Cream Tea and Two Wheels

photophotoireland One of the most gentile things you can do in England or anywhere for that matter is to have “high tea” or “cream tea” as they say in England. Imagine a sweat hog like me coming in after a great day of riding in the English countryside and inhaling the delicious bisquits, clotted cream and strawberry preserves in front of a refined and proper server at a fine establishment. Even though I was outside, the silver service and the delectables were in contrast to my perspiring and un- refined appearance. But boy, was it good and when I remarked to the server how absolutely scrumptious the bisquits and clotted cream were, she said,” Where are you from ……the moon?” The English have a way of not making you absolutely comfortable and I quickly paid the server, took a picture of the fine china and silver, and went on my merry way back to the hotel.

Cycling in England is an interesting experience. Like anywhere in the British Isles, you are on the left hand side of the road which makes crossing the street daydreaming a harrowing experience. However, like hanging, you get used to it and you make your way to some of the most historic sights on earth. I particularly liked the cathedrals that I rode to in Salisbury, Winchester, Westminster, and others. When you arrive at a cathedral at 4:00PM, you are treated to Evensong which is the late afternoon choir servcice where they let you sit right in with the choir to hear the beautiful choral pieces in the midst of fantastic and angelic voices. I made sure to take a shower before I went to Evensong because you are literally right with the choir as they make the cathedrals echo with heavenly music. The graveyards are actually humorous. It is not unusual to see headstones with interesting inscriptions like,” Here Lyes Dan Brown, once was living but now in the ground, although it is sad, his wyfe was mad, and Dan was befelled with a pan that was round.” Curious how you could spend your afternoon with your bike parked at a fence and laughing at the headstones of an English graveyard. Historic landmarks in our country are 250 years old.In contrast,I saw the Magna Carta the foundation for our legal system which dates back almost a thousand years. The castles are filled with interesting historic pieces like Henry the Eighth’s suit of armour in Windsor Castle. Amazing to see.

Riding a bicycle is definitely the way to see a country as you have seen from my last several posts. England was no different as I pedaled to a ferry that took me out to a days ride on the Isle of Wight. I saw the White Cliffs of Dover, and made my way to Stonehenge. How the Druids or space creatures ever stacked those thousand pound stones will always mystify me. The cottages in the English countryside are spectacular with the lattice work on the side of the house filled with the most beautiful roses. The pubs are fun with merriment and delicous ales although at a temperature that was a little warm for me. They claim that it makes the beer taste better when it is a little warmer but I thought I could make some real money selling ice machines in England and Ireland. Nothing like a cold beer to me but that is the ugly American coming out.

Most of my riding was in the country side but one day, I went in early to London. I was like a Whack a Mole in that I rode the underground and popped up at the tourist sights. Up out of the hole- Buckingham Palace-picture- check- back down in the hole. Pop out- the Tower of London- check out the Crown Jewels- check- take a picture, back down in the hole. Pop out again- go see the London Symphony -check- culture enhanced, back down in the hole. By the end of the day, I took the last train out with all of the punk rockers. I was definitely the Howdy Dooodie of the group but the multicolored mohawks, and piercings, were a little over the edge for me, as was the cockney accent which is tough to decifer when you are on a moving train full of reprobates. All in all, a quick view in one day of a marvelous city which I need to see again some time. Perhaps a couple of weeks would do it justice- not one Whack a Mole Day.

This was my last European cycle trip and I am hoping that as life moves on here a little bit and things start to slow down, perhaps Janet and I can take some other trips to distant lands and enjoy the people, the countryside, the historic sights, and the culture. I may be on the back nine, but I am not finished yet. Carpe Deium. Thanks for reading.

Cycling the Fietspads(people paths)

home02 As I was winging my way accross the Atlantic on another cycling adventure to the Netherlands on KLM Dutch Airlines, I found myself traveling with a group of Hasidic Jewish gentlemen who seemed to be all together on a trip. Being the inquisitive(nosy) person that I am, I inquired with the gentlemen sitting next to me who informed me that they all were on their way to the Diamond Market in Amsterdam. I quickly was treated to a discertation on diamond clarity, cut and other factors that are key when selecting a diamond. A lot of information for my mind to process but nonetheless I was amazed at what you can learn on an airplane if you are a little forward and a little inquisitive.

As we made our way to the hotel, I assembled my bike and began exploring one of the world’s most facinating cities. I cycled along the famous canals and watched the houseboats float lazily along and was amazed at the brilliant colors of the tulips and the other flora that decorated the homes along the canal. I made my way to the Rijksmuseum where the famous paintings of Rembrandt and others reside. As I gazed at the painting of the Dutch Masters, my childish mind went back to the sultry Edie Adams singing “Cigars, Cigarettes, Tiparillos?” . Because I was such a rube when it came to art, I could only relate to the painting because I saw it on the cover of the famous cigar boxes. I wished that I had taken an art appreciation class when I was in college as I exited the famous museum and made my way to the Van Gogh museum where I was equally baffled. As is the custom in galleries I gazed at the paintings again not knowing what I was looking at and caught the gaze of another patron next to me. I could tell that he thought I was the ugly American who didn’t appreciate art and uncomfortably I made my exit into the streets to treat myself to the famous cafes. In Amsterdam, I quickly discovered that the rules are …….there are no rules, as people smoked their hooka pipes, and other herbs shamelessly along with drinking free flowing Amstel and Groelsch brews. Chuckling at the freedom that the Dutch have in their signature city, I peddled to another section of town where I purchased a pair of clogs. I thought I was pretty hep as I exited the shop and slung the bag over my shoulder. I heard some voices from above yelling,” Hey college boy- hey college boy.” Now I hadn’t been called a college boy for some time and I realized that I had peddled into the Red Light district. Feeling sheepish I exited rather quickly as the calls turned to jeers. Amsterdam- what an amazing city.

I rode along the Zuyder Zee which is the famous barrier built by the Dutch to keep the Atlantic from flooding their below sea level country. It is kind of eerie when you peddle along thinking how catastrophic a leak would be. I cycled the roads of the famous Amstel Gold Race and as I made my way along the famous cobbles, I thought of how tough the Euro cyclists were as my fillings almost rattled out of my head from the pounding of the rough cobblestone roads. However, there is a more gentile way to cycle along in the Netherlands. In the post war era, the government had to do a lot of rebuilding of the infrastructure due to the incessant bombing raids during the war. The economy in post war Europe started to flourish again and the resurgence of the construction led to an improved economy and a love for the automobile. However, as the roads became clogged with traffic, the Dutch were looking for an alternative especially as the 70s created a world wide oil crisis. The need for alternative transportation was at the forefront and the government created a system of paths called Fietspads(people paths) that became very popular not only with commuters but with folks who wanted to travel auto free in the Dutch cities and countryside. I utilized a lot of these paths during my visit and made my way through towns and villages that were named for the cheese that they produced. Villages like Edam and Markam were names which I related to cheese and I had my fill along the way washing the samples down with the famous Dutch brews. Another way to make your way besides the people paths were the smaller ferries where you could load your bike and take a pleasant ride along the canals and rivers. The ferries were always commanded by these tall Dutch girls who looked like they could throw you out of the boat if you messed with them. It is humbling to feel like you have stepped into a hole when you are standing next to them, but they definitely commanded your respect and admiration. I was definitely polite to them as I made my way.

If you go to You Tube and look up How the Dutch Got Their Cycle Paths, you will see an interesting history of the paths as well as transportaion in Holland. I was amazed at how the Dutch ride their 3 speed Raleighs with the fenders to commmute to work. Wearing suits and dresses does not impede them as they travel by the thousands to work. With the cost of petrol in Europe, this type of transportation is a must. We are learning in America and even here in my home town of Pittsburgh. We now have a network of bike paths and bicycle sharing programs in the city. Lessons are being learned about the health advantage of cycling and the economy of using two wheels to travel to work and to enjoy the scenery of Western Pa. Taken right out of the Dutch playbook. Thanks for reading.

Riding in the Old Sod

photo I was in a road race a number of years ago up in Ithaca,New York and I lost contact with my group that I had raced with for 70 miles. It is tough when you bonk and get dropped and you have to finish by yourself, in the wind, out of gas, and between groups. You could wait for a group behind but sometimes you just grind it out and try to get to the finish. As I crossed the finish line, my friend Eric Durfee greeted me because he finished with the real fast guys ahead of me and he handed me some fig newtons which I cheerfully stuffed into my bonking system. It was at that point that I thought maybe I would take a break from road training and racing and just………….ride.

Fast forward and I was on an Aer Lingus flight to Ireland with Gerhard Meng and his folks from Gerhard’s Bicycle Odysseys. Gerhard is an affable character who has a lot of contacts in Europe and sponsors these really nice bicycle touring trips. His staff is very professional and Gerhard has been doing this since 1974. So we land in Shannon Airport and for me, it was a dream come true to finally arrive in Ireland the home of my ancestors. As I collected my things, we made our way to the hotel and I put my bike together and went outside to check things out when I came upon the first paddy that I met who said,” Ya need a chain and a lock for that bike there laddy. I will take you to the place to get it because I am a proud member of Alcoholics Anonymous and I know the folks who will not give you a hooking.” I was liking the characters of Ireland already.

Every day, we had a fabulous Irish breakfast in which the highlight was the soda bread and orange marmalade. I ate baskets of the stuff along with the great Irish breakfast. Gerhard and his staff were very well organized and gave us a map every day. All we had to do was pack our things, throw them in the van, and get to the town at the end of the map for dinner. The first night we stayed in Dromoland Castle- really cool and went into Blarney to the woolen mills to shop. Also the famous Blarney Stone is there which supposedly gives the gift of eloquence when you hang upside down and kiss the stone. I didn’t do it because our van driver said,” Pat – you don’t want to be kissing the stone………the locals relieve themselves on it.” That was enough for me and I moved on.

You ride on the left hand side of the road in the British Isles and it took some getting used to as I wound my way in the roundabouts in Cork. I almost killed myself a few times because I don’t like roundabouts anyhow but as I ventured south to the old Head of Kinsale, I got used to the drill. The roads are narrow and as you come around bends or down hills, you have to watch yourself. I hit the brakes one time as I came upon a shepherd and his flock but the good natured gentleman said,” Ah- twould have been a soft landin there sonny.” I spent days by myself on the country roads and as I made my way from night to night, the staff and the other folks on the trip would ask me about my daily adventures. I would be out from breakfast until just about the time when dinner was served. People trash the Irish cuisine but between the fabulous breakfasts every day and the different types of salmon and vegetables and potatoes you can eat, I have a wonderful respect for the Irish cuisine. It doesn’t hurt to wash it all down with perhaps the best source of soluble iron on the planet- Guiness Stoudt.

The west coast of Ireland is nothing short of spectacular and as you climb the hills and the mountains, you see the 40 shades of green contrasted against the blue waters of the Atlantic. It was perhaps the most dramatic scenery I would ever see and I have experienced the Rockies, the Alps, the Sierras and other dramatic landscapes but I don’t believe you can ever be ready for what lies before you as you cycle around every bend on the Ring of Kerry. The smell of the salt air, the fragrance of the blooming wild flowers coupled with the aroma of cow manure, will always be with me. In fact, when I returned to the US, they wanted to impound my bike because of all the bovine material on the bottom tube. But I talked U.S Customs out of it. See I didn’t have to kiss that stone.

The lakes of Killarney, the mountains, the Cliffs of Moher, are visual smorgasboards but the best part of Ireland besides the scenery are the people. As I rode along through the little towns and villages, people were more than anxious to talk to ” the Yank.” I was in a pub one night, sipping my Guiness when an older gentleman came up to me and said,” So where are you from Yank?” I said,” How do you know I am a Yank?” ” He said,” Not too many fellows in these parts wear shorts and running shoes.” We laughed and I bought him a pint- probably part of his strategy anyhow. Another lady kept me in her parlor after I asked her for some water. She served me scones and tea and brought out all her old pictures of when John Kennedy was visiting. We chatted until it was getting pretty dark and I had to make my way back.

I saw the Tour of Ireland in Bantry Bay which featured all the best amateur and professional cyclists from the continent and the strange thing was that the Russians all peed on the front wheel of their van. Apparently it was good luck for them in the race but I thought that would not be a good tradition to start up back in Pittsburgh. Bantry was interesting in that I got slightly overserved in a pub and walked home to the hotel in the dark past some pretty creepy Irish graveyards. I started to jog and then run thinking about all the wild stories my grandparents had told me about the Banshees. That is another story but I was happy to be back in the light of the hotel. Guiness is good for you- sometimes too good for you.

As I rode through the Dingle Peninsula on the west coast, I knew that my time had come to an end and as I got on the plane, I thought that I was leaving my home. I saw so many people that reminded me of all of my relatives and I could hear my mother’s voice in some of the expressions in my conversations with the Irish. They are a warm, funny, caring tribe and I am proud to have Irish blood in my very American veins. The rough roads, the castles, the lakes, the ocean, can all be seen at 15 miles an hour just like Gerhard advertises. Check him out at Gerhard’s Bicycle Oddysses P.O. Box 757 Portland,Oregon 97207-0757 503-223-2402. Go glide by a castle at 15 miles per hour. You will love it Thanks for reading. Sla’nte.