Sunday, July 19, 2009

I finally get that ride in and I wonder how people do it.

After an expat style dinner of Italian sausage panini and a couple of decent pale ales, I headed home to watch Le Tour on my computer until my eyes simply refused to stay open. The results are funny when you move your body clock 12+ hours. The whole of my waking hours has shifted from a US schedule of 7AM until around midnight to wide awake around 5AM and completely unable to do anything after about 10PM. And when I say do anything, I mean getting settled into bed with a NY Times crossword puzzle and then waking up an hour or so later with the pencil in my hand and the paper propped up against my knees. If I’m out with friends or actively engaged in something at home, I can keep rolling. But the minute I put myself in a place of relaxation, I’m gone.

I had a good night’s sleep and got out of bed at 6, forcing myself to stay in bed for about an extra hour. It felt good even though it was very bright outside my drapes as it is every morning here where the sun seems to come up at 4. China’s single time zone policy is the culprit, this place really should be an hour ahead like Japan or Korea, but that would undermine the control. I do wonder what it’s like 3000 miles away on the steppes where it should be 4 time zones earlier.

I decided today to ride my steel bike which meant I had to change a flat tire that appeared when I unpacked it from my shipping container. In fact, both bikes had front flats, victims of Goathead thorns which had hitch-hiked a trans-Pacific ride by embedded in my tire treads. The irony was sweet, they are the bane of my existence back home and how funny to have them puncture me here too. The tires I have on this bike are made by Continental, the same German giant that produces car and truck tires. They are a very good product but they are well known for their intransigence in being mounted and removed. In other words putting a couple of Conti tires on your bike almost always means blood blisters on both thumbs. People have tried everything from mechanic’s gloves to baking them in the oven to soften them up but still they go on torturing consumers.

My bike tools are being stored in a drawer in my study so I went and collected the shiny blue Park Tool tire levers I had purchased just for this trip. Sitting down and preparing for the battle, I inserted the curved end of the lever and with an authoritative “snap,” it popped right out. This is not unusual – it happens just about every time I change a flat with these tires. But eventually you get purchase on the bead of the tire and you lift it out. I tried again – snap. And again – snap. And again. Now I’m sitting there wondering what I’m going to do. Should I ride the other bike? Should I swap the wheels out? Should I wait and see if I can find some levers at a local bike store? I mean, I was in a jam. When I ride, I always carry a set in my bag in case of a flat on the road and I wondered and it occurred to me about this time that I might have left a pair in the kit I carry with me. Retrieving it, the news was good – there was a pair and they were the skinnier kind that generally stands up to the bully-tires. My next pass was about as difficult as it usually is and I managed to get the job done.

By now though it was on the down side of 7 and I was missing my goal of getting out while it was still on the cool side. So I rushed through the preparations and making my way downstairs I was pretty shocked to feel just how tropical it was. I was sorry I hadn’t left earlier but not so much as to cancel so I shot a quick text message off to a Dermott, one of the guys I work with who said he might be interested and headed out of the parking lot towards the side street across from my place.

The first thought I had about riding here was that it is not adequate to simply look both ways when pulling out into the street. No, if you’re crossing a sidewalk you need to look both ways too. Not for pedestrians who will generally get out of your way, but rather for cars and trucks that are often using it for an uncrowded lane. And sure enough a green taxi that would have broadsided me came along as if on cue.

I got across Jinma Lu with no further near misses and shot up the shady side street past the busses idling while waiting for the factory workers that live in the dormitories off the main drag. It is very common here for companies to buy what is essentially a blocky hotel building and fill it with workers, 3 and 4 to a room. These young people come in from the countryside, get a job which includes small room lined with bunk beds where they spend their off time. Riding up the street, small groups of young women and men stood around wasting what little time they had chatting before boarding the tour bus to work. The street was wet and very muddy, remnants from the storm on Friday. In every tree locusts were singing loudly. Not the monotone whine we hear in our summer months but a loud, electric “beep beep beep” that trailed off into a similar whine. Cresting the top of the small climb and making a left I was surprised to see that the beekeepers were gone from where I left them a couple of months ago. Along this street the locusts were joined by hundreds of those same orange Dragonflies I had seen yesterday outside the big market yesterday.

My plan was to shoot down the road and head around to the park where I would do some loops while waiting to hear from him but he answered right away and so I took off back in his direction, somehow realizing that I had forgotten my frame pump. Since my place was between where I was and where he lives, I figured I waste 10 minutes and go get it. Taking an easy pace down the middle of the broad sidewalk – no point in dealing with the street – I made my way back in about 5 minutes and crossed the street. Heading into the building the first thing I realized was that I was soaking in sweat, far more than I should have been given the very light exertion I’d just completed. The humidity and heat were just that strong at this early hour.

I debated taking back streets in order to avoid the traffic but decided that it was time to do a little serious riding so I stayed on the major road a picked up a good head of speed. The cars and trucks were generally respectful of me along here, which really meant nothing more than I was not in their way. I climbed another small hill and took the big arc that brings the road parallel to the ocean. Fishing boats were bobbing just offshore and regional cargo ships stood anchored off in the distance. It was much cooler along here which was a nice treat. Just about here I got into a bad harmonic with a couple of busses. They would cut me off to make their stop, I would shoot by them. They would leave the stop and pass me, only to force the same situation down the street. It wasn’t much of a problem as the traffic was light and I was able to speed around them until I found myself in an almost bus sandwich. The red one in front cut me off hard, and when I went to swerve around it the green one kept coming fast closing the window of escape. It took a much bigger burst of speed to avoid being funneled into the diminishing gap between the bus and the curb and ending up riding straight into the people waiting to board. After that close call the pattern was broken and I went on my way down to Dermott’s apartment.

He was waiting for me when I arrived and I took a moment to check a problem with my chain that turned out to be precisely what I thought it was - my second rookie mistake of the week. When I reassembled this bike after receiving my shipment I managed to run the chain over one of the two guide “teeth” that keep in rolling on the derailleur pulleys. The effect is a consistently noisy and annoying buzz that immediately informs you of your incompetence. Lucky for me I had installed quick links on these chains before leaving and the upside was a quick repair. The downside was very greasy hands. I figured though that the mess would never stand up to the sweat and I ended up being correct.

The place where he lives is called Costa del Sol and it was built by a Spanish construction consortium. It’s absolutely enormous, starting at the street with rows and rows of townhomes that change into very tall apartment buildings as the complex creeps up a hillside. Inside there are trees and fountains and pleasant landscaping along with these weird Salvatore Dali inspired statues, no doubt the whim of one of the architects. I remembered a giant elephant with golden pyramids on his back, he being supported by long, long skinny legs with three knee joints. I had looked at this place when I was house hunting last year and had decided against it because it fell outside the maximum distance I felt allowed a reasonably short walk to Starbucks.

He wanted to stop at a little convenience store so I followed him up a steep, cobblestone drive that made me think of the hills in the Belgium spring cycling classics. Here I was on my very own Koppenberg on the other side of the world in 90 degree heat and 80% humidity, a far cry from March in northern Europe.

We took a short jog on a main road and then caught a lateral street through an industrial area. Along this road, there was no traffic and the respite was nice. Eventually we made a left onto one of the main boulevards that serves the port traffic and while the car volume stayed low, we were starting to be chased by a lot of big trucks. There was a lot of evidence of the rainstorm here with thick patches of dried mud lining the bike lane. In addition to traffic and people driving on sidewalks, road surface hazards require a high level of diligence. Along this route the grates over the storm sewers had been removed for some reason and the resulting hole would destroy a bike wheel if one was unfortunate enough to ride into one.

Our loose goal was to ride out towards the Jinshitan beach resort which is on the main road out beyond where we work. He had another riding engagement scheduled for the afternoon and so we had left our distance open. As it always is, when you ride with someone else of like ability the speed goes up and it wasn’t long before I looked at my watch and realize we were riding along at 22MPH. Once we made the turn onto the Jinshitan road, we found ourselves riding with a bunch of busses ranging in size from full scale touring to airport rental car shuttles. Again the old pattern emerged, getting cut off, speeding around, getting cut off again. Every once in a while we’d get a nice face full of black diesel smoke as the bus accelerated.

It’s interesting to cycle roads that you usually see from a car. Lots of interesting little details emerge – streams, fields, little house tucked in corners down below the road grade. Once past the bus traffic I allowed myself to do a bit of sightseeing as the road quality was pretty good. I did go past another storm sewer missing its grates, the hazard this time marked by two red bricks standing on end. Someone’s idea of helping I guess.

As we motored on, the temperature dropped a bit and a small sea breeze picked up, making the ride very pleasant. We were riding between green hills, shimmering in the haze. Passing the tourist office we were amazed at the sheer number of busses, parked and waiting to transport the crowds down to the beach.

Getting down to the shore required crossing the road and making a left on a exit that leads to a tunnel that loops back around under the highway. I hate this tunnel; in the winter it’s choked with ice that suggests that water is seeping down around the joints of the concrete walls. I really don’t want to be in there the day it collapses and I didn’t like the idea of riding my bike through the short, dark passage. While trying to figure out where to turn I blew past the exit and had to go a ½ mile up the road before a break in the median allowed me to turn around. When I reached the turn, I turned right past a busload of women who were taking pictures of us.

The tunnel was surprisingly easy and things were great until another run-in with a bus that was either going straight or turning right at an intersection we were approaching. I assumed “right” and was glad I did – he sped up and cut me off sharply just as I committed to the turn. A quick u-turn and we were headed back in the proper direction.

A bit further down the road we made a left and rode parallel to the sea. Here we could take a break from having to watch each and every car because the road was small and slow. Like every shore town, we had open air restaurants, stalls selling cheap souvenirs and sun-hats, bicycles for rent and big tents down on the beach. The number of people on the shore slowly increased in proportion to the services. It was a nice break between the breeze, the temperature and the smell of the sea.

At the end of the strand we climbed up and over the Golden Bay Bridge and turned back towards the town to make our way to the main highway. We were riding back towards home and into the wind and even that struggle was worth the slight improvement it made in the temperature that had once again risen now that we were away from the shore. A bus about to make a left turn took a look at us and went right on, forcing us to stop. Fifteen or twenty people were on their knees in a little section of grass, pulling individual weeds. Cars were speeding by us blowing their horns in case we did not know that they were there.

You reach a point in every ride when you think you might have just overdone it a bit. It came for me it came at 29 miles, the heat and the cars and the humidity were winning the battle. I had only the roughest idea how much farther we had to go and it’s too bad when a fun excursion turns into a slog. When it does, your resolve just melts away. By now we’d left the area along the water and it was much hotter than it had been on the ride out and that didn’t help with the psychological piece one bit.

But the scenery passes and you find yourself happy that you’re not going to have to climb that impending hill because your turn is just ahead. The road back down to Dermott’s place was now very busy with port traffic - all manner of construction traffic and big container trucks passed us on their way to some job or to pick up and drop off some kind of cargo.

I had about 4 more miles to go having said “goodbye” and the road was much busier than it had been back at 8:00. When I reached a critical crossroad I grabbed a quick left which allowed me to cut back to my building on easy, residential streets. One last little moment happened when I had to do some creative maneuvering to get across the last main street. I made a right, rolled a bit and took a quick u-turn right in the direction of a Chinese man on a bike riding along the other side of the road. He gave me a terrified look and shouted something I did not understand as I cut across his path and made a hard right turn. I found it pretty funny that I had managed to intimidate one of these guys in their element.

Back at my place the elevator was just closing but the young woman inside caught the door just as I got there. I must have been a sight – dripping wet, plastered hair, in bike clothes trying to squeeze my bike in the lift. She requested my floor in English and asked where I was from. We had a nice chat in our native tongues as I stood their forming a puddle on the floor.

42 miles was the final total, done on a bowl of corn flakes and a small yogurt. I had to admit I had not done a good job of preparing myself for such an epic, but that’s often the case when you head out the door with one thing in mind and ended up doing another, all in all though a good day out with plenty of time and miles behind me and some great conversation.

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