Saturday, June 14, 2014

European Cliches: La Rioja Bike Race, Toblerone, and the Tightest Pants in the World

Four benadryl later I was wheels down in Frankfurt, Germany. I awoke to a teeny tiny Toblerone on my pillow, the capstone finish to three courses of hospital grade airline food. The sleek obsidian finish and pitch-perfect resonance of Europe's busiest airport surrounded me - Frankfurt literally  hummed with efficiency. And techno.

My stomach rumbled in time with the smooth sounds of the latest NOW! Thats What I Call Music electronic mashup of Lana Del Ray. Having meant to change out of my compression tights before landing, I was unable to dislocate both hips to accomplish this inside the coach-class bathroom. Stumbling off the jetway, I was relieved to find I was not the man wearing the tightest pants in the airport. Not even the 2nd or 3rd tightest, in fact.
Pain and horror. And 40 minute descents.
Welcome to Spain.

Never having played with over-the-counter sleep aids before, I was unsure how capable I would be after 7.5 hours on Luftansia's finest not-quite-A380 quality European bicycle portage. Three or four teeny tiny coffees would clear my head, and nothing is more sobering than trying to order up a large Americano with soy milk in broken Spanish, in Germany. 

"Soy grande americano por favor." 
"No s#it you are, brah."

I f#cking love Europe. Time to ride bikes, bitches.

My destination was Logrono, Spain, where I would be competing in the inaugural La Rioja Bike Race. After a season getting shot off the back of UCI mountain bike races in North America, I knew that having one or two UCI points would immediately improve my results by bumping me up a a few dozen riders in the starting corral.

Points, however, are extremely hard to come by in North America. Conversely, Europe is just brimming over with mountain top finishes where giggly, pig-tailed frauleins wait, ready to pour beer on their teets and smother the victor with kisses. Go to Europe, they told me. For the glory, and the honor, and even if you suck it up hard (and you will), at least it will be an experience.

They're up there. The Stage 3 Swiss Misses.
For weeks I had been riding the trainer to nowhere, watching highlight reels of Peter Sagan motorboating Le Tour bimbos after spectacular stage victories, dreaming of my day in the Spanish sun. Powder days came, powder days went. And there I was, locked up in my basement S&M studio, heat cranked up to 85, hooked to a drip IV of hummingbird food, putting in my miles. I had a lot on my mind and was focused on spring. And I had plenty of me time to work it all out.

I've been to Spain twice now, for two major races. Fresh off a German Shepherd attack in 2011, I put on red white and blue for the first time to join Team USA at the Duathlon World Championship in Gijon.  This experience was marked by tremendous jetlag, a textbook reaction to the boatloads of levaquin I was ingesting to combat the dog bite, and me getting my fat ass dropped by some very fast Portuguese and Spanish runners on the first 10k leg of the race.

Completely unrelated to the race. This is a smoke stack.
At the time I signed up for La Rioja Bike Race, I'd completely forgotten that three of the top five finishers in Gijon had had their titles stripped for doping.  Having survived freshman year of college in a substance free dorm, I couldn't have been less interested in the European drug scene. They have their drugs, teetotalers had their prayers. These are just two very different ways of racing.

Beyond the stereotype that all Europeans are dopers, I'd forgotten how much European athletes really want it. They train hard, race hard, and win decisively by having much bigger balls than anyone else in the game. As a guy who has slept in an altitude tent to gain an unfair advantage on the competition, I know a badass, well-trained, ambitious little Spanish dude when I see one. When I queued up to start Stage 1 of La Rioja Bike race, there wasn't just one of them. There were HUNDREDS.

Typical views from the bottom.
A mountain bike stage race is exactly what you would expect. Multiple days of riding bikes uphill, and then downhill. Pro team tour busses lined up in parking lots, spilling out picnic tables, squeaky clean bikes, mechanics, masseuse, and of course a "professional chef." You know, the guy who fills the pill boxes and spikes the quinoa salad.

I'd never heard of La Rioja region of Spain. A quick look at the map revealed it lay somewhere between Basque country and the Pyrenees. My red-faced alcoholic friends pointed out they were famous for wine. Red wine obviously. Rioja. Red...

I had packed my trusty Boy Scout pig-bladder canteen to fill with their famous stuff. Gonna race 1920s Le Tour style. Drunk as a skunk, cigarette dangling precariously from the corner of my mouth as I climbed the 20% grade walking paths of ubiquitous Spanish hill towns. Laundry drying overhead. Old women waving from third story windows. Aid stations chocked full of bakers boys handing out fresh baguette and milk maids with their wheels of cheese. I had great expectations for La Rioja Bike Race, and the Race delivered on every single one of them.

We raced down this street.
The Race consists of three separate stages, all starting from city center in Logrono. Stage 1 covered 34 miles and 4k ft of climbing. Stage 2 featured 42 miles and 6500 ft of climbing. The penultimate Stage 3 covered 50 miles and nearly 8k ft of climbing, including 3.5 miles averaging 600 ft per mile.

These were some of the most spectacularly painful days I have ever spent on a bike. That said, La Rioja Bike Race is squarely within realm of possibility for almost anyone who loves riding a mountain bike up and down hill. None of these days included the blowout mileage or elevation seen in popular North American endurance races. And, with a starting altitude of 1500 feet, and climbs topping out at 5000 feet, no one needs to moved to Boulder for a month to prep for this.

May is also the perfect month for a destination cycling trip. By mid-May, most of us are knee deep in mud and have grown weary of the endless trainer time required to look good in a green speedo come July. And La Rioja Bike Race isn't the only interesting place you can schlep your bike to in Europe. There are dozens of these races all across the continent, including a seven day point to point race from Germany to Italy. If you're going to be forced to pay someone to portage your gear on a bike tour, why not make it the Trans-Alps backcountry race? For the cost of admission, it's a no brainer - stage race all the way.

Salt tears of fear.
The minute details of La Rioja Bike Race are only just coming together for me now. The mass start, surrounded by hundreds of elite riders. The peloton leaving Logrono at 30 mph, watching men (and women) throwing their bikes over traffic circles, through oncoming traffic, around dumpsters, down side streets and across gaping Roman aqueducts to gain an advantage in the pack. Ninety eight pound climbing specialists with their chests to the stem on double track downhills, passing me like I was standing still. Spectators shouting "Venga! Venga! Animal! Animal!" as I and my newly-formed team of unaffiliated ESL students attacked up endless climbs, trying to bridge the gap growing between us and the factory team riders.

Waking in a cold sweat a few nights after returning to the US, I recalled that there were also horses. And a man on fire. And I may have killed a man, with a trident. God damn what a fine, furious bike race. I will never think about riding bikes the same way. I will never be the same.

Thanks to all the friends I made. It was an honor to race with you, and have you take so many photos of me at the finish line, as the top and only American finisher, and man racing with only two names.

For a good recap of the race, check out the Stage 3 Highlights Video. Many thanks to my wonderful sponsors, Pivot Cycles, for setting me up with a lightning-quick Pivot LES for the race, and to Louis Garneau for the brain bucket and sweet training gear, and Powerbar for the never-ending supply of movie candy.

This man made me feel like Justin Crocker.
He did not appreciate being picked up and shaken
like a rag doll upon parting. I did appreciate his company.


  1. "Soy grande americano por favor."
    "No s#it you are, brah."

    That is very funny. Great story - sounds like quite a ride.