. To my right was the most beautiful sea I had ever seen - it was though you could see right through it all the way to far side...

Mostly it was a rush to an imagined future: a destination of promise, of beauty, of hope like an amber jewel hanging over an emerald sea.

Arrival in Vlore - the emerald sea

As I entered yet another unmarked intersection full of the rubble of construction, I didn’t really know the way but I was too exhausted to slow down – I just picked a road that that seemed to be in the right direction and followed it at high speed, smiling.

Epilogue:

After a maniacal drive back to Tirana on the fourth day I found myself sitting across a large wooden table from Stavri Bello, the secretary general of the Albanian Olympic Committee, who, at 58 exuded the happy boyish energy of a 20 year old. “Forty years I spend under the old regime – can you believe it – at age 14 I see my very first TV – black and white only – now my son has a color TV in his room.”

Stavri Bello - General Secretary of the Albanian Olympic Committee

“At age 40,” he continued, “I learn to drive for first time!” His smile was infectious, “even if 24 hours a day I cannot develop this skill at driving, so for me it is very nervous.

Albania's first winter Olympic Athlete - a delegation of one (1) in Torino

During our visit, Stavri had showed me the 2008 budget for the Albanian Olympic committee. Funded mostly by the International Olympic Committee, the budget included 21 projects, 6 full time staff, the rent and overhead for the office, also coaches, equipment, and travel. “2008 was an Olympic year – 20% more than normal” Stavri grinned happily.

Albanian Olympic Committee headquarters

The total budget for 2008?

38 million Leke – approximately $380,000 US dollars.

Picture 316 (Medium)

Our hour was up and we began to make our goodbyes – “Falamendert – Mira Popfsh – Mira Popsch.”

His mood suddenly darkened, “Why is it not more time – to prepare – to talk – where do you go? Where do you stay? Where do you eat? We should be having dinner and talking much more – learn about each other…” His protective hospitality was coming out but he suddenly relaxed when we indicated we would return next year. He shook his head with the negative – no wait – in the positive. “Next year I show you Tirana and make you my guest."

I shook my head left to right.

"Po, po.”

Yes, yes…

The Bay of Vlora

Tour of Albania #6: Switchback Four - Yo and Po

 
"At villages in the north, the following exchange was customary:"
 
Peasant: "Welcome to our home and share with us what God has willed us"
C: "God help you, and as they say, may your chimney be higher"
P: "Have you been able?"
C: "Little by slowly"
 
Switchback 4: Yo and Po

A green wave of nausea washed through my system and my stomach started to rumble like a clothes dryer containing a single wet towel. All desire and energy was draining away -  I just wanted to stop and lie down – but the mountain loomed relentlessly - filling my view with its brooding presence.

I had finished the third death march into the sky and made the next arbitrary 180 degree-degree cut into the mountain. I was out of water, so I moved over into the mottled shade of the left lane which was both cooling, yet somehow depressing. I missed the view. 

preparing for switchback 4

into the shade...

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Usually, when one travels to a foreign country, there are found in those first moments and hours a kind of dissonance that creates a subtle sort of fear – odd smells, different light,  harsh or melancholy sounds, guttural or sibilant languages and impenetrable menus. Inevitably though, there is a natural dampening of the emotional pendulum as the culture shock and associated foreboding is calmed, slowly and simply, by simple human touches that need no translation – the smile from a waiter, a wave from a child, or, sitting on a terrace for coffee in the morning, watching a strangely dressed man unfold an untranslatable foreign newspaper, using a set of common gestures and movements exactly identical from Morocco to Memphis.

Eventually the contrasts and dissonance resolve themselves into a slightly extended palette of the human condition – a smile is a smile after all – and we smugly consider ourselves wiser and even more ‘well traveled.’Not so in Albania – in fact the original ‘travelers dissonance’ I experienced driving into Tirana that first day only continued to increase. The inhuman elements continued to play havoc with my emotions – the burning garbage, communist memorials, dead animals, and sheep’s brain playing their notes, but the human dramas playing out were also a bit too loud, too garish to soften the contrasts. Like a child on a swing, I was being pushed and pulled, light and dark, life and death, left and right, switchback after switchback. Significant amongst these cultural contributors were the confusing non-verbal cues inherent to Albanians and their language.

------------

On the third day, while still in Korça, Kirk and I made our breakthrough appearance on Albanian TV for an interview with a local broadcasting personality. What might have been an easy Q&A exercise quickly became logistically complicated because our host did not speak English and we did not have a translator.

 ready for the big show            Kirk looking dapper in his 4th day in those clothes

 

Ready for the world's most confusing interview...

  That didn’t stop the interview - the tricky part was to coordinate a series of pre-set questions that the host would ask in Albanian (that we would not understand) that we would answer in English (that she would not understand) with the idea that it all would eventually be translated into subtitles for the broadcast (so that everyone could understand.) The risk was that we might answer the wrong question, or as it actually transpired, that our host wouldn’t necessarily know when we were done answering her questions. During the 20 minute “interview” Kirk and I both found repeatedly that our host prematurely transitioned to the next question  – even as we were in the middle of the previous answer. It was done with complete confidence… as if something about our body language had signaled that we had completed our thoughts..

As it turns out – that is most likely exactly what had happened – unknowingly Kirk and I were probably signaling that we were concluding even as we were really intending to make another point. Even Albanian body language requires a translator: to illustrate let me provide an example:

If, after nearly retching on that Friday morning after my first bite of sheep’s brain, an Albanian had asked me if I liked the horrible Paçe I had just swallowed, the correct answer would have been for me to gently nod my head up and down and say “Yo.”

And, of course, in the usual riddle of all things Albanian, that gentle nodding “Yo” actually translates exactly to an emphatic “No.” (To say yes, you shake your head side to side and say, “Po”…) Try this – it is nearly impossible to do on purpose…

The confusion of language aside, it is actually a rarity to hear these words: Albanians, as a rule, prefer not to give yes or no answers and in fact they prefer not to answer certain questions at all. Gregarious to a fault with regards to hospitality and being welcoming to strangers and asking kind questions, any turn of the conversation toward the personal becomes an elegant orchestration and demonstration of the latin “non sequitur”.

Question: “Hello – A flisni Anglasht?” (Do you speak English?) Said to a man on the street in Erseka.

Answer: (He shakes his head like he’s saying no) “Po.” (he translates) “Yes!”

Question: “Yes? Great, say, I’m trying to find a certain restaurant…its called…”

Answer: “Where are you from? What brings you to Albania? What do you like here? What don’t you like about Albania? Why don’t you just follow me? – I’ll show you a great restaurant – everything you want. Please, you must take care of the roads – Albania roads very bad. Make sure you watch out for the bridge – is very narrow. What do you like to eat? I make sure you have a great meal.”

An hour later, after finishing our repast, our new “host” is still there, talking with the restaurant owner with all heads occasionally turning our way. They are talking about us. He returns and we ask another question:

Question: “So, thanks for taking us to this restaurant and making sure we and ordered the right things and liked the food.” (And watching us eat). “Where do you live? Here in Erseka?”

Answer: “Albania city not like USA no? I have cousin who live there – in New York – you know it?”

Non sequiturs tend to follow any personal inquiry – no matter the format - email, phone, or in person and it can be infuriating. (Nensi was the rare exception to this rule.) There are two variations: the first is to answer a different question than asked, the second and frankly the more infuriating is the tendency to skip the question entirely (this takes place in email as the default – in order to do research to complete these posts, I had to start numbering my questions in email and to specifically request that my correspondents actually answer the numbered questions.)

It is easy to assume this is another outcome of the communist era, the secret police and sigurami (informers) creating the need to dance around all things personal. However the voice of an analytical co-worker (Torg) suddenly speaks in my head, reminding me not to confuse correlation with causality – it is quite possible that some or many of these cultural phenomenon pre-existed before communism, providing fertile ground for that choking transplant to take root.

After the TV interview, on the 3rd day of my five day cycling trip to Albania, I finally mounted my bike for a real ride – 60K uphill to Erseka – through the mountain valley and up into the highlands. Kirk followed me out of town in the car and then sped on ahead.

traffic

For the next 3 hours I was in cycling fantasy land – untrammeled roads, snow capped mountain backdrops, twisty climbs and speedy downhills, peasants, donkeys and fields plowed by horses or mules and harvested by hand with scythes. I worked hard on the climbs and raced down the downhills, taking pictures as I went. Near the top of the climb out of the valley I watched a man traveling a trail with snow covered mountains in the distance, his horse laden with his belongings – no different than 500, 1000, 2000 years ago. I felt incredibly lucky to be able to see into the past like this and wondered how quickly this would all change.

traveling - the old way...

 

Joy on a bike

Eventually I made it into Erseka and met Kirk for the “hosted” lunch referenced above. We then piled into the car for a 4 ½ hour drive to Saranda via Permeti and Tepalane – forested mountain slopes, dramatic snow covered mountain passes, and light blue rivers. It was stunning scenery and worth much more time – but we did not want to be on the roads after dark (so we were told), so we sped ahead. There was no traffic, and really, no other roads to get lost on except one turn in Leskoviku, so it seems we could have driven this in the dark. Still, we were glad to pull into the brightly lit crescent of the Albanian vacation resort of Saranda just after sunset, the sky still glowing over the azure waters of the bay.

 

bunker and poppies

Shepherd

And always, bunkers...

CRW_0350 (Medium)

Our newest "hosts".

He ran us almost 1km back to our turn - a young "host"

Man in Permeti

taxi and dry cleaners...

fellow traveler

clear streams

the hardest workers...

Mountain gas station

 

light blue mountain streams

rope bridge

stylish in all settings...

before the semi truck...

working...

--------------

Switchback four continued its steep incline and the shade was not helping much so I moved back out into my lane by the crest of the road, the entire world now below me. Dangling 2500 vertical feet straight up over the sea, I could see the variegated edges of the coastline increasing in intricacy and reducing in amplitude the farther I looked, the glowing white beaches and emerald waters of the Ionian sea stretching all the way back to Saranda. The colors were so brilliant it looked fake - like those contours drawn and colored on a map. I was hurting, I was suffering, I was in love with the light and the air and the heights.

the coastline and switchbacks 1 and 2

The light was entering that magical prismatic angle into the sea where it was bending and then returning up into my own blue-green irises with a deeper richer color, stirring those first feelings of joy as I neared the top. I knew now I that I would make it. The light was so pretty and bright it hurt, but I still took off my glasses on intervals to take it all in.

the zoom from above...

I began to feel like I had earned it – this view, this feeling, and the coming dinner conjured from the sea when I could finally coast into Vlore. Still, the nausea was still there, and something small and still spoke its concern to me as I focused on finishing this 4th switchback.

Switchbacks 1, 2 & 3 - higher and higher...

2009 Race Reports 1 - 4, and 2009 Race schedule:

So I've been slacking in many ways - I've now raced 4 times (sort of) and haven't posted a thing.. I haven't finished my tour of Albania from nearly 6 weeks ago, and I haven't figured out what races I'm doing this year... Work has been quite busy.. 2009 Race Report #1: ABR National Master's Championships, Winfield, IL - June 7, 2009

This has to be the most uneventful race of the last few years for me. I planned ahead to do the race, knew my way to the course, got there on time, had money and my license, warmed up properly, made the start line on time, moved through the pack on the final lap, came out of the final corner in decent position and then ended up 3rd in the field sprint, 7th in the race (4 guys off in breaks) and 4th in the Men's 40 master's nationals. Afterward I was changing and missed the podium call, but the real highlight of the race was spending the post-race vibe hanging with fellow Wolverines Maia, Brent, Cruise, and Luke at a local restaurant.

2009 Race Report #2: Sherman Park Criterium - Pro 1/2, Chicago, IL - June 13, 2009

Thwarted twice! Last year I experienced the reverse breakaway where the Triple XXX team practically pushed the field backward from a large breakaway - now this year I missed the start altogether. I had printed out the flyer for this event about a month before and lo and behold, they had changed the time - earlier by 30 minutes. Underestimating Chicago traffic as usual, I arrived after fighting traffic for over 2 hours with only 30 minutes to spare and was devastated to discover that the race just heading from the start line as I stood at registration was MY race. The guy working the registration, when I showed him my flyer with the incorrect time said, "so sorry man - not sure what happened.... Why don't you just jump in on the backside and at least get some laps in..."

So I did - I got my skinsuit on and kept on my number from Winfield and jumped in 10 minutes later on the backside and rode the remaining 70 minutes of the Pro 1/2 race with the medium sized field.  I felt really good but knew I couldn't do anything or sprint for the finish, so as a gesture of defiance, I led out a friend on the backside of the last lap gaining 100m on the field and setting him up for an easy field sprint win - it felt good and I felt good. I skidded to a stop and rode over the grass to my car before the race was over and headed home.

2009 Race Report #3: Tour of America's Dairyland Stage 8: Sheboygan Pro-Am - June 25th

The Sheboygan course looked like candy for my sprinter's sweet tooth, but I had meetings until 5pm on Thursday - or so I thought. Mid-day I realized we would be wrapping up early, and that, if I was out of the office by 2:30, I just might make the start of the big Pro race up in Sheboygan as part of the new "Tour of America's Dairyland" series put on by Tom Schuler and Bill Ochowicz. I sped up 294 and realized a couple things enroute: 1) I didn't have my helmet - I had only planned to ride at Bussy woods, not race, and 2) 294 traffic is horrible right now due to construction.

It took me 3 hours and 15 minutes to make it to the course and I changed in the car enroute. I assembled my bike and sped to registration even as they were doing the pre-race announcements. The reg ladies were awesome and let me just leave my credit card and license to finish up later, and they gave me a number. I stripped off my shirt right there on the sidewalk and put on my number, and then sped around the barriers as they were about to start, casting about for a familiar face. Aha! Mike Beuchel and Kent Savit - I borrowed Mike's sweaty helmet and rode to the line just as they were about to start. I had time to text Jay Moncel and Kelly Patterson that I was lined up next to "tool #1" with his short shorts (an IS guy we like to laugh about) and then we headed off.

The race was fast - we averaged 28.7mph - but my kind of course - I only had to pedal in 10 second spurts, so I never really suffered too much. The last few laps saw leadout men take the helm and it strung out and the draft was hard to find as we screamed around the course at 35, 36, 38mph down the backstretch. I was sitting 15th into the last two corners - the heart of the a!*hole zone but I was unable to get far enough up due to the pace and sure enough, there was a crash in the last corner. I breaked hard and dodged bodies and bikes and gave my remaining effort into resuming speed. I maintained position into the finish line crossing 18th - in the money. I was pretty happy actually considering...

2009 Race Report #4: Tour of America's Dairyland Stage 10 - Downer Avenue, Milwaukee - Masters

I knew I was not ready for the Pro Peleton at Downer Avenue - actually I'm quite sure I'll never race pro there again - the course just does not favor my limited abilities - you have to pedal for more than 10 seconds in a row for god's sake! So I decided to join my cronies in the master's event - including Joe Holmes - friend from Toledo since 1983, Aaron Frahm - fellow Morocco world championships teammate from 1986, veterans Mike Beuchel and Kent Savit, and fellow "Slurpee" - i.e. 7-11 team member Jeff Bradley on the line for the 70 minute event.

Either the pace was not so high, or I'm in better shape that I've been for a while, but I didn't hurt too bad (my cyclometer got bounced around too much and refused to read speed/distance) and found myself a contender for the sprint. I moved up just right and came around the final corner 4th and finished... 4th. Too long a sprint with a slight incline - not the best sort of finish for me. Beuchel was 5th, Frahm was 6th, and Jeff Bradley was 7th, so I was in front of good company... Feeling good about the coming season..

Speaking of which, here's a tentative schedule:

  1. June 7 (complete) ABR National Criterium Championships, Masters: Winfield, IL - 4th place
  2. June 13 (complete) Sherman Park Criterium,  Pro 1/2: Chicago, IL  - missed the start, raced for training and pulled out on the last lap to avoid trouble
  3. June 25 (complete) Tour of America's Dairyland - Pro 1/2: Sheboygan - 18th place
  4. June 27 (complete) Tour of America's Dairyland - Masters: Downer Avenue, Milwaukee - 4th place
  5. July 5, ABR Illinois State Criterium Championships, Wood Dale, IL: Masters 12:30pm, Pro 1/2 3:30pm - 2nd place
  6. July 11, Superweek, Blue Island Pro-am: Pro 1/2 - 5:45pm - 100km - dnf
  7. July 12, Superweek, Elgin Cycling Classic, Elgin, Il: Masters 9:45am - 40 miles - 4th place
  8. July 14, Superweek, Arlington Heights, IL: Masters 12:50pm - 35 miles - 7th place
  9. July 15, Superweek, Bensenville, IL: Masters 12:00pm - 30miles - 9th place
  10. July 19, Superweek, Evanston Grand Prix, IL: Pro 1/2 5:30pm - 100km
  11. July 23, Superweek, Racine: Masters - 12:35pm - 35 miles
  12. July 24, Superweek, Kenosha Pro-Am: Pro 1/2 - 5:30pm - 100km
  13. July 26, Chicago Criterium - Grant Park - Masters 12:05pm, Pro-Am, 2:15pm
  14. August 1, Elk Grove Criterium #1 - Cat 1/2: 1:45pm, 70k
  15. August 2, Elk Grove Criterium #2 - Masters 10:30am
  16. August 8, Grand Rapids Cycling Classic - Masters and Pro 1/2  (tbd)
  17. August 15, Downers Grove Nationals: Masters 4:10pm, Cat 1/2 7:10pm
  18. August 16, Downers Grove Nationals: Cat 2, 10:00am
  19. August 30, Windsor, Canada: Tour de Villa Italia Pro Am, 5:00pm 100km

Tour of Albania #5: Switchback Three - Hospitality

 

 

 

Switchback 3: Hospitality

 

As I turned onto the third switchback, the road steepened and a treacly bead of sweat navigated down my right shin clearing a shiny path through the dust of the road. Glowing like an ember, a giant ant suddenly moved into focus on the pavement in front of me. It stopped, then reversed directions as my shadow loomed. I wasn’t traveling much faster than it – 4.8 miles per hour to be exact - so I could follow its curious movements closely. In particular I noticed that it was delicately transporting another ant balanced on its back. The clock ticked, and I completed the 180 degree turn onto the third switchback and saw the first bits of shade cast by the rocky cliff.

switchback 3 - into the mountains switchback 3 - into the mountains

--------------------

Kirk, a friend since grade school and one of the worlds truly unflappable people is the director of a library in downriver Detroit that serves the second largest Albanian population in the U.S. Kirk first visited Albania a year ago and on that trip his entire itinerary was planned out for him: he was scheduled, driven, and accompanied by the ever-hospitable friends and families of his library constituents for the duration of his trip. Day and night they provided company and made sure he was safe. He was returning again on library business, this time on “short notice (6 weeks). I, however, came to Albania to ride my bike and this time I had planned our whole trip - a fact that Kirk’s Albanian friends found disconcerting.

When I arrived in Korca at 5:30pm the next day I was very happy to see Kirk, wearing… (wait for it…) black pants, a white dress shirt, and a gray sport coat – still presentable despite its 3rd full day of use.

As I changed into my cycling clothes, Kirk let me know that Nensi, his friend and contact in Korca, had a meeting planned for me with the head of the Korca cycling team at 6pm.

“Can’t do it Kirk, I HAVE to ride – the sun’s already going down – I’ll be lucky to make it back before dark as it is…”

“Let me talk to Nensi – maybe you and Festim can meet tomorrow,” Kirk said and went down to the lobby where Nensi was waiting to take me to my appointment.

When I arrived in the lobby, dressed to ride, I was introduced to Nensi – a tall, strong, handsome woman in her early 40’s who was famous in Korca as the leader of the Albanian national volleyball team for many years, as well as being an active social presence.

Kirk informed me of the decision that had been made, “Uh… Festim is going to join you on your ride and can show you where to go.”

“I know where to go Kirk – I’m going to Voskopoja – when will he be here?” I looked at my cyclometer for the time feeling the sun sink lower with each tick of the digital numerals.

Nensi spoke up, “You can’t go to Voskopoja – Festim can show you where to ride.”

“Why not?” I was starting to get frustrated.

“Festim will show you – that road is not good – too rough.

“Well, I’m going to ride to Voskopoja.” I said, thinking it was settled.

“Festim will not allow you go to Voskopoja, perhaps you can go to Dardha if that road is OK – Festim will guide you.” She was matter of fact as though the situation was entirely out of my hands. There was no anger, malice, frustration – in fact it was exactly like a chess master explaining the movement of the Rook to a novice. “No, you can’t go diagonally…” She was kind, patient, with only the tiniest hint of being patronizing.

I turned to Kirk and lowered my voice, “10 minutes Kirk – if he’s not here by 6pm, I’m leaving… and, either way, I’m going to Voskopoja.”

“John… Uh, I think that would be really rude – Nensi really has done a lot for us – just wait OK?”

Nensi called Festim again. 6pm came and went. Then 6:15, then 6:30. I sat and stewed, and then said to both Kirk and Nensi, firmly, “If he’s not here in 5 minutes, I’m leaving

Silence.

We walked out down the street toward Festim’s house. 6:45pm – 90 minutes until dark, on my second of two days out of 5 in Albania to ride my bike and I’m not riding because…. Why exactly?!!? Each step was adding to my frustration as Nensi continued talking on the phone.

Suddenly, finally, Festim materialized out of the front of his house 30 feet in front of us, with his bike… then another bike, then a bike pump, and then a young girl who looked 15 wearing a bright green sweatsuit.

Picture 042 (Medium)

I groaned outwardly, and in my mind I shrieked, “No! no! no!” – I can’t go ride with this child!” Meanwhile Festim unhurriedly began to pump up all four tires…

It was 7pm on the second of a five day cycling trip to Albania before I completed my first kilometer on the bike – at the incredibly painful velocity of 9mph. Festim and Flavia chatted and seemed little interested in me and I started to realize that they were probably doing Nensi a favor. Their job was to escort me safely on a ride. My god…

Flavia and Festim outside Korca

Eventually Flavia dropped back and spoke to me in halting English. I was amazed to discover that despite her youthful looks she was 23. She was quite nice and did some brief translations with Festim. I told him my intention was to go to Dardha as there was not enough time to go to Voskopoja. Flavia paused, spoke to Festim, and then informed me, “we will not go to Voskopoja.” (Err!!!!)  I reiterated that I wanted now to go Dardha.

“Yes, we will go straight to Dardha,” she agreed, letting this pawn make its one move forward.

on the way back to Korca

Having Google-Earthed every bit of every ride, I knew exactly where to go and I moved to the front and picked up the pace to what I thought would be at least manageable by Flavia – 15mph. She hung in there and so we made it to Bobostice and the foot of the climb to Dardha. I turned back to them and said, “I go now,” not waiting for a response, and I started hammering the hill which very quickly became very steep. I climbed 2300 feet in the next hour, happily crushing the pedals, passing bunkers and mountain streams and donkeys and riders, but no cars. I was nearing the top when the road became very steep, and very dirt. At the 15% grade, I couldn’t get out of the seat without slipping my rear tire, and after a couple of futile starts and stops, I looked back to notice that the sun had already set, so I gave up on seeing the mountain hamlet my guidebook named, “the prettiest village in all of Albania,” and turned around, frustrated.

Bobostice village

As I sped downhill I had to ride the brakes hard as there was loose gravel on the corners. My mind considered the possibility of whether Festim and Flavia might actually still be struggling up this enormous and steep climb in the half dark and that’s when I first saw him. Impressively Festim was only half mile down from where I had stopped. We coasted down together, and a couple of miles later, about halfway up the climb, determinedly making switchbacks within the switchbacks was Flavia. You had to admire her grit. I smiled and gave in and surrendered to their role as hosts, only briefly streaking out ahead on a long straight downhill section.

Flavia still climbing

We rode slowly back to town in the near dark where there was a hard handoff back to Nensi who was waiting for us.

Flavia and Festim - my guides

I went and changed (Kirk wore… black slacks, a white shirt, and gray sports coat…) and then Nensi escorted us to dinner, helped us order (Qofte, kernac, and Korça cannelloni) and made sure everything was in order before leaving us to our own devices, (though under the watchful eye of her personal friend the chef – after all we were the only people in the whole restaurant.) Before she left, she provided instructions on how to return safely to our hotel, and where and when we should meet her in the morning for our appearance on the local TV talk show.

Kirk and Nensi at Taverna Qilarni

In Albania, hospitality to guests and strangers is their most sacred responsibility – their value of highest order. If push comes to shove, an Albanian will choose to serve, sacrifice or support a guest rather than their own children – no one is more important. This “closing of the ranks” around a guest has been native to the culture for hundreds of years, and is a feature that figures prominently in the blood feuds of the Northern highlands, where a murder for murder policy was the reality for five hundred years before communism, and where avenging the murder of a guest was the greatest mandate in their “Kanun” or code of rules. (See the acclaimed novel, “Broken April” by Albania’s greatest author, Kadare – a great read.)

Picture 072 (Medium)

The concept of hospitality takes on a whole new meaning in Shqiparese (the word Albanians use for their language). “Caretaking” might be one way of describing it. “Guarding” or “protecting” also come to mind. “Controlling” is not a distant cousin…

Dangerously unsupervised... oh wait, who is taking the picture?

To an American, used to independent thought and action, Albanian hospitality is exactly like a friendly kidnapping. Gone is the work required for decision making, paying for things or, heaven forbid, the terrible labor of ‘being alone.’ With Albanian hospitality these worries become distant memories. The situation with Festim made me crazy, but so did the prior evening out with Ada and her friends. The total bill for the evening came to 400 Leke or $40 (food and drink for 6 people) and I quickly got out a 500 Leke bill to cover it. To me, very inexpensive – but to these younger people in a different economy, a significant expense. But NO! They resolutely refused to let me spend a single Leke and I felt like an idiot for having ordered additional food we didn’t eat and another carafe of wine when it was now coming at someone else’s expense.

I don’t know if it was because she discovered I escaped the hotel after she put me in for the evening, or because we switched to another hotel for our return visit (in order to not get locked in), but when we returned to Tirana on our last day, Ada’s reception of Kirk and I was extremely cool and distant – she had apparently abandoned her post as host.

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I was near the next fourth switchback when I saw another giant luminescent ant. As it turns out, it too was carrying another ant on its back. However, this time I noticed a feature I had missed last time – these large ants, like scorpions, had curved tails. Right above the body of its hostage was stinger poised for action.

The turn to switchback 4

Tour of Albania #4: Switchback 2 - worker's paradise

Switchback Two: worker’s paradise

 With no more identification than the motion of my hand, the driver began to unload dozens of pieces of luggage right there in the street, ignoring the traffic and the curious onlookers.

In a stroke of genius, the night before I asked Ada to tell Lufthansa to deliver my bike and luggage to the address of “New York University” – the school with a big sign right next to my mystery hotel. That way I ensured the driver didn’t end up driving around looking for my hotel only to learn that “no such place exists.”

The dispatcher told Ada that the driver would meet me there between 9am and at 9:15, and it was about 9:30am when he finally puttered up the narrow lane choked with its usual line of cars. The sun was bright and the Lufthansa van had slowed in front of New York University, the driver’s head swiveling, eyes squinting as he laid into the horn. I had stepped out into the street with a wave, upon which he promptly slammed the van into park with a jerk and popped out to begin the unloading.

The cavernous interior was heaped to the ceiling with luggage which he proceeded to empty and stack right onto the pavement behind the van, just inches from the bumper of the first waiting car. The volume and urgency of the horns increased and the line of cars now wended out of sight, but he merely looked up with a glare and continued, unhurried – stacking suitcases, bags, and rollaways into the street until the profile of my giant plastic bike box emerged from the very bottom of the pile.

It was interesting paradox to consider that even as he broke the laws of public authority, he also followed strict instructions to deliver all these late items as quickly as possible…

-----

Switchback two up the Llogara pass was slightly less steep and a bit of a reprieve. I toiled in a decent rhythm in the outer lane keeping my heart rate just below my maximum and occasionally having the presence of mind to marvel at the beauty unfolding beneath me - views all the way back to Saranda and the Greek coastline in the distance. Mostly though, I focused on the work of turning the pedals with the glimmer of hope of the long cool drop down the other side and a big meal as the final reward.

Switchback 2

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After retrieving my bike and rollaway from the street, I pulled out my claim ticket which the driver eyed disinterestedly – so I pointed to the third barcode on the paper – the one for Kirk’s bag. After a cursory look, he shrugged, and then said, “No.” Later I realized it was the first and only word spoken between us.

Damn. Now I had to wait for the next flight for Kirk’s bag… My day was getting longer, my trip was getting shorter…

I assembled my bike in the courtyard of Hotel H 1996/Bar Cофия and then white-knuckled it to the Tirana airport – 15 miles and an hour’s drive away. The noon flight was late, and finally, at 1:00 it was confirmed that Kirk’s bag still had not arrived, so I gave delivery instructions (yeah right) and sped back into and through Tirana and began the 100 mile, 4 hour drive to Korca where I hoped to arrive in time to get in a decent long ride up to the mountain town of Voskopoja, its Byzantine churches, and its odd enclave of an ancient and dwindling race of people – the Vlachs – that had settled there and still maintained their own language and religious practices. It said in the guidebooks that the churches with their ancient frescoes would be locked, but that I could ask any villager to open them – they all had a key.

My bike - finally arrived

Just a few miles out of Tirana on the drive to Korca the road began to climb in twisting switchbacks up several thousand feet, where it followed a knifelike ridge with precipitous drops on either side for nearly 20 miles. Tiny terraced farming plots, the occasional donkey and cart, and dozens of small vendor stands selling homemade olive oil, fresh produce, and cherries dotted the side of the road. The people were inevitably thin, with leathery skin and dark clothes. I slowed for some small boys holding out huge bags of freshly picked cherries. I paid the $3 for the 5lb bag of shiny red fruit and happily ate and drove, windows down, looking at the grand scenery falling away on both sides. 

selling cherries

When Diana Gelci – a Detroit based Albanian expatriate who had planned Kirk’s last trip saw that we had planned our own agenda to travel through Albania she was a strange combination of astonished, proud, horrified, and amused at our aggressive itinerary:

“Kirk,

“Two things for you to know:

“1. "Rigid" schedules never work in countries like Albania, where cultures are polichronic, which, in Anthropology is the opposite of strict schedules:-) So, yeah, plan big to be flexible.

“2. Your schedule has a major issue: travel timing! The activities you want to have, and places you want to go in five days seem way too much. For example, you can't spend 2/3 of a day in Korca and then head for Saranda, lol. This would be amazing. I mean you can but you, at the best scenario, should plan being to Saranda the next day or so. Or, you say that you will be in Korca at 4:00 pm of the day of your arrival. I am thinking that if you are in Korca at 8:00 pm of that day, it would be heroic:-)

“3. Avoid being in road after 7:00 pm. Remember, there are no signs showing directions so you probably will be constantly stopping and asking people around you.

“4. You, however, have the American spirit with you so everything should be fine:-)

“PS: Kirk, I have to remind you that there is election time in Albania and in situations like that you don't want to affiliate yourself with any name, period. Last time you were there with our friends and under their protection and this made a huge difference. Now things will, as you will realize, be totally different.”

It was the PS that gave me some reservations before the trip – did we need “protection?” and from whom? (For the record, we did complete the whole trip in 4 days vs. 5 and I made it from downtown Tirana to Korca in 3 ½ hours – a half hour faster than the original intinerary and 4 ½ hours faster than “heroic” speed : ))

shepherd

There are many dangers in Albania today – but they are relatively mundane in nature compared to the horrors of history - the primary risk being on the roads. Albania has the highest traffic fatality rates in all of Europe by a large margin. Beneath the surface though, like many unsettling facts about Albania, the high death rate has much to do with the former the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Hoxha had banned private ownership of cars in the country, and as late as 1992, there were only 200 cars in the whole country - population 3.6 million. Imagine that – in Tirana – a city with 1.5 million people there were only 55 cars in 1992. Now there are nearly 1.5 million cars on the “roads” of Albania.

“Hoxha,” Stavri was saying, “…Only wants us to win – not like the Olympic motto to compete – so games were only those where Albania could win – mostly we just did not compete at all.”  Stavri Bello, the General Secretary of the Albanian Olympic Committee, and former national team basketball player, was explaining to me why Albania had only attended a couple of Olympics during the Hoxha years. To add emphasis, he then used his hands to describe how this related to Albanian drivers.

Stavri Bello - Albanian Olympic Committee

“You see, when coming first is the only option, it becomes difficult for Albanians to consider coming second. There is an old joke that if you tell 10 Albanians to line up, 1 through 10 (here he moved his hands to draw a straight, vertical line) that instead you will get 10 number 1’s (here he draws a sideways, horizontal line.”

“You see this on our roads – everyone trying to “win the race” and lining up 2, 3, 4 across to pass on a 2 lane road!” I laughed and told him I had experienced this phenomenon over and over again – a 3 or even 4 across passing game. 

When you add the curious competitive streak found in the homogenous ethnic majority (95%) Albanians and the nearly 2 million new drivers fresh out of drivers ed., poor road surfaces, and unmarked intersections, you get a lethal combination. Fortunately, I planned to travel by bike only on lesser roads outside the major cities where cars were still outnumbered by donkeys and carts.

Rural traffic Rural traffic

After Hoxha ceased relations with the Soviet Union in the early 60’s, he created strong ties with China and for a decade, it was Chinese funds, raw materials, technology and factories that propped up the country’s finances and workforce. The cruel and paranoid bureaucrat Hoxha (pronounced “Ho-tcha”) used Chinese technology and Soviet communist aesthetics to create the metallurgical complex at the foot of the mountains between Elbesani and Tirana that is breathtaking in its ugliness.

As I began the drop down from the ridge toward Elbasani, there was a moment of stunning beauty as I could see the elegant curves of the road snaking through olive groves and sheep pastures, and then, in the next instant, the bleak factories of the “Steel of the Party” complex swung into view sucking the sunlight right out of the air as a cold lump grew in the pit of my stomach.

The drop to Elbasani

I felt nearly exactly as I had a decade earlier when first entering the gates of Auschwitz – it was just so foreign and bleak and cold and cruel. Sure, these workers were not tortured and starved like those in the concentration camps, however they also had no hope for freedom or emancipation. I wondered what was worse – brutality, starvation and the glimmer of hope in the form of the end of the war, or the death of all hope in the form of perpetual government enslavement.

Chinese Factories

The rusting complex by Elbasani is mostly abandoned yet still continues smoking and leaking and represents a major environmental hazard that may never be cleaned up.

"Steel of the Party"

Without the financial and technological support of China which ended in 1978, Albania’s factories began to fail, infrastructure crumbled and more and more workers rejoined the stone age being forced to relocate to state run farming collectives where, despite the death penalty being exacted for keeping any of your own produce for personal purposes, demand continued to outstrip supply. Food shortages became more and more common even as the other iron curtain economies failed and were overturned. Eventually these and other factors (including Hoxha’s death in 1985) helped the populace step up and wrest control. The fact that all religion, and the hope that goes with it, were banned in 1967also probably helped the regime stay in place as long as it did.

Lake Ohrid

fisherman's hut

Past Elbasani I drove along the coast of Lake Ohrid for 20 stunningly beautiful miles of snow speckled stone mountains reflected in the mirror of the lake’s placid waters. There was little human development other than the requisite sprinkling of bunkers guarding the shore.

bunker by lake Ohrid

 

donkey near Pogradec

 

Pogradec

Past Pogradec I climbed back up into the mountains and finally, around 5:30pm – near the second day of my 5 day trip, I finally arrived in Korca and quickly prepared for my first ride. I figured I had 3 hours before darkness…enough to make it the 25km uphill slog to Voskopoja and back, but I didn’t account for the pressures of Albanian hospitality…

Traffic in Pogradec

Tour of Albania #3: The first night, the first switchback

The problem wasn’t that I was bare assed and bleeding, the problem was that it was midnight of my first hours in Tirana, Albania and I was locked out of the fortress like gate of my hotel with no one to let me in. I had just managed to neatly tear the seat out of my pants – denim dangling like 30’s pajamas. Oh well, I didn’t have any luggage or clothes anyway…time to hit the town…

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The Llogara pass: switchback one

The second mistake I made that third day, other than eating rotted sheep’s brain for breakfast, was not refilling my water bottles at the crumbling stone village before the start of the big climb. As I approached the foot of the mountain I could clearly see the five massive switchbacks etched into the rock up to the Llogara pass. Each of these traverses were much the same in length and vertical climb (about 700 vertical feet each), but each, as it would turn out, would be different in light, climate, and landscape. The reward for the ascent would be views of the Greek island of Corfu and a hundred miles of gorgeous coastline. This was supposed to be the highlight of this long day of riding, if not the whole trip.

Llogara pass

It had been two more hours of tough climbing and high speed descents since lunch with Kirk in Hamara, and 6 hours since leaving Saranda via the valley of death. I was approaching the tiny village of Palase, exactly the spot where Julius Caesar began his march on Pompey for battle over two thousand years ago. There was no market in Palase, just one of those ubiquitous mountain springs that had been tapped near the road – crystal clear water perpetually gurgling out of rusty pipes into the dust, or on this occasion into jugs being filled by a weathered Albanian shepherd wearing dark clothes and a black beret in the heat. As I rode by I watched him hoist another plastic bottle with a faded Fanta label full of spring water into the leather saddle bags of his worn looking donkey.

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It was hot - I should have stopped and refilled – but the store was busy…

As the view opened up – I cast about, searching, I had not seen one in several minutes – but yes, there at the base of the mountain were several of them – bunkers.

Bunkers by the beach

In January of 1946, the People’s Republic of Albania proclaimed itself to the world, with Enver Hoxha as the “Supreme Comrade.” Shortly thereafter, starting in 1950 and for the 45 years through Hoxha’s death in 1985, Albania invested in a self-reliant defense policy in the form of bunkers – gray concrete and steel domes – more than 700,000 of them in total, and in the most random of places. These sturdy little mushrooms weigh in at about 10,000 lbs and pop up virtually everywhere in the country and are virtually indestructible: hence most of them remain in place despite serving no current purpose (one could argue whether they ever had a purpose other than to keep fear of the outside balanced with fear from the inside.) Far from amusing, however, was the cost – each one of these bunkers cost more to build than to feed, house, and cloth a family of four for a year.

bunker mushrooms

Originally closely allied with its iron curtain bedfellows, Albania under Hoxha gradually become more and more isolationist and insular, breaking ties with neighbor Yugoslavia in 1948, the USSR in 1961, dropping from the Warsaw pact in 1968, and then completing it secession by ending its last earthly diplomatic and financial tie – to China -  in 1978. It had already cut its spiritual ties – in 1967 – by declaring itself the world’s first atheist state and promptly either destroying or renovating all the churches and mosques: more often (and more practical) converting them to gymnasiums. From 1978 until the last gasp of communism in 1991 Albania was its own planet – no one and nothing came in, and no one and nothing went out. Factories foundered, infrastructure crumbled without supplies or spare parts, and banned prayers went unanswered as the communist system eventually ground to a halt leaving the nation underdeveloped and impoverished.

On our first day, after arriving in Tirana, I helped Kirk find a furgon (minibus) to Korça, and he made it safely there for his meetings. Meanwhile I spent a productive afternoon learning to drive “Albanian style” in Tirana during rush hour while trying to find the hotel that had been arranged for me by Kirk’s friends. I was pretty motivated since Lonely Planet’s GETTING AROUND: by Car section - in its totality - states only, “Our advice would be DON’T DO IT. Tirana’s roads, and drivers are insane.” A challenge indeed.

After 90 minutes of fruitless searching in lockstep traffic amongst unnamed streets, unmarked lanes, unworking traffic lights, and constant near accidents, I called Kirk’s friend Neraida who had made the arrangements for us.  She agreed to meet me a half our later in front the Mosque after she finished work to show me the way. Via email Neraida had provided a great deal of organized and useful information and had exuded a matronly protectiveness in her correspondence. I had assumed her affiliation with Kirk was library business, so I was somewhat shocked to discover that the woman talking to me on the cell phone as she climbed into my car in front if the Mosque in Skanderbeg square was not a frumpy 45 year old librarian, and instead was a vivacious 27 year old economist in a short dress and high heels who informed me she went by “Ada.”

The Mosque and Skanderbeg Square

After a cappuccino and some mineral water with her co-worker Ilda (also dressed to the nines) in a swank outdoor café that could have been in Milan or Lyon, Ada guided me to the hotel. As it turns out, I had been standing no more than 5 feet from this very spot just hours before, while canvassing passers-by with: “A flisni anglisht?” and if they said “Yes”, asking, “Do you know where I can find the Hotel ‘H 1996?’” showing them the same words I had written down on a card. The responses were polite and varied and usually ended with another question. For instance, “Maybe… this hotel… is near Skanderbeg Square?” or, “Did you try look by the park?” These responses, as I later learned, were the polite, Albanian, non-sequitur way of saying, “I have no idea.”

I am pretty stubborn and can usually find my way around, so I kept asking, trying to triangulate. Finally a cab driver pulled up, and when I asked him, he patched me through on his radio to the dispatcher, who spoke English. After I reiterated my appeal and spelled the name of the hotel, I finally threw in the towel when the crackling response from the radio was, “I’m sorry, there is no such place.” This, of course, despite the fact that I was standing directly in front of the hotel at the time… however, go figure - the sign that was there was in Bulgarian - and assuming anyone could actually read it, it said, “Bar Sofia.” 

Hotel H 1996 (Bar Sofia... In Russian)

Tirana has been in a construction boom for a decade now and so much is new that no one seems to know where anything is. Indeed, after the nearly two hours I spent getting lost and un-lost, I discovered later that I actually knew the city better than many of its residents. They were amazed when I seemed to know where everything was and by the fact that a foreigner had managed to get around for 2 hours all by myself. The unpleasant fact that I found the need to demonstrate this talent seemed to be considered both a slight and a challenge to most of the Albanians I met. Apparently the fact that I was wandering on my own seemed to imply that someone had dropped the ball with regards to Albanian standards of hospitality, and everyone seemed intent on ensuring this discourtesy didn’t happen again…

That evening while sampling some nice Albanian merlot over an excellent antipasto plate with Ada, her boyfriend Ari, and several of their friends, the topic of Kirk’s trip to Korca came up. “How did you manage it – getting Kirk on the right furgon (mini bus) to Korca?” someone asked.

I told them that I had read in my guidebook that furgons to Korca might be sometimes found near the stadium and that we had merely driven there, and stumbled upon one that had just left for Korca which we had flagged down. (Public transport in Albania runs on a very informal ad-hoc basis and changes constantly - there is no central bus station.)

A murmur of Albanian swept through the group - I heard the word “stadion” and could not translate much else. Ada finally concluded the discussion, “So the bus to Korca can now be found by the stadium? That’s good to know.”

We were sitting outdoor in another hip café/bar in the section of town called the Bllok or Bloku. This four square block area, now filled with upscale restaurants, clothing stores, and bars, seemed to be the only part of Tirana not undergoing major reconstruction. This, because, for nearly half a century the Bllok area was the only part of Tirana receiving maintenance and investment. For 45 years this area had been blocked off and surrounded by the armed guards who protected the homes of Enver Hoxha and the communist party. Only party members were allowed in, and the area was a great mystery to the rest of the population. Meanwhile, the rest of Tirana and Albania rusted and decayed and wholesale resettlements and arbitrary incarcerations kept the whole country in the grip of a cool gray fear.

Ari and Ada - in the Blloku

We had excellent food and even better conversation but it was a weeknight, and shortly before midnight, Ada and Ari chaperoned me back to my mystery hotel (which it turns out is co-owned by her father), while helping me call the airline to check on my bags. Good news – my bike had arrived, along with my bag and they would deliver it in the morning. Bad news – Kirk’s bag had not yet arrived and might - or might not - be on the next flight the following day at noon. After finishing the call to the airline, Ada then said, firmly, “now you must sleep – you had much travel today and a long drive tomorrow,” and left, closing the door behind her with a certain finality I found odd.

I waited for what seemed like a polite interval and then prepared to leave again to explore. Sure it was midnight in Tirana, but it was only 5pm Chicago time and it was my first night in a strange and exciting place and I had not had much chance to explore, so I grabbed my headphones and jacket and headed out, in a good mood, ready for adventure.

I walked down the flight of stairs to the café/bar and out to the front gate, which was now shrouded in darkness. There I was confounded to discover that I was locked in – the gate to the hotel courtyard had been shut and locked. There was no buzzer, and no one around - and the 10 foot metal fence around the courtyard had sharp metal spikes at the top and no good purchase for climbing. I was a prisoner in my own hotel… no one in, no one out. My mood collapsed.

Not so fast - I followed the fence around the corner and found that where the metal fence met the next building there was a cement wall, so I grabbed the iron bars and then walked myself spiderman-like up the side of the wall, and then sitting on the escarpment, swung my legs over to drop back down to the outside of the fence. What I didn’t notice were the bits of glass wedged in the concrete of the lip as a barrier, and as I slid and dropped the long way to the ground, their was a  loud tearing sound as the seat of my pants, my boxers, and bits of my skin stayed up as I went down.

“Fantastic!…” Now I was a vagrant locked out of my hotel and at risk of indecent exposure. Not to be foiled again, I removed my jacket, tied it around my waist and then, happily, headed out into the city. I wandered the bloku and the square, the park and a few alleys, listening to my Ipod, exploring.

Upon returning to the hotel, the re-scaling of the fence proved a bit more nerve racking than the escape due to the sudden appearance and loud barking of two medium sized dogs. I surveyed them from my high perch back on the concrete wall and decided I’d rather deal with them than the Albanian police, dropping quickly down next to them, arms at ready. They continued barking but did not advance, so I walked calmly back to the stairway as they followed from a distance, scaled the steps to my room, locked myself in, and then threw the remnants of my jeans in the wastebasket before finally going to sleep.

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Early on in the climb, before the switchback became ruler straight, there was slight bend by a dry stream and a rocky path up mountains. Here I happened upon another lone donkey – however this one was on its side, sprawled out and kicking limply, a desperate keening and mewling sound issuing from its foaming mouth. He had been hobbled to keep him from running off, but had somehow fallen onto the dusty gravel by the road and his feeble efforts to get up were impeded by the knotted rope around his forelock. I struggled slowly by, a sick feeling developing in my stomach. He had been left for dead… or perhaps his owner would be back in moments? Any thoughts of stopping were overwhelmed by a sudden nightmarish vision – in my mind’s eye I could see the donkey’s head shrivel, collapse and decompose, the black sockets of his dead eyes boring into my back. On sudden impulse, I accelerated.

 

switchback 1 switchback 1

The heat and mountain worked at me from the outside, and the image of donkey and the smell of death roiling in my stomach worked me from the inside. For one of the few times in my adult life I began to have that kind of fear only found in childhood and in dreams – it was pervasive and invisible. I was afraid of this hill, of this heat, of the subtle contractions in my left calf -  the first echoes of a cramp, and of the similar contractions of sheep’s brain in my abdomen. Already I was almost out of water – I could not afford to vomit.

I suffered, I climbed, and left the valley behind. As the world opened up, in a burst of inspiration, I switched lanes to the left side and into the non-existent oncoming traffic where at least I had a view of the landscape.  Twenty minutes of full-on labor later I approached the end of the first switchback and the first 180 degree turn...

the end of switchback 1 the end of switchback 1

Tour of Albania: #2 the pendulum starts...

 Friday morning I had death for breakfast.

By late morning, as I pedaled away from Saranda into a stale bright desert valley between the coast and the mountains, death began to knock.

Death, by the way, tastes exactly like it smells – a horribly cloying sweetness cloaking a wrenching pull: the body’s natural response to the smell released with decomposition is to retch. Death surrounded me and invaded me during those first few miles, pervading the simmering air from gruesome smears on the asphalt, bodies swollen lying in the road and from hidden pockets of rotten sweet air from the ditches. Highways are a new feature to this landscape and the local fauna had apparently yet to figure out the danger they represent.

Death on the road

I approached a copse of trees in a cleft before the road began to climb in earnest. I was surrounded by unharvested olive groves, tinkling bells in their shadows belying herds of sheep and their solitary shepherds. Then I passed the corpse of yet another swollen dog and a wave of nausea rippled through my body as I tasted the same on my lips. It was eerily quiet. Rounding the next bend I slowed, pulling out the camera to capture a pleasant scene of a tethered donkey standing quietly next to the road. I snapped the shutter and only then noticed the cluster of gigantic black flies bursting with blood from the suppurating wound on its hide. The red of its blood was… so real. A sudden foreboding overtook me – where was I? What if something happened? There had not been a car in the thirty minutes since I left town. I got goosebumps, but only on the left side of my body. What did that mean? Why had everything stopped making any sense? Who builds a highway without cars?

 Goosebumps on the left

The buzzing of an insect broke the silence and then stopped and in the hush I could hear every breath, every tire rotation, the crinkle of the scrap of garbage as a sudden breath of air stirred. Another carcass by the road and again that life rending smell. Involuntarily, a convulsion shuddered through my torso and an acidic bile filled my mouth. I spat it to the side and got out of the saddle. Time to do what you came for. Time to climb.

 I climbed. I really had no choice.

 I was alone.

 -----------------------

The emotional pendulum had begun its ever accelerating swings three days earlier - my overnight flight from Chicago to Munich was running late and as we circled the danger of missing my connection grew. I had to make a full-on sprint down the white marble aisles of the terminal in order to make the flight to Tirana. Happily my friend Kirk was still there at the gate waiting for me – we were the last two passengers on board. As we headed down the jetway, reality set in and I mused aloud, “there’s not a chance in hell my bike is going to make this flight.”

I sat stiffly, looking out the porthole as the clock ticked prior to takeoff. I waited and watched with dread and then with amazement as the luggage carts rolled up next to the plane with my large bike box conspicuously visible. I sank back in my seat with joy and relief and had just begun to chat with Kirk when the pilot interrupted on the loudspeaker with a thick German accent, letting us know that he was sorry to inform us that due to a four hour baggage handler’s strike commencing immediately, our bags would stay on the tarmac. F*@k!

 I walked forward to the still open cabin door, suggesting politely that I would step outside and load my bike myself, but the pilot indicated that the armed security would probably not take kindly to that – and so minutes later we taxied away without our luggage or my bike – and around came the pendulum, gaining speed…

Kirk was wearing a gray sports jacket, a white button down and black slacks. We would see a lot more of that  in the coming days as he never, ever, received his luggage. We filed our claims at the Tirana International airport and tried to determine when our luggage might come with little success. Kirk needed to head immediately to Korca for business but my primary purpose was centered around the bike, so we decided to find him a furgone (minibus driven only by individuals crazed enough to drive in Albania for a living) to Korca. The locations for the bus stops were a riddle to even locals, but we knew they were in the general vicinity of downtown Tirana, so, after picking up the rental car, we drove into the center of the most dangerous place to drive in all of Europe – maybe the world.

Tirana was, as expected somewhat bleak and gray, with square concrete half finished facades, trash, rubble and that uniquely eastern European “new but rusting” patina to the newer parts of town. Behind the depressing fog of smog and noise, though, were some hidden glimpses of the romance of a bygone era – a crumbling arch of a stone bridge, polished patterns of angled cobbles, the delicate relief of an elegant doorway arch. Tirana despite its Byzantine madness and traffic, was softened by the rich copper hammerings of its Ottoman history and re-emerging Muslim and Catholic influences. Driving in Tirana was exactly like riding a criterium bike race: so, even if I didn’t win, I placed well.

 I was in for the night, now, to find my hotel…

 5 days, for 5 switchbacks.

It was still day three – Friday – and alone I climbed out of the valley of death near Saranda, rising from sea level up to 1300 feet before I finally crested the hill for my first glimpse of the Albanian Riveria – a stunning 100 kilometer stretch of Mediterranean coastline laced by the gray filament of its one and only road, speckled with the occasional ramshackle village, and dotted - of course – with bunkers. Completely undeveloped most of the way, it existed, like much of Albania, in an eerie time warp. At the end of this roller coaster route was the goal: Llogara pass – a 3500 foot climb back out of the riveria via 5 super-steep and long switchbacks along a cliff face. I reminded myself that his was why I was here.

The road of death from Saranda

The road remained wide, freshly paved, car free and surrounded by olive groves. The only traffic was the occasional wizened old man riding sidesaddle on a tiny donkey. With no wind and no traffic, the only sound was the sound of the clopping hooves and tinkling bells of the beasts of man. It was warm – even hot – and the sun was shining: I was in heaven – except for the occasional roiling in my stomach.

Local transport, Queparo

I began the first of several major descents to a coastal beach town – white crescents of sand and stone cupping water of brilliant emerald, a color more often associated with the Aegean or Thai coasts. The uphills were steep and slow – some 12% grade or more, but I kept my average speed up by flying down the descents. I was on top of the world – this was my every dream of coming here.

The Ionian coast

Another big ascent, and then, just as I began to descend the 1000 feet I had just climbed, the road went to hell. Or, more accurately, the new pavement ended, and a destroyed form of the old concrete remained – though it had been dug up, shredded, and mashed back down as a sharp, loose cobblestone fill for the new asphalt to come. Trucks, jackhammers, men and machines were everywhere and I was forced into a pace on the downhills slightly slower than the uphills, skidding and skittering at 5-6 mph. It was mind and muscle numbing, fatiguing and hot. I grew depressed as the construction extended out in front of me – one hour, two hours… 

And then the road went to hell

My shoulders and forearms began to grow sore with the tension and the bumpy roads were playing havoc with my stomach – I was growing more and more nauseated from that breakfast, that goddamn Albanian breakfast of “Paçe,” death in a bowl.

 Paçe is the traditional morning meal of the area – it consists of a chunky soup of sheep’s brain stewed in its natural pale green juices. Offal is still common fare here – like all good peasants they use the whole animal – eyeballs occasional pop up in soups. I felt I wouldn’t be truly experiencing Albania properly if I didn’t eat as they did.

pace

The smell of the Paçe enveloped me that morning in the close air of that restaurant in Saranda and I wanted to run before I even saw it. If I had closed my eyes, I could easily have imagined a room full of rotting corpses – an unfortunate historical reality in this former communist dictatorship where just singing a song in Italian could lead to a death sentence – for you and everyone in your family. I couldn’t do it – I didn’t want to do it – but no, you must. I sat for 10 minutes deliberating as the stench continued to set off alarms evolution had designed into us millions of years ago. I shouldn’t have done it, but I convinced myself that my body’s instinctive revulsion was irrational and I took a bite taking care to get some sizeable chunks of brain.

It was a grand mistake. 

It had cooled somewhat and was now merely warm – body temperature. The pieces of green gray brain with their delicate tendrils and textures were not chewy as I imagined  – they were mushy like congealed yogurt. I chewed twice and then swallowed, feeling a rippling tightening becoming a convulsion in my abdomen and I covered my mouth to stop the retching sound from escaping. I looked around embarrassed but no one was watching. 

 Pace

I sat for a few more minutes feeling the warm mush slide into my stomach trying while to muster the courage to eat another bite while feeling like the failed tourist I was. Five minutes later and I realized I couldn’t possibly eat any more of this.

Later, as I rode and that bite of death and its billions of active bacteria worked its magic on my intestines, I slowly came to the somewhat obvious conclusion that my failure to eat this food was not a matter of courage or an acquired taste: it was rotten – it was dead spoiled animal tissue – and no human being could possibly eat it. I quickly paid the 110 Leke for the uneaten meal – about one US dollar and headed back to the hotel to get ready. It was with that excellent pre-ride preparation of a 20 minute one-bite meal, that I had set out for this epic 8 hour bike ride.

 It was 3 hours before I drifted wearily into Hamara where Kirk was kind enough to wait for me. I thought he’d be mad for waiting so long but as it turned out he had only beat me there by ½ hour. We ordered an amazing fresh vegetable and seafood lunch by an azure sea of children playing and swimming and the emotional pendulum began to swing back  – I was deliriously happy.

Hamara beach

Then I remembered the 5 switchbacks…

Tour of Albania: prologue vol. 1

Lack of hope has a color: gray. In 1989 I was a fresh-faced 19 year old living and studying in the sunshine of California when the concept of “a world of possibilities” was destroyed. The boy/man that stepped off the plane in Sofia, Bulgaria for a world championship competition was not ready for the otherworld he entered – a world without color where lights and darks were reversed – the damp light of the shiny streets empty of cars, the bland taupe wasteland of row after row of identical tenements, and a darkening sky fed by an endless font of black coal dust – the fuel for heating humans and factories. After our warm-up jogs, we would cough up a black mucus of coal dust.

Thus - from those first imprints on my teenage brain was formed a morbid fascination with the effects of a totalitarian regime on a society and its surrounding landscape. Time has given those memories - like the negatives of an old picture - a rich patina of meaning: what is lost in clarity, is gained in grainy contrasts.

The people of communist Bulgaria lacked color as well. Desiccated by a life of hardship and conformity, in the city a uniform of black overcoats and black hats, gray trousers, and heavy black shoes framed expressionless countenances. The other athletes and I found ourselves nervous when we ourselves were found smiling or laughing – we joked uneasily that perhaps it was illegal. As we wandered the afternoon crowds, I wanted to pry open a mouth to see if it was gray inside…

In the brittle bone chilling cold of the eternal twilight of an Eastern European winter, the streets and parks were crowded with throngs of gray and graying people shuffling about with an indeterminate purpose - the shops were open, but nothing was for sale – row after row of empty shelves and the furtive movements of the slack jawed shoppers. Everyone was old – where were the children? No laughter, no voices, just the quiet rustling of despair.

In the center of the city we found a white stone monument decorating the end of the square, and, past the stern military guard, we followed the faithful and marched down a dimly lit series of stone steps, our frozen breath briefly ignited by the glare of the occasional bulb, and came into underground chamber with the same dim fluorescent lighting now directly overhead. Moving through the chiaroscuro outlines of the crowd we approached a thick glass case – and in it was an embalmed body laid out in the cold gray light where it had been since 1949.

40 years. Georgi Dimitrov, the father of Communist Bulgaria. Their god was dead.

20 years later and in the cold glare of my laptop, I’m planning a trip to Albania – just a few hundred miles away from the Sofia of old. An enigmatic small country between Greece, Macedonia, Kosova, and Montenagro, Albania’s communist past makes Bulgaria’s lockstep communism look like a carnival. For 42 years no one was allowed in or out, and the country was held in the iron grip of a dictator who, amongst other atrocities, outlawed religion creating the world’s first atheist state, and instituted a network of informers “Sigourami” who ruled the ‘lives of others’ (my favorite movie of all time) through careful compilations of each state worker’s “Biografi”. Lack of conformity meant prison camp and/or death.

Albania was the last holdout of communism in Europe, but eventually Enver Hoxha died in 1985 and communism finally fell in 1992.

-from Lloyd Jones “Biografi”

“Enver Hoxha, he continues, had been a religion.” “Even I. I was very, very sad when Enver died. At my office no one was brave enough to mention his death. Imagine, please, if we said the Emperor was dead and he turned out not to be? We waited for the radio report before we could speak of his death. Some had cried with genuine grief, others because they thought it was dangerous not to.”

“Some turned white believing something catastrophic would happen. The crops would shrivel and die. The seas would rise. They would be obliged to walk on stilts.”

Albania is easily Europe’s poorest, most backward state. So why, in gods name, would I want so badly to travel there? Why has it been #1 or #2 on my list for more than a decade?

A rent of color. The answer lies in the continuation of my first visit to Bulgaria. In that two week trip to Sofia little changed in the outward aspect of the city– still the graying men and women and the stiff formal coordination of the competition. I grew quite sick and lost 17 pounds during our time there from spoiled food. But even as I suffered, starved and vomited, little glimpses of light and color began to show through the façade. A young skater who spoke a little english smiled at me, asked questions about America, showed me a bootleg tape she had made with American music. She ended up writing me letters and a decade later, Evgenia Radanova become a world and Olympic champion.

147 lbs.

Our last night there, the figure skaters found out about an illegal party – deep in the bowels of the city, underground in a restaurant with blackened windows to hide the lights, a modern disco betrayed its presence with a booming sound system and a line of young, well dressed partiers, nervously waiting to get in, clearly worried by the armed soldier who had likely been well paid to ignore the illegal activity. Never mind that the crowd was dancing to Gloria Gaynor and disco as though it were brand new, there was an energy to that room and those people – an explosion of smiles, goodwill and freedom ready to throw off the shackles of the old gray guard.

Only 10 months later in November of 1989, loyal armed guards masquerading as a “change of the guard” slipped quickly beneath the noses of a huge encampment of protesters dominating the square and stealthily removed Georgi Dimitrov’s body from his public tomb and cremated him in a quiet ceremony w/ family. A few months later and Bulgaria elected its first parliament. Winter was over…

The same month I entered Budapest as a part of the first contingent of American speedskaters to cross the iron curtain into Hungary since WWII. We competed outdoor on the moat of a 14th century castle in a rare sunny weekend in February – but already spring had begun in this part of Eastern Europe - splashes of color and the occasional smile crossed those usually serious faces. Everyone wanted a part of us – for the one and only competition of my life, we had “groupies” who showed us around and were fascinated by our every move.

Fast forward a month and I’m in West Berlin, walking to and from East Berlin, pick-axing segments of brightly colored painted concrete from the infamous wall which had fallen just months before. Standing in the dead zone between the two walls in the island city surrounded by the state of East Germany I tried to imagine how it was possible for a society to live so long so close to each other and tolerate such a complete inversion of basic human needs – for the freedom to choose, the freedom to smile, the freedom to dissent, the freedom to pursue happiness. I imagined myself as one of those heroes who either fell trying to escape or who was clever enough to cross the border disguised as a car seat, or packed in a gas tank, or who mined a narrow tunnel for years underneath the wall.

Following East Berlin I headed to Prague where I fell in love with the rise of the human spirit from oppression – everywhere was an energy, a love of being alive, of feeling lucky to be in “this time.” Romance bloomed and everywhere you looked there were flowers sprouting and couples making out without a care for the world. I wrote about it in my journal (which I subsequently lost), took pictures, and in an adventure for another telling, lived for nearly a week with a troupe of Gypsies – Roma – who adopted me into their strange life.

Albania still lives in this crossroads – of emerging freedoms, of the resurfacing of the human spirit after decades of oppression and conformity. Its road to freedom has been difficult – much of the late 90’s were fraught with conflict, anarchy, and starvation. Since the early 2000’s though progress has been made, and spring has returned to Albania.

I go there to ride my bike, primarily, or perhaps not. Albania boasts, for one thing, the last deserted stretches of brilliant blue Mediterranean coastline, and a windy coastal road with very little traffic that is not donkey powered. It also has one of the last centers of a dying race – the “Vlachs” who were ushered up into the mountains before being ignored by the communists – only 50,000 or so of this race and language remain. Traffic in the cities is apparently truly hellish – in 1992, at the end of communism, only 2000 cars were registered in the whole country – no citizen was allowed to own a car, and most had never been in one. Fast forward a decade and a half and now over a million cars fight for space on narrow roadways and absolutely no parking lots. Albania has by far the highest death rate for traffic accidents in all of Europe. Fortunately I don’t intend to ride anywhere near Tirana where nearly half the country’s population lives.

Yes, of course I go to ride my bike – racing season is upon me – but more than that I go to witness the rise of the brilliant colors of the human spirit against the gray backdrop of tyranny. Freedom has many colors…

I’ll take pictures...

-John