Friday, January 29, 2016

A Look Back at 2015...

I figured 2015 was going to be a fascinating year when I bumped into Natasha in January. Not many people share my sense of unconventional adventure and general loathing of the ready-made tourism industry. But she did and that was awesome. What made it even more special was how quirky we both are, like the time she launched into a monologue about her bladder on our second date. I was hooked.  

Here's a brief rundown of some of our year's highlights: 

Exploring Panama
Panama is such an amazing little country. Of course everyone knows about the Panama Canal, but what many people don't know is that the north of Panama is absolutely gorgeous. You have the Bocas del Toro archipelago just off the eastern coast and then you have beautiful mountains in the mainland, topped by the mighty volcano, volcan Baru.

Our plan was to escape the cold of February in DC and spend a week exploring these areas. Given our restless nature, we spent almost every night in a different place and experienced everything from scuba diving (it sucks in Bocas, btw) to ziplining in Bastimentos National Park (ton of fun), to climbing volcan Baru. We stayed in a bed and breakfast, an eco-resort, a regular hotel, and kid-you-not an actual treehouse.  

Arriving in Panama city
Our legitimate treehouse

Perhaps the most physically challenging part of our trip was climbing volcan Baru. Now you can google the volcano and find a million different tour operators who will hold your hand all the way to the summit or better yet take you up there in a jeep. The hold your hand "adventure" is also on the same jeep trail.

Not a chance in heck that I'd be caught dead on such a trail. Fortunately an alternative route does exist but is really difficult to find. After hours scouring google for information, I gathered some basic beta from the two people on earth who had decided to post about it online. Basically, you have to drive all the way around the mountain to the other side where an obscure trailhead marks the beginning of the hike. Its pretty clear why this side is rarely used or marketed -- just look at the elevation profile on the sign at the trailhead. The jeep route starts on the right and our chosen route starts on the left. They meet up at the top. Need I say more?

So off we went one bright early morning, a bit later than an alpine start given Natasha had spent the entire evening spewing her guts thanks to food poisoning. I offered to postpone or cancel but she's one stubborn girl and refused to be distracted by minor life inconveniences such as severe caloric depletion or dehydration. Food and water -- way overrated...

The trail was quite well marked and steady at the beginning but very quickly turned nastily steep and littered with volcano scree. We didn't really see anyone on the trail except for a few locals who were surprised to see us there. But I can easily pass as a local and Natasha speaks fluent Spanish so we ended up having some fun conversations. We were so glad we weren't on the jeep trail.

The going was tough but we kept at it and were soon above treeline and into warm sunshine. 

Here, the going got really tough as each step forward was followed by half a step sliding back on the scree and we struggled for handholds on the steep terrain. After what felt like eternity, we conquered the major steep bit and could see the summit and made the final few boulder scrambles to the top.
Summit Panorama
After a brief nap near the summit and some snacks that Natasha could hold down, we started our descent. Coming down was a real pain in the butt as we had no footholds and risked sliding all the way down the side of the mountain. But steadily we made it back to the car with some sore toes! Baru definitely belongs on the list of places to go but only if you climb the route we did. I have the GPS file handy in case anyone wants it.

Overall, Panama was great and we saw so much of it in just a week!
Two happy explorers

Pittsburgh to DC Bike Blitz
Recent Amtrak changes have made carrying bikes on trains much easier but back in May of 2015, there weren't many options. But there was one very attractive one -- the slow train from DC to Pittsburgh that allowed bikes on board. Well technically they provide these large boxes where you slide your bike in.

We wanted to ride from Pittsburgh to DC with panniers on bikes. This was my first real bike touring trip so I was stoked and happily carried most of our weight on my newly acquired rear rack on my self-converted old cross bike. Natasha was in charge of route planning and made a killer itinerary for us -- we really didn't want to do the conventional route of the GAP/C&O trail for several reasons. Chief among them were that everyone else does it so we should do something different, and also that riding on a rail trail is excruciatingly boring. Riding on an endlessly flat course with basically the same scenery (even if its great scenery) for miles on end just doesn't excite me at all. So instead, we charted out our own route on the road with ridewithgps. It was hard -- day 1: 72 miles, day 2: 101 miles, day 3: 107 miles. Did I mention the 20,000 feet of climbing?!

Undeterred, we boarded our train one long weekend in May. The train ride was long, I can't remember exactly how long but it was over 7 hours. But the train was nice and the seats were comfortable and we were pretty excited so it wasn't that painful.

Arriving in Pittsburgh around midnight
We had a hotel booked near the train station, which was convenient. The next morning after a hearty breakfast we set off initially on the GAP trail but with some road diversions just to add variety. The plan was to more or less follow this trail for the first day till Ohiopyle and then diverge onto roads completely. 

Merica, son!
On the GAP trail
We made it to Ohiopyle in good time and after a nice dinner settled in for a restful sleep. The next two days were going to be tough.

Indeed, the journey did not disappoint. Our planned route took us over what seemed like the continental divide with gravel roads and double digit gradients. Riding all of this with panniers took a lot out of me, as evidenced here:

Surprisingly, the next day both of us actually felt better and even a bit of rain did not deter us. Plus, my choice of bright yellow rain gear with a mushroom head provided ample entertainment for both of us. 

The plan was to ride past Harpers Ferry (where we had lunch) and then make our way to Point of Rock where we had a rendezvous with a friend who had graciously ridden out to accompany us back to DC. Man, the last few miles around Point of Rock are just excruciating. No wonder it has that name -- one bloody hill after another. To top it all it was 100 degrees out and we were boiling under the sun. 

Thankfully, our meetup spot was an icecream parlor and we happily scooped up some ice-cold calories before the last push home.

One of our many stops along the way. Notice my knee-high socks -- very fashionable indeed
Harpers Ferry
We rode the last 40+ miles at a pretty brisk pace and after an unwanted stop for puncture repair we pulled up to my house to end this epic trip. Here are two exhausted but happy cyclists:
Home. Finally.

Tour de France
Not the one you're thinking of but every bit as exciting, at least for us: Tash and Bilal do France

Wedding Bells in Mexico 
No, we didn't get married but it was Natasha's best friend's wedding. Marianna and Xavier were really nice and invited me to their ceremony as well and I was delighted to go as I've never been to Mexico. Another good place to practice my budding language skills plus I wasn't going to miss out on the chance to visit Mexico City where Natasha grew up.

The only downside of this trip was that it fell smack in the middle of cyclocross season and I was having a good time there with some top 10 finishes. But the last race I did before this trip I crashed and broke my rear derailleur so perhaps it was good timing after all.

Mexico City is huge! I guess the Spanish really like big things and the influence has stuck. This flag for instance, in the main city square, was humongous. The picture doesn't do justice but I'd reckon its as big as a house. 

Thats one ginormous flag -- lest you forgot you're in Mexico
Our timing was such that we hit the preparations for el dia de los muertos (day of the dead), which everyone in Mexico takes very seriously. Think Halloween but on steroids. We saw numerous intricate floats on the main reforma (main boulevard in the city) such as this one:

Of course, being bikers we utilized the local bikeshare and saw the whole city in a day. Thankfully we were out and about on a Sunday so many of the streets were closed to traffic.

After two days in Mexico City, we met up with the wedding party and headed over to the little town of Tepoztlan for the festivities. For the next few days we explored some local gems in the area such as a massive cave and some castle ruins. We also hiked up to the top of a local hill where a temple is located and found this massive tree along the way.
Inside the cave

And then it was time for the wedding. We clean up alright when we absolutely have to: 

But formal wear isn't really our thing so the evening quickly turned into this:

And shortly thereafter we were in our element:

What a fun wedding it really was! Mexico is great and I can't wait to go back there to explore some more. 

So there you have it -- 2015 in a nutshell. Of course there were numerous other happenings in 2015 such as a successful bike racing season, many fun training rides, and some interesting work travel. But its late and I'm tired so I'll leave you with this:   
Bike tour around France? No. Pittsburgh to DC in 3 days on bikes? Nope. Fun adventures in Panama and Mexico? Not a chance. Natasha's crowning achievement of the year was her successful cucumber harvest in the back yard. I haven't seen her this excited um ever! 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Tash and Bilal do France, 2015

This whole idea of riding around France with heavy panniers attached to our bikes only took shape following Natasha's incessant bemoaning over how much she misses Europe and how she hasn't seen her mom in a while (a few months but who's judging). Her mom lives in Brighton, England and we could have simply flown there but whats the fun in that? So we decided to fly to the south of France instead and ride up to Brighton on our bikes -- a bit circuitously through the Pyrenees of course!

Trip Planning
Half the fun of such trips is planning them. Given that both of us are severely allergic to the tourist industry, we charted out our own route using ridewithgps with daily mileages, campgrounds to stay, places to stop for lunch, etc. We also decided that we'd spend our money on good food and not splurge on hotels, instead staying in campgrounds and sleeping in a tent. After much google OCD, I manged to find the lightest two-person tent in existence and after another round of OCD, managed to find the cheapest price for it. Anyone looking for an absolutely awesome two-person tent that is suitable for bike touring, look no further than the Terra Nova Solar Photon 2. Luxury tent this is not, but it weighs 2lbs and packs up into a tiny little ball. Given the real estate on our bikes was in high demand this was quite the space saver.

Other things that went into our panniers were sleeping bags, pads, pillows, and clothes. We packed light with only a couple change of clothes, an extra kit, fleece and rain jacket, lights, flip flops, and some lightweight loafers.

We didn't plan to carry any food with us apart from knickknacks we'd pick up locally. Our nutrition plan was simple -- eat a nice breakfast, a nicer lunch, and an awesome dinner. We were going to France after all!

With tickets booked and bikes packed in boxes, we headed to the airport to begin our 12 day romp around France...

Excited to be on a plane to France!

South of France and the Verdon Region
Landing in Nice, we were immediately greeted with a nice bike assembly workstation right next to the baggage conveyor belt. After a bit of technical haggles assembling the bikes, we finally got on our way out of Nice in the late afternoon.

Got bike?

This being summer, Nice was super crowded with tourists. The beaches were really nice but were packed with people so we slowly made our way along the coast to Cannes. Soon thereafter, we turned inland and immediately the climbs hit us hard.

This was a tiny spot on the beach that wasn't overflowing with people

A bit of background -- we had just gotten off an 8-hour plane journey, were sleep deprived and jet lagged, so yeah we were a bit tired. Anyway we had about 50 miles to do that day and turns out about 42 of them were uphill. Curses.

Riding uphill on a loaded bike is an adventure. While Natasha had her brand new shiny touring bike with a dinner-plate cassette on the back, I had a measly 12-28 in the back and was carrying about 40lbs of weight. So it was a slow uphill grind -- Froome-esque cadence I did not have!

With a few extra chest hairs grown, we pulled into our campground for the night. Campgrounds in France are no joke -- they're super clean, well maintained, with hot showers and an onsite restaurant. After showers and a nice meal, we settled in for a well deserved sleep.

Our general plan was to ride towards Mt. Ventoux as its been on my bucket list for a while. Unfortunately we were a bit too optimistic with our planning so ended up having to skip Ventoux in favor of reaching Nimes in time to catch our prepaid train to the Pyrenees. It was disappointing to miss out on Ventoux, but hey the mountain isn't going anywhere and we now have a reason to come back!

The next few days we wound our way across the Verdon Gorge and towards Avignon. This area of France is absolutely stunning. I had no idea before coming here that this region is so beautiful. Some of the locals we met were also surprised that we were bike touring there as not a lot of foreigners come to the area. Well I'm happy to report that we found a real cycling gem. You now know where you want to go for your next cycling vacation -- it is absolutely stunning out there.

Retirement home anyone?

Verdon Gorge

Avignon is a nice city and we spent an afternoon there catching up with Natasha's uncle and aunt and then made our way to Nimes the following day to start the second half of our journey. 

Avignon -- apparently the construction crew went on strike... a century or so ago

One quick note here about bikes on trains in France -- no one cares one bit if you bring your bike on a train. Every website we checked beforehand told us how stringent the rules are and how bikes aren't allowed on certain routes... total BS.. Apart from the TGV, you can simply roll your bike onto any train and basically leave it anywhere. On our last leg from Pau to Paris, the conductor even put our bikes in a sleeping couchette!


Into the Heart of the Pyrenees
Our train brought us into the small town of Foix, at the foothills of the Pyrenees. This is a really cute little town with a nice castle but not much else. After a quick look around we started our uphill slog toward Masat, a small village some several thousand feet up. This was a grind but by this time we had both found our rhythm and happily ate up all the uphills. What was more scary was the 18% downhill we had to negotiate riding into Masat. The road was narrow and bumpy and I have canti brakes on my bike (which if you know canti brakes are simply a suggestion for the bike to slow down). So this was an interesting descent but we managed to come away unscathed.

In Masat we stayed in a local cycle lodge for the night. This was one of the nights we had earmarked to splurge on a nice bed in a hotel. It was definitely worth it and we enjoyed a great meal and some good company of other cyclists.

Unfortunately, this was also the day I felt really sick with a terrible saddle sore and the beginnings of a fever. However, after a good night's sleep and some aggressive saddle sore treatment we kept on chugging forward. I guess it helps to be stubborn at times!

Riding through the Pyrenees is surreal. Many times over the next few days we were above the clouds and the views were absolutely stunning. Every person we met, be it on a bike or in a car was super friendly. Most of the roads we were on didn't really have cars on them at all. I think we saw more cows than vehicles especially atop Col d Aspin where Natasha befriended one who didn't want her to leave!

Riding above the clouds
I just met you and I love you
We camped atop the summit of Col d' Ares the next night and then continued onto Luchon and beyond the next day. This included the climb up Col d Peyresourde which is really steep and the temperature was nearing 100 degrees. But we kept our steady march towards our ultimate goal in the Pyrenees -- Col d' Tourmalet.

It was hot...

...but Tourmalet beckons

For those who follow professional cycling, Tourmalet holds a special place as its one of the iconic climbs of the Tour de France. We arrived at the base of the climb the day before and started up it early in the morning.

Tent up, bikes put away, kits hung to dry, gf sunbathing... all is good in the world

The climb is steep with the gradient steady at 8+ % the whole way with many steeper pitches. But quite anticlimactically this turned out to be an easy climb for us because we had left all our weight and pannier bags at the campground. So we were climbing like everyone else -- super light.

The top of Tourmalet was a circus with so many cyclists and everyone wanting a picture next to the famous cyclist statue. One guy in particular (see below) insisted on taking picture after picture of himself, both alone and with others at the summit. Natasha and I took our picture, ordered coffee, consumed coffee, ate a croissant, and all this while this guy was taking pictures. Well good on him, he'll have about 60 of them to show his kids!

The attack of the selfie-man! 

Our day wasn't done. We descended back to camp, packed up and then continued on our way all the way to Pau. The last stretch ended up being quite exhausting as both of us were pretty tired. And to top it all, the campground we had earmarked to get showered and changed had closed down so we had to resort to stripping naked behind some bushes and dry cleaning with a towel.

R and R 
The final stretch of our journey was an overnight train from Pau to the ferry town of Dieppe.

Here we caught a ferry to England and rode our bikes early in the morning to Natasha's parents' house in Brighton. We spent the next four days simply catching up on sleep and calories before finally boarding a plane back home.

This was a most memorable trip and indeed the first of many to come. We're already busy plotting our next adventure!

The end -- a couple of tired but happy cyclists!