Saturday, July 18, 2009

The damaged-in-the-head race: Amsterdam to Paris in one go.

This transmission is coming to you from a french keyboard in the outskirts of paris, so bear with me through stupid spelling errors. For example, this next sentence I'll type as if I'm at home: My nq,e is Dqvey Dqvis qnd Im, in Pqris hqving the ti,e of ,y life zith Dqvid Zood: Cool huh%1% Qll ,y friends in Qmericq qre suoq)cool:

July 5th- A Day After the Amsterdam-Paris Race, outside a REAL French Chateau.

There are chickens in the yard and 1800's buildings in shambles dotting this old, elegant place, a strange relic that could exist only in Europe, reminding me of a squat or a commune as much as an emblem of the finest and richest citizens of the old world.

The race... the race was unlike anything I'd ever done. I had my expectations of course; giddily explaining to David the way I thought our bodies would feel after 100 miles, 200. The first 100 would be fine, I said, the second impossible, and after that something unforeseeable and indescribable would occur. I guessed at all of this, both of us having never biked more than 120km (70 miles) in one stretch. We only had Peter's word on what would happen. But Peter, I might mention, is totally and insanely awesome. Let me back up. I had never thought any of this was a good idea.

David and I have been having an amazing trip, an impossible trip, one that has been non-stop perfect, saturated good experiences. We bike, and see amazing things, enjoying the simple cadence in our bodies, getting lost and finding our way; arriving exhausted at the next city where we call up our couchsurfing host, make an amazing meal, and sleep after hours of partying, talking, and sometimes dancing until 4 am. The next day we do whatever: bike around with our host, check out street fairs, relax in parks, go to museums, or just lollygag between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In Hamburg we went on huge explorations across the city, going through the Elbe Tunnel, a laborotory of transport, long alien tubes engineered far before I would have imagined there existed the technological capablity. In Bremen there were accordion lessons from a punky hitchhiker named Hanning, followed by an evening concert in the bremen cathedral that David spotted. We scarfed down kebabs on the steps before running into the performance and getting seats in the back, a lovely spot where the reverb and resonance turned my thoughts into long, churning notions about different ways to be. In Groningen we arrived to a bumping house party above Daphne's flat, where we dance with beautiful people all night to an amazing 90's american rap/funk cover band. It was the day Michael Jackson died and right as the night was getting hectic and good the band merged Skeelo's "I wish I was a little bit taller" with an improvised chorus of "billy jean" sung in a hilarious dutch accent, creating possibly the most perfect farwell tribute MJ has received.

Between Groningen and Utrecht was the Netherland's farming country, and we were perfectly content to cycle along rivers and through picturesque towns munching on fruit, yogurt, sandwiches, and our new favorite find: the dutch stroopwaffel, a brittle waffle cake with caramel in it. We had arranged to stop in Laag Zuthem, the smallest town with the worldliest woman, Anne-Marie. She knows much about life; this single mother of 38, much about pain and trials. She provided the first real conversations and connections of the trip, and she has Jessica's copy of The Poisionwood Bible. In return I got a Carribian version of The Illiad called 'Omeros' which seems really cool, but first the english patient. Having time to read has been a highlight for me, of course.

In this vein I was excited to meet Peter, in Utrecht, who had just returned home after 4 years of cycling around the world. He was more hospitable than anyone I've ever met, very relaxed but expecting you to eat all his food (which was disconcerting after so much precise budget-sharing with other surfers).

Within 30 minutes of meeting peter and his girlfriend Pietra we were talking about this insane thing, a 500 km all day and night and day non-stop ride to Paris from Amsterdam. Pietra had been training for it and Elco, a couchsurfer from amsterdam, had mentioned it to us by way of denying us a couch. At that time I had thought it was totally crazy, scoffing to David a few days earlier, "That dude's going to ride the whole second leg of our journey in one day!!" We had laughed about it, but this clear insanity had somehow gestated into a posibillity in the time that passed; for after Pietra finished telling us about it David and I turned to eachother, "why not try it?" We had that look of maniacs we sometimes get. Pietra tried to discourage us, saying how much she'd trained and so on, but Peter was all for it, saying how possible it was. "You wanna come?" "Sure" he said. I failed to bear in mind that this tall, tan, stringy man had just returned from biking every continent on earth for as long as I'd been in college. At this point David went into rapture about it, saying how good the story would be, etc. I took a step back, looked at everything, and realized there was no disadvantage to trying, aside from certain death. Our trip was about chance, versatility, and spontanety; and here the chance of a lifetime was staring us in the face. A'dam to Paris, an old world triple-century.

A word about centuries: a century is american shorthand for a long-ass way on a bike. Why? because it's 100 miles! 100 miles is a long way for a motor to go, let alone me with a piece of metal and a pair of waffle-filled legs; most people consider it an achievement to ride one. I bike every day, for work, transit, and play, but I've never ridden one. My longest day of biking was on this trip, 70 miles or so, and after that distance your bum is sore, you feel like you need some food to be functional again, etc. Here we were planning to do 3 times that, through 3 countries, through the night carring with us food and water and the hope that we could stay awake to hour 30, our optimistic goal. A few people, Peter's roomate included, had raced this course in 24 hours, we thought adding 6 was a safe bet.

Sitting on a bench with a park-like expanse in front of me, dense jungle behind, Paris over the horizon and and honest-to-god pointy-roof killed-by-the-butler Chateau beside me, I can't believe what's happened. I can't believe how I feel, only 24 hours after we stopped biking. I feel great, I can stand up, and breathe through my nose and mouth. The temperature is perfect, and somewhere a team of over-stressed dutch girls is preparing me dinner. But in between that moment of incredulous, fast-paced planning and this guest bench the most intense physical experience of my life passed, and I emerge with tolerances and feelings that I never could have imagined. My body is a quiet lake, placid after a 300 mile meteor shower; flaming stars swallowed into the depths.

WE were so lucky to have Peter with us. Without him we would have surely gotten lost, missed the start, grown slower until we fell over, asleep; or just been distracted into one of the many fruit stands along the way. But the first thing was the food. The day before we went to the store and mimicked item for item what Peter bought. No sweets. No fruit, mostly water he said. But 2 loaves of bread, 800 grams of pound cake, another 800 of grainy breakfast cake, and a jar each of peanut butter. Our additional plan was to stop at Peter's parent's house and have a big dinner before continuing on through the night. The other big win came from his roommate, Geert, who unflinchingly lent us his cycling shorts for the crotch-crushingly long ride. Having never worn a pair I was skeptical, thinking myself too punk-rock for such luxuries, but in retrospect I probably would have been hospitalized without them.

Being total reckless ridiculous badasses we decided to cycle the 25 miles to the start from Utrecht to Amsterdam. "Why not save on the train fare," we thought, "and the extra 40k will just be a drop in the bucket compared to what we are planning, right? Right? "
We arrived within 15 minutes of the start, sweating, dropped off our bags and stepped into the preparation hullaballoo. A stressed looking Dutch girl, Janneke, approached us with a clipboard. "Racing?" She asked in Dutch. "I guess so!" We said, talking in English. She looked shocked. "Are you guys prepared for this? I mean, I haven't seen your names on any of the rosters until today." I smiled. "Well, what happens happens, you know?" Her face fell and she started to stutter. "You know the organization isn't responsible for what happens to you, right? Once you start we're gone, driving to Paris, 4 hours..." I just smiled even wider. We took our places at the start. It looked like rain, and we and the other 12 maniacal teams were nervously eyeing the clouds. I pulled up next to a short girl with pretty freckles and blonde hair. "Ready?" I asked with a smile. "No" She said, glancing ruefully at the sky. We had no idea what we were in for.

With a cheer at noon off we shot through Amsterdam traffic. "Nice city," I thought, barelling through groups of old ladies, schoolkids, businesspeople, and beautiful women cruising the sidewalks on creaking city bikes. "I'll have to come back here some time." We are in a great mood and humming along for the first hundred miles, eating, drinking, and joking while we rode, sometimes listening to Peters stories from every corner of the earth or ribbing David about his ex-girlfriend, sometimes just pedaling in silence for miles and miles. We load sandwiches and peanuts into our jersey pockets, pulling them out and hoping for a nutella one as we ride. Peter's stories really are amazing, a cumulative feeling you get after he modestly tosses out some thought he had through months in Tibet or 5000 meter climbs in Argentina. I'm honored to meet the guy, frankly, let alone keep up with him as his partner on a 500k race. He's an extraordinary being to behold, working 2 days a week so he can pay for his bit of a condemned government apartment that always has 2-3 visitors sleeping on the couch. He bikes everywhere but in the typical dutch fashion, not making a big deal of it, and not even having a bike that he really babies, just hopping on and going for 4 years or so. The way he tells it he didn't even have any money on his trip, surviving only off the kindness of strangers which, as the journey got more epic, gradually ceded into sponsorships.

It bears mentioning that we were disqualified from the start, for having a 3 person team, but that didn't really matter as we weren't trying to win anything, merely see if we could physically do it. Furthermore, our course was longer than the direct routes of the other racers, through Eindhoven, and we thought we would arrive late. We reckoned it was about 50km further.

Just as we were getting tired we arrived at Peter's parent's, who presented a feast as well as discouraging predictions as to the distance. "450 kilometers," said Peter's dad, making a face like he didn't think we could make it. It was evening now, and I'd thought we'd done about 200k, with the first Utrecht leg, so that prediction was discouraging. Later, in Belgium, we were sort-of accosted in a friendly manner by a basketball coach who made a similar prediction of the distance. We pedaled on. The Belgium border came and went with no more fanfare than the most beautiful purple-to-yellow sunset I've seen, cutting through cow fields and fences in irradiated brilliance.

As the night grew later things got really tough. The surreal passage from country to ghost cities left me nearly hallucinating at the motion of it. I wasn't exhausted, but instead sleepy, nodding away, while simultaneously being cold, bitterly cold as the night deepened. Sore spots became frozen and the sandwiches hard and inedible, something to choke on. I dreamed of in-and-out burger, the campsite in Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the French border, anything. Eventually I just dreamt of the sunrise, and the hope that it would trick me into not being so tired, or that a bakery would open and I could get some real food. Then the hills started rolling. We attacked them at first, enjoying the challenge and the rest down the other side, but then they began to slow us, and as our enthusiasm flagged they got taller. There are less bike paths in France and Belgium than there are in northwest Germany and the Netherlands, less grandmothers on bikes, and now I know why. These rolling hills kill, especially after doing something the previous day I had formerly deemed impossible.

David quickly went from bad to worse, so much so that I was annoyed with him for a bit, because he hadn't mentioned anything. He had been trying to trick himself, to stay positive, but it was too late. When he collapsed in front of a house in some nameless village it was close to 5 a.m. We'd been biking officially for 17 hours, unofficially for 22. By our prediction we'd gone 320 kilometers, and according to reason and the people we'd spoken to we had about that far to go. Expanding the course from 500k to 600 this late in the mental game was crushing. We decided we would take David to the nearest train station and send him to Paris. In Namur, after biking 350km, we wished him well. Shivering and bleary eyed he went into the station.

30k later Peter and I couldn't stay awake. Our progress was so slow, nearly a crawl for me in my easiest gear, and we decided we had to sleep just as the sun was coming up, from 6:15 to 7:00. "A power nap!" Peter said, delighted. He was exhausted too, but clearly still enjoying himself. I fell asleep on a bench, shivering in spandex shorts and a lightweight raincoat, feeling drained of all heat and energy and being. I fell asleep instantly, not thinking or dreaming at all.

Waking was like rising from the dead, death by drowning, in ice with no survivors. I snapped from nothing to a huge gasp and a shiver; non-stop and frightening, rattling my bones. My sore legs felt like coldpacks, solid chunks of dumb pain. I fell into the center of the road in a patch of early morning sun, crosslegged, worshipping the warmth, feeling the paltry sunrise like a flavor in my skin. We started to bike again and I knew I was done. The cold, the distance, David gone, all the negativity hit me like a brick while Peter was fine, refreshed by the sleep, his eyes calm. Our route took us through incredible, spectral towns, European ur-fortresses on the french border, with castles and cliffs and winding rivers and cobblestones. The cobblestones actually caused me to spit out the worst string of words I've ever combined out loud towards the Belgium and French notion of what a sane biker could travel on, as these killer monstrosities lay below plainly marked bike path signs, as if saying with a French shrug, "We gave you your path, what more do you want?" Every bump was pain, I was livid.

The next we stopped I hatched my plan of escape to Peter, slurring how he should go ahead and I would find a train station, but he firmly countered that he would come too. We had gone nearly 450 kilometers, to Charleville, but our route was too long, we were still around 210 away from Paris, it just didn't seem possible. It would have been 10 more hours of biking, and I was done. 280 miles straight, it was 200 more than I had ever done in one stretch, and I couldn't see beyond my situation. But context is everything. Had Paris been over the next hill, I hope I could still have made it.

It took us from noon until 10 PM to navigate the trains avec Velo however, and we joked the whole time that biking would have been faster. In the small town of Fauney I got my first French baguette and chocolate croissant of the trip, for 65 cents each. So I was indescribably happy. After that ride, sitting in the sun with a bit of meat, cheese, and the best baguette in the world I was absolutely content. We also had plenty of time in Reims to see the spectacular and famous Cathedral, which is all it's cracked up to be with its huge sweeping arches and ornate overpopulated exterior.

I don't know what's next on this crazy trip but I hope it's relaxing. Until the alleycat in Paris, of course.

A day later, I feel good, legs sore but not as sore as they could be, impressed by my body's capabilities and the depth of its reserve. I am even more astonished by the huge rewards that an open, adventurous life has bestowed upon me, and the powerful results that good friends and mad recklessness can provide.


Elaine said...

amazing. it's fascinating to push yourself to the limits... maybe i'll try it out someday :)

i'm thinking of doing a *mini* women's triathalon with a 3.2 mile run, 16 lap (1 mile) swim, and an 11 mile bike ride. i think it might kill me. it sounds like less than a drop in the bucket after reading this.

i love you.

~the sister

Manda said...

Congrats Davey! Inspiring story. Thank you for your beautiful imagery and avid descriptions of your experience. It very much so makes me miss Europe! Hope you have more exciting stories to tell!

Anonymous said...

Crazy Davey! Don't push yourself too hard. But, there are just some things you can't pass up, even if you have no logical reason for doing them. Remember...

Why is a raven like a writing desk?


Brandon Patterson said...

The intensity of the ride and the thought of enduring such a spectacle brought tears to my eyes. The immense physical capabilities of humanity are inspiring. Thank you.


~kitticus~ said...

I wanted to say something, but actually don't know what to say. It sounds like your trip is one beyond comparison. Travel safely!

Davey D said...

Thanks for reading everybody! It's been so fun...

I hope you did the triathlon Elaine, that sounds super cool and I'd totally drown on the swimming section.

Dima, I have no idea how a raven is like a writing desk. :)