Friday, July 26, 2013

Biking Nations: Barcelona, Spain (Part II)

Day two of any three-day cycling trip tends to be the lightest of the three days. I didn't expect to do more than 20 miles and this time I had a targeted destination in mind: the beaches of Barcelona.

I got an especially late start as I began the morning by patching up the tubes I had broken the day before. For some reason, one took multiple applications and the other couldn't be fixed at all. After getting the first tube into what I thought was reasonable shape, I decided I needed more supplies and followed a lead: there was a sports shop called Decathlon, which was a five minute walk from the Meridien. It was, and it was open. 

In their bicycle section, I saw more tubes than I had ever seen in my life. But none of them were 20" x 1 1/8" size with Presta valves. All I could manage - and a conversation with an employee confirmed this - was one Kenda tube. The last one. And it was 20" X 1 3/8". I reasoned it was better than nothing and handed over a few Euros to buy it. 

Finally, I began my trip by heading down La Rambla, making sure to wave at Marilyn on my way down. 

I couldn't see the sea from the hotel, but reasoned I could find it if I kept cycling downhill. That strategy paid off handsomely.

The beaches are quite something, and I quickly discovered that a good number of cyclists not only ride along the beaches but actually sit on the sand as well. It was quite tempting as there were a lot of interesting sailboats to watch.

It was around this time I realized it appeared to be a 'clothing optional' beach. Not wanting to lower Barcelona beachfront property values, I kept my cycling attire on. 

I continued pedaling along the beach and passed…quite a few nice things to look at, including a sculpture that I assumed had to do with the diving events of the 1992 Olympic Games. 

I truly appreciated the message Barcelona was sending with these beaches: the city wants cyclists to be there. The city wants people to meander along. The city also wants people to stop and buy a frozen slushy…even though there is absolutely no consistency whatsoever in how much they cost or how much of a unit of slushy should be or even is. It's a highly unregulated market and you should always avoid buying slushies at all times and all all costs except when you want one. 

I pedaled leisurely along the path - I was probably the only cyclist within five miles who had drop-style handlebars - which wound its way along the shoreline. 

If you do this, you'll be pleased to know that there are a good number of places to eat along the path that are outdoors, which means you can dismount your bike and hold on to it as you order your chorizo sandwich and french fries.  It was at this time I made a promise to myself: have a healthier lunch on day three. 

After dining I continued along the shore and the number of tourists and those catering to them thinned out. It still didn't make the beaches less lovely to look at. 

Before long, I had reached the edge of the map and after a few twists and turns came across Museu Blau; a massive museum known for its unique X-Files style UFO shape. 

Though my original plan was to stay along the shoreline for the day, I did find myself surprisingly energetic despite the heat and unhealthy lunch (which I was anxious to burn off anyway) and decided I needed to get back on the roads and head for some hills.  

I climbed and climbed and climbed…until finally I was out where the tour buses don't run and wide-eyed Americans with cannon-sized Canons hanging around their neck were virtually nonexistent. Don't get me wrong: I loved being at the beach and I the landmarks and museums look great, but I can do that when I'm older. It's something else entirely just to peacefully pedal through a neighborhood up in the hills.

I climbed some more in the direction of Parc Güell - calves protesting at this point - and was rewarded with some impressive views of the city. Additionally, I was able to get a closer look at what looked like a S.E.T.I. tower and some kind of interesting cathedral-like building next to it. It looked as though it was at the highest point of Barcelona. I took a quick picture of it, reasoning I could find out what it was called later. 

Shortly after I came upon what I assumed was Parc Güell. The friendly British tourist I met up there told me she wasn't sure herself, but we took pictures of one another with each other's cameras anyway. Now just when I assume views of the city couldn't get any nicer, I'm offered a view of the Torre Agbar skyscraper. Yes, it looks like a blimp sticking nose-first out of the ground, but it is even more impressive up close. 

I then decided I was done climbing for the day and should wrap things up, so I headed back toward the center of the city in the general direction of Meridien. But a little thing called gravity changed all that. You see, I had spent most of the time climbing and I somehow stumbled across a road (I unfortunately forgot the name) and was able to ride fast and feel the wind blasting my face. Having spent a day and a half riding in a busy city filled with intersections, cars and stoplights, I had nearly forgot how fantastic a good descent could be. Even stopping at every red light didn't feel like it was slowing me down.

I had gone just over twenty miles at this point so I thought - why not? I'll go another ten. 

I returned to Ctra. Miramar and did the punishing climb yet again. You remember: up and up and up (switchback!) and up and up. 

And up. 

I wondered if I'd regret pushing myself this far on my second day at the start of the third, but at Castel de Monjuic I was again rewarded with nice views of the port below, and since this day featured even clearer weather than the first, I had a flawless view of the port. 

Finally calling it a day, I came back down the same way I came up and enjoyed it immensely. There's a bit of a tricky traffic merge at the very bottom but other than that I quickly decided the Ctra. Miramar switchback was my favorite downhill of the trip. 

After another great dinner - this one at Caravelle not far from the hotel - my wife colored in her sketches while I watched TV. I watched a little of MTV's 'Jackass' dubbed in Spanish (I could still follow it alright) and found a sports channel that needed no translation as I thought about how to find that building and S.E.T.I.-looking tower on the hill the next day. I resolved to either find it or ride 40 miles, so, like Santo Domingo, I could make it a 100 mile vacation. The link for part III is right here. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Biking Nations: Barcelona, Spain (Part I)

Two years ago, I accompanied my wife to Lisbon, Portugal so she could attend the Urban Sketching Symposium. I rented a bike for three days and saw her…and a passionate pen afficionado or two…for dinner each night. A year later, since the symposium was held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, I spent three days riding my own Bike Friday New World Tourist there. This year, the powers that be decided that the 4th annual event that draws talented pen-and-brush enthusiasts from all over the world would be held in Barcelona, Spain

Naturally, I packed my Bike Friday New World Tourist and went along. 

To prepare, I looked back at last year's Santo Domingo trip…and was immediately appalled. I was surprised just how close I had come to having a disastrous cycling experience: between the trashed pump, the flat, the heat and biking far off the map, I was lucky not to have been killed or even worse: been forced to give up riding on vacation. 

So this time I took extra precautions: I brought two patch kits, two tubes, two sets of tire levers (one metal and one plastic as I've always had trouble getting the tires off the small rims without metal levers), two quick links in case the chain broke. Two bike GPS units. Two cable locks. 

Two of everything. I had the Noah's Ark of tool bags. I also had duct tape, some reusable wire ties, a spare tire and a small pair of vice grips. Angus MacGyver would have been proud. 

I also applied some wisdom from the Santo Domingo ride: wanting to get a grip on my runaway smoothie spending, I bought a Camelbak that could easily swallow a two-liter bottle of Mello Yello (knowing what a pain in the butt these things are to clean - I only used water). 

For this trip we stayed at the Barcelona Meridien, on the famous La Rambla street (now it is recommended that you learn how to say 'Stop thief! He stole my wallet!' in Spanish before frequenting that area, but if you take a few precautions with your personal valuables - such as keeping your stuff in sight at all times and the zippers on your pack closed with reusable wire tires - you'll probably do fine. Also: if you are wearing bike shorts and a bike jersey, you have no pockets to pick). 

I've stayed at other Meridien locations before; and I found the Barcelona location was like the others: a very nice hotel with professional and friendly staff that never gave me trouble when I'd wheel the bike through the lobby.  My wife and I stayed there a total of five days - which gave us just enough time to figure out how to make the shower spray water at an ideal speed and temperature. 

I unpacked the bike the night before my wife's first workshop and assembled it in the room. Thankfully, since I had re-visited the Bike Friday manual, I had packed it properly days earlier and, unlike last year, there was no damage and everything went together well. The next morning, after collecting the customary tourist map from the hotel concierge, I set off. 

Now I have to admit I didn't spent nearly as much time researching Barcelona as I should have: I had done a trip to Cleveland/Columbus/Hershey and been committed to a wide variety of Grown-Up Things in the weeks prior to the trip. All I really had was a list of bike shops (and there were many) and had noted that when trying to use Google Map's bicycle directions feature in Barcelona…the little bicycle icon had disappeared. 

I didn't take that as a good sign. 

But within minutes of setting off, I knew I'd be in good company: unlike Santo Domingo, where I saw very few cyclists, Barcelona just feels filled with them. 

And if you go to Barcelona without a bike, there doesn't seem to be any shortage of places to rent one either on your own or as part of a tour group - neither of which I did. Also exciting is the huge number of folding bikes, which I theorize is due to people coming to Barcelona by yacht (the Brompton riders) or some other type of watercraft (non-Brompton riders). 

The city also has a bike share program that it rolled out in 2007 called, and I found docking stations everywhere. 

But best of all: Barcelona has bike paths almost everywhere you look. You could spend hours just pedaling aimlessly around the city moving from one lane to another - which was a big part of my strategy on the first day. 

Now like every city that has them, sometimes bike lanes would appear, disappear, or simply be missing entirely which put me on the roads. My personal experience found that motorists in Barcelona drive less angry than in other parts of the world. It's not like in New York where someone will honk their horn at you as though you were planning to be in their path since you let the house that morning. Barcelona drivers will get annoyed when you get in their way and they will honk, but you just get the feeling that they don't take it personally. It's always a good idea though to wear a helmet (not like 99.3% of the people I saw) with a rearview mirror and just follow the rules of the road - and the rules of the bike paths.

Now there are some pretty big traffic circles you need to be aware of and use extreme caution when riding through, such as the one that contains a beautiful and impressive statue of Christopher Columbus pointing as if to say: "Look! A Bike Friday!"

When riding about Barcelona, even aimlessly, you will come across some rather historic buildings. You will even notice these buildings if you are not paying attention to the buildings. A good rule of thumb is that when you're riding in Barcelona and you come across huge groups of tourists pointing their cameras upward, they're looking at something cool, such as the great Gaudi work, Casa Batlló.

Later I ran into Gaudi masterpiece Sagrada Família. It's been under construction for over a century so I'm surprised Gaudi didn't incorporate construction cranes in the original design. It's still an impressive piece of work. 

Eventually, I stopped for lunch. Paranoid after learning one of my wife's sketching friends had his bike stolen (twice!) while living in Barcelona, I selected one of the many small eateries that had outdoor seating. Since I can't speak Spanish, a lot of pointing was involved to get me a sandwich.

Closer to the beach - which I did not explore on my first day - I decided to head up the hills to visit Castel de Monjuic on the outskirts of the city. This involved pretty much the only big climbs of the day - and they were big. Lucky for me, I found a five-Euro note at the base of Ctra. Miramar, which was a good morale boost before hammering the pedals up, and up, and up (switchback!) and up and up. 

It was during this stretch I really appreciated the Camelbak (each day of the ride, though, I'd have to refill it at least 2/3rds of the way through, which meant I was consuming more than two liters of water daily. If you visit Barcelona in the summer you will probably have to do the same thing unless Camelbak and  B.O.B. Trailers engage in some kind of joint venture). 

After passing through a short tunnel near Hotel Miramar, I got my first rewards for doing this optional climb: a nice view of the city through the haze of a July day. 

I kept climbing and passed beyond the ski-lift thing that carries tourists to Castel de Monjuic. It was a tough climb, but I was rewarded by my destination which featured even nicer views of the city - especially by the old cannons, which reminded me of Santo Domingo: go to an old city near a port and there's usually going to be cannons involved. 

I eventually made my way back toward the roads that led to the Olympic Village (Barcelona had hosted the Games in 1992) and the MNAC museum (part of which is visible on the first photo on this post). And it was here, more than twenty miles into the ride, I noticed the front tire had gone flat. Luckily, Dave Matthews happened to pass by in a car with a bike rack, and he offered me a ride, dinner and front row tickets to his Barcelona show.

Okay, the second part did not happen. What did happen is that I sat under a shady tree and calmly removed the front wheel and calmly took off the tire as double-decker tour bus after double-decker tour bus rolled by. I had already gone about 20 miles, it was nice weather, I had multiple sets of multiple tools. Nothing could go wrong. 


You know, if you take two patch kits and fail to check them first, you have really brought no patch kits.The vulcanizing fluid will disappear as if by magic, which means that you've only managed to bring an ideal storage box for your iPod Shuffle and charger cable.

But I digress.

I resolved not to panic. I did, after all, possess two tubes. However, due to my overall clumsiness, I managed to pinch-flat one of them installing the tire. 

And just like that: it came down to one tube left. Lucky for me and lucky for you, the reader: I managed to put in on without any further problems. But I was a little nervous about getting another flat, so I decided to ride around until I found a bike shop that could sell me something. 

Soon enough, I did: eWheels

Despite the visually pleasing sight of a lot of unusual folding bikes in the store, I was unable to find any replacement 20"  1 1/8" tubes with Presta valves. But the friendly clerk and myself were able to do business on patch kits and the five Euro note I found earlier discovered its purpose. 

With the patches, my confidence returned enough to pedal on, and before I knew it I had reached 30 miles on the odometer on one of the sloppiest and aimless rides I had ever been on. 

After returning to the hotel, cleaning up and reuniting with my wife we walked off to the restaurant 4Cats - which is where Picasso had his first exhibition - and the famous self-portrait of Roman Casas is printed everywhere (including their paper placemats) and it made me smile. The food was quite good as well. 

While my wife sketched the bar, I looked at the map and decided that a 30 mile ride was quite nice (all city miles) and I could probably manage at least 20 the next day - which was going to be all about the famous Barcelona beaches. Here is the link for Part II, and you can also check out my wife's first batch of sketches.Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Free to a Good Home (in Cleveland)

The $20 garage sale bike challenge is long over. The bicycle in question - a red Peugeot - held together for 112 miles-plus of non-recreational riding. It was officially a free bike, since $20 will take me about 112 miles in my car. 

Now the original plan was to cut the bike up and add its frame to the raw materials pile of the welding room. That's what happened to the Fuji Espree, the mysterious Raleigh Sports, and a few other bikes that were transformed into the DIYBIKING.COM Signature Coffee Table

But I just couldn't gaze upon the red Peugeot down the barrel of my Ryobi reciprocating saw. I felt like that farmer in 'Babe' unable to shoot the pig of the same name. 

It was a special pig. It was a special bicycle. Even though I had ruled out keeping it (I do not have the storage space I wish I had) I decided it needed a more fitting end. Giving it to a friend or donating it somewhere locally seemed too easy - and besides: the Peugeot didn't get the most amount of love from Connecticut in the first place (recall how the woman at the tag sale offered it for $75 while the man at the tag sale, probably her husband, sneered that it was $20.)

The bike needed to go somewhere to be loved. That meant only one place.

You figure it out: if you catch a mouse with one of those Havahart traps, you don't carefully release it in the middle of a six-lane highway, do you?

Cleveland, this time, was a side trip of a seven-state odyssey as I made a visit to Columbus in late June to see my youngest cousin get married…then days later my sister was celebrating her 40th birthday at Hershey Park (yes: maturity impairment runs in my family)...then Seeing a Baby in Lancaster, and so on, for days. Cleveland was always going to be in the mix but I wasn't sure exactly when until I was too close to the trip to adequately let many people know I was coming.

Rest assured: It's Cleveland. I will be back and promise to give more notice. 

My wife and I arrived late at night in the Honda Element, which had the red Peugeot, the Bike Friday New World Tourist and the Mystery of South Norwalk aboard. The next morning I pored over a Positively Cleveland map and selected the red Peugeot for a trip to the Cleveland Zoo - about five miles away - to meet my sister, her husband and my niece. It was my way of getting the red Peugeot acclimated to its new surroundings. ("This is Cleveland. Unlike back home, people ride their bikes a lot here and there's even bike infrastructure!")

With the better tires I had installed on it and the bell, the Peugeot was in excellent form. I swung by one of the pillars of bike shop excellence - Joy Machines - on the way and made a note on their hours so I could stop by later.

After several miles down the same road, I arrived at the Cleveland Zoo, which is part of the Cleveland Metroparks system.

I've never been a zoo person but the animals I saw seemed to have a lot of room to roam around - and the people do as well. If and when you go, give yourself a lot of time to visit as it is a big place.

With the bike chained out front, the four of us had a great time wandering about. 

After lunch, I headed back to the Peugeot to get ready for its next trip. Since I still had a little time I stopped by Joy Machines on the way back. Incidentally, you know you are in Cleveland when you are passed on the road by someone riding the following and, as he sees you unable to get your camera out in time, turns around to head back so you can get your shot. Thanks, stranger. 

I then went to East 4th Street to visit The Greenhouse Tavern for a cold drink - the place also has significance as it was there my wife, weeks ago when she had visited Cleveland on her own for a business trip, had learned that someone needed a bicycle. 

It's also one of my favorite places to eat in Cleveland on general principles - not just due to the decor. The food is borderline astonishing. 

While at the Greenhouse Tavern, I realized that I may not be able to meet the person who needed a bicycle before my visit ended, so quickly I hatched a plan. 

After a brief rest at the hotel, I removed South Norwalk from my car and mounted the Peugeot to the tow package. 

Yes, this configuration was the entire reason South Norwalk made its second trip to Cleveland: because I knew that at some point I was going to tow the Peugeot somewhere…and not bring it back. 

I headed off to the Ohio City Bicycle Co-Op. Weeks earlier, when cleaning out my workshop, I had emailed the organization asking if they needed some donations (hence the front basket from a women's bike filled with goodies) and wanted a volunteer for late Thursday afternoon. They said yes to both, so a little before four o'clock I set off. 

Cleveland rewarded me with good weather, but the tow package configuration was to be put to the limit on Columbus Road: the bridge that had taken me to Nano Brew and their 'thank-god-I-am-not-a-vegetarian hamburgers' the last time I was in Cleveland was closed for repair and the road itself was under heavy construction. Oh well, I thought: Cleveland's always been a work in progress.

After a slow and bone-jarring ride to the Co-Op, I gave my basket of goodies away and explained my situation: I couldn't cross paths with the person who wanted a bike on this trip, so I proposed this: how about I store the bike at the Ohio City Bicycle Co-Op (in the massive room that looks like the closing shot of Raider's of the Lost Ark) and get a message to the person who wanted a bike to pick it up there…and if that person didn't show or didn't want it, the Co-Op could consider it a donation?

The Ohio City Bicycle Co-Op agreed.

I tenderly hung the bike in the 'layaway' section of the Big Room. That bicycle and I had traveled far, and I was sure that even if the bike didn't end up going to the person for which my wife and I intended, I was sure it would be loved in, and by, the cycling community of Cleveland. 

That'll do, Peugeot. That'll do.

I then volunteered a few hours, and If you are in Cleveland for work or for play please volunteer to work on some bikes or anything else they want you to do. It's a great organization and it's just nice to be in a different workshop with great people.

Having to meet my wife for dinner, I said good-bye to the Co-Op and pedaled South Norwalk back to the hotel - and I got there much faster than my earlier trip as I was no longer transporting the Peugeot. I wondered if I'd see that bike again and realized the odds were against it, but I was sure it would enjoy its new home. 

The next day, I had just a few hours before heading to Columbus, so I hopped on the Bike Friday and did a bit of a farewell ride through Cleveland. 

I wasn't sure where I could or should go - but I ended up finding a path to the Ohio & Erie Canal trail. So I followed it and was able to pedal at a quick pace thanks to the smooth pavement and early hour. 

Two roads diverged in the wood. And I - I flipped a coin. I knew I'd have fun either direction, so what's the difference? 

I rode fast and far and enjoyed every second of it - and silently thanked the massive team that must have made all of this possible.

A ways down the trail I stopped at a Yours Truly restaurant that is right along the way - and conveniently located right at the path. 

Properly fueled, I headed back to Cleveland, noticing more people who had come out to enjoy the trail.

On getting back, I had enough time to swing by Blazing Saddle Cycle and to Fridrich's, where I was able to part with a few dollars and buy an old steel frame I could use for welding. It was a much better frame to sacrifice than the frame from the Peugeot, and thanks to the help of one of Fridrich's friendly employees who provided wire ties, I was able to C-3PO the frame to my back for the rest of the ride. 

I bought some ground coffee at Erie Island Coffee (was nice to see the barista had remembered me from my visit there seven months earlier) and made another visit to The Greenhouse Tavern before heading back to the hotel to shower, put on nice clothes and hustle over to Columbus for my cousin's rehearsal dinner. 

Just like the previous two trips to Cleveland, this one was too short but it was quite satisfying: I was happy to bring the Peugeot to its new home and even bring a frame back with me (the interior of my car is like the island on 'Lost' that way). Also was glad to give some things, not just the bike, but some time to the Ohio City Co-Op. After all, cities only like bikes when its people do. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.