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Click here to see a La Crosse Tribune article about the mission in Uganda.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

I Bear-ly Made It

"Close don't count in baseball. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."
                     Frank Robinson (Time magazine, July 31, 1973)

Close doesn't usually cut it in bicycle touring either. You pretty much need to finish the route. That is, unless you stumble upon a place in which you'd rather spend the rest of your life.

The third day of each of the tours presented real challenges in the form of weather and difficult climbs. In each case, I made it. And I didn’t make it. Here are the accounts...

I Bear-ly Made It - CGY
Today I rode 31.4 miles from Red Lodge to the top of Beartooth Pass, putting in 5,640 feet of climbing on a day when the average temperature was 38 degrees F.

The route ended at Cooke City. My ride, just a little shy of that!
The gorilla bear in the room made its presence known as this was the day to go up and over Beartooth Pass on our way to Cooke City, Montana at the Silver Gate entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Remember the weather at the end of the ride from Absarokee to Red Lodge? Rain, wind hail. Well, for today the forecast on Beartooth pass was for cold and snow. SNOW. In AUGUST! 

The forecast was very precise - snow would start sometime between 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Well, at least it narrowed the possibilities a little. CGY took the approach of hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. The first action in this vein was to announce that the morning departure, normally between 7:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. would this day be moved and shrunk to 6:00 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. giving a better chance for more riders to get over the summit before the weather. In addition to this, CGY called in more vehicles to patrol the route and provide SAG services as needed.

We departed in the dark and immediately began riding uphill into a moderate chilly headwind. Grades slowly increased from 2% to 6% over the first 10 miles as we rode through a spectacular landscape of steep mountainsides on both sides of the road. Here we went from the 5,500 foot elevation of Red Lodge to about 6,700 feet. The "acclimation" rides of the first two days certainly helped, but altitude was also going to play a role in today's ride.

At the 10 mile point, the road went left and we started the more serious part of the climbing ...

The rest stop was 22 miles into the climb and at an elevation of 9,300 feet. It was not yet 11 and it was beginning to snow in fits and starts. The skies were gray and low - well, lower than the surrounding peaks anyway, which were enshrouded in the mist. The CGY staff was asking everyone to get some food and hurry back onto the road. There were 10 miles and 1,600 feet of climbing to the summit and the weather would only get worse from now on.

I think the first picture below, the last I took this day, is near the 25 mile point. The next picture is at the same location, taken by the CGY photographer. Comparing this to the picture from earlier in the climb, you can see that I have now put on my heavier jacket and gloves. The temperature had been dropping as we climbed and here it was just at freezing.

Smiling? Perhaps not ...
I was tired and when one of the SAG vans stopped to pick up a few riders, I considered his offer of a ride up to the summit. But, I kept on. Three miles later, I was at the summit. The east summit. The clouds parted, possibly out of surprise that I had actually gotten this far, but this brief glimpse of blue sky was soon a memory as the gray and light snow returned. What was to come was a 1.5 mile descent followed by a 1.7 mile climb of 425 feet to the slightly higher elevation of the west summit.

I had made it. There was hot soup for lunch. I was fatigued and cold. The short descent between summits had revealed a stark reality - the real descent ahead was going to be cold, cutting-through-every-layer-I-had-on cold.

We were on a barren mountaintop with no facilities. The only shelter was a number of CGY cars, trucks and an RV, all already full of people getting warm and waiting for a ride to Cooke City. It started snowing in earnest and the CGY staff were saying the window for leaving was going to close soon. If anyone thought they were up to going to the next rest stop, nine miles down the slopes, then they could leave. That rest stop was at a store, out of the snow, and more convenient for the ride vehicles picking up riders and carrying then to Cooke City.

When I heard this, I thought I can at least do this next 9 miles. But after putting toe warmers in my shoes adding another layer over my hands and feet the following happened: (a) It started snowing even harder, wind-driven and limiting visibility. (b) I realized how fatigued I was. (c) I recalled what I knew about the descent - it was going to be steep, fast, technical and very cold. (d) I decided I would end my ride right here.

Not so many people made it all the way to Cooke City this day. And, as almost all of them would say, they deserved some congratulations, but also a reminder that it was maybe not worth it. Bill was one who made it. He said the descend was bordering on terrifying. Cold robbed his fingers of feeling and caused him to shiver enough to make controlling the bike difficult. Others who I talked to or overheard had the same story.

It was, as one rider put it, an epic day. He went on to explain that in this case, epic wasn't necessarily great, but a day that would provide stories for a long time to come...

I Bear-ly Made It - Piedmont
Today I rode 29.2 miles from Acqui to Alba, putting in 2,080 feet of climbing on a day when the average temperature was 61 degrees F.

The route from Acqui Terme to Alba
This ride was startlingly similar to the one over Beartooth pass considering it was so different. Or, perhaps it was extremely different for one that was so similar.

We started this ride in a dumping rain. After 2 miles on a busy road, we turned off onto a short climb; the average gradient was 19% with a section near the top registering 28%. This was thrown in just to get our attention I guess. Two and a half moles later we started on a longer climb averaging 8% again, with a good portion being in the 13 - 16% range. It had stopped raining however and I could finally put my glasses back on.

We eventually made a nice descent into the town of Canelli. We stopped for coffee and a navigation update in a shop that Bill and Julio had been at on a previous ride. The two pictures below are the only ones I took until we rode in to the hotel in Alba. It was that kind of a day.

On the descent into Canelli
Coffee and navigation in Canelli

About 6 miles out of Canelli we started climbing again, gaining 1350 feet in 3.7 miles, averaging 7% with the odd 15 - 19% thrown in for good measure. The first town we went through offered no open restaurants - Italy closes in the early afternoon - so we rode on, now heading downhill.

It was good to get into descent mode, but alas, it was short lived. We actually rolled across the top of a ridge, descending a little then having to regain the elevation on a series of short, steep climbs. After 8 miles of this, we came to the town of Manera. We found a tavern with a small dining area. However, were told upon entering that the kitchen had just shut down for the break. I think the proprietor saw our desperate need though and offered to prepare us something. It turned out to be a hearty pasta with tomato sauce. It did not do too much for us, only saved our lives! We were very appreciative of this kindness.

While eating I realized that I was feeling not too different from where I was at the top of Beartooth pass. Julio was actively looking for a path to Alba as we walked out the door and saw a sign showing we were only 8 miles from town. The tavern owner said it was all downhill.

After a brief consideration, I opted to ride with Julio and we set off on a very nice descent - the road was not busy, the surface was good and the curves and switchbacks were gently sweeping, allowing for a brakes-free run into town.

So it was that we pulled into the hotel, got settled and enjoyed a post-ride beer before Bill and John came in. They reported that the route they had finished was not nearly as challenging and father and son got to enjoy that part of the ride at their pace. Win - win.

We saw the sign to the hotel as we rode into Alba - good thing as the GPS route had us going into the center of the city!

Sitting at a small table relaxing after the ride, enjoying the nice lawn with its bowling surface 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Wandering Wonderer

"Not all those who wander are lost."
             J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

And Not all those who wonder are confused. But occasionally there are some who are both - lost and confused that is. Take Bill for example ...

You may have noticed that Bill has not been with us on the ride in Italy. And this was a tour he planned and had been looking forward to with much anticipation since the idea first sprouted earlier this year. I think it is about time to tell the story, inasmuch as I know it!

Bill's wife sent me a text on Wednesday, the evening before our planned departure for Italy. She had taken him to the ER with "severe" abdominal pain. Based on his later accounting of that day, "severe" was a serious understatement. This set in motion a series of events, ending up with the decision that Julio, John and I would carry on with the tour, something strongly encouraged by Bill.

Later that night, reports came in that the problem was likely ulcers, but the doctors wanted more tests the next morning. Bill considered trying to leave after the procedures, but by noon on our getaway day he contacted me as I was waiting in O'Hare, saying that he would not be able to make the trip.

End of story, right? Well ...

On Friday evening as I was settling in at the hotel in Alessandria waiting for John and Julio to arrive, I got an email from Bill saying:

"I have booked a flight tomorrow (Saturday)* to take me to Zurich on Sunday then travel to join in Acqui Terme Sunday afternoon*."    *my additions

If only it were to be so easy.

Bill showed up at the La Crosse airport for his Saturday flight to Chicago then on to Zurich (surprisingly, there are no non-stop flights to Europe from La Crosse), a destination dictated by seat availability and cost considerations. But, as it was for me, his first flight is delayed, but in his case by SEVEN HOURS! The result was him getting only as far as Chicago late Saturday night with the flight to Zurich now moved to Sunday. The only good news here was that he would arrive in Zurich earlier in the morning than with his first revised plan, giving him more time to work out the train travel to Acqui Terme.

This, as we will see, was a very fortunate turn of events.

So he did make it to Zurich and, encumbered with suitcase and bike (recall that my late arriving bags provided me the chance to navigate the rail system without having to deal with this issue), wandered around the airport train station, ticket to Acqui Terme in his hand, wondering about which train to take. There was one on the assigned track with the destination board showing Geneva. With near perfect logic, Bill thought, "Geneva is probably on the way to Milan and since this is a Swiss train, they just highlighted the Geneva stop."

OK, so maybe it wasn't that near to being perfect. By the time the train reached Geneva, the conductor had provided him advice on getting back on track. With this and some help at the ticket office in Geneva, he was soon on his way to Milan. From there, he was only a couple of Regional train legs away from joining up with us.

Meanwhile, back in Acqui Terme: We were making plans for dinner and speculating on when Bill would arrive. Based on Julio's trip from Zurich to Alessandria, we figured he would arrive before we set out for the restaurant. Later, we waited in our hotel bar until time for us to set out - we had a reservation and did not want to be too late. We would be very close to the hotel though so I left a note at the front desk telling Bill how to find us during dinner.

What was happening out on the railways of northwestern Italy during this time may never be fully known. Even Bill is a little fuzzy on the details. But after leaving Milan, he changed trains as planned, though there may have been a misstep which had him on the wrong train and needing to backtrack to get on course.

Almost on course. Instead of heading to Acqui Terme, he ended up in Genoa. Now Genoa is on the Mediterranean coast and is not usually a stop on the way from Milan. Since he could go no farther south, he was assured of at least heading in the right general direction (that would be north). And that was, at least, successfully accomplished. But there was yet another wrong train choice where he would need to get off the one he boarded and go back to find the right train. However, a fellow passenger who knew something of the system told Bill he could just wait where he was and that the train he wanted would be stopping shortly.

Planned route in blue, actual route (as far as can be determined) in red
And so Bill finally arrived in Acqui Terme. But don't relax - he was not at the hotel yet.

Being as late as it was, there was only one cab at the station and it had been called by a couple of men who were heading in a different direction. But here is a nice part of the story - after a brief discussion, the men asked the driver to take Bill and his considerable baggage to the hotel, then come back to the station for them. During the trip, Bill got an estimate of the fare the men would run up and gave the driver that amount along with his own fare and generous tip.

And so it was that when I walked down to the Lobby at about 11:15 p.m., I saw Bill's bike box near the desk with Bill and John sitting outside, wondering how Bill had managed to get so many miles out of his ticket from Zurich to Acqui.

Disclaimer: This report is intended to serve as a warning, not a suggestion, for use in planing your next trip.

Lessons Learned
Do you have to ask?

It was, of course, a great relief to hear that Bill's health issues were no worse than they were and we all appreciated his presence during the remainder of the tour.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Round and Round

Mzungu / Muzungu "Someone who roams around aimlessly" or "aimless wanderer." The term was first used in the African Great Lakes region to describe European explorers in the 18th century, apparently as a result of their propensity to get lost in their wanderings in Africa. The term is now used to refer to someone with white skin.

I've been called Muzungu in Uganda many times in reference to my skin color. But I have been known to wander around some too. Just recall the accounting of our attempts to get out of Alessandria on the first ride of the Piedmont tour.

Click on the image and you can see my name: "Muzungu." The kids at the school got a real kick out of that!
As it happens, the second day of each of our two tours had us wandering around a bit before returning to our starting points …

Round and Round – CGY
Today we rode 71.2 miles from Red Lodge to Absarokee, putting in 4,846 feet of climbing.

The route from Absarokee to Red Lodge with the out-and-back loop to Nye
On this day we completed the planned round trip to Red Lodge, the town we had departed from the day before. And, doubling down on the round and round theme, we were sent off the direct route to Red Lodge to ride through Fishtail to Nye, returning on the same route before joining up again with the road to Red Lodge.

Today was longer with more climbing, apparently an attempt to get us even more acclimated. But it was another glorious day and the visit to Nye gave us a chance to ride a hilly route through beautiful open country.

The route opened 30 minutes later than normal -- There is a large mine on the leg to Nye and the mining company asked CGY for the delayed start as they bus workers in to minimize the number of cars on the road. They felt it would be easier for the bus drivers and the cyclists to not have to worry about each other. A good plan, but it was the extra 30 minutes in the sleeping bag that sold me.

Along the route to Nye
The rest stop in Nye was at the community's one room school. It is a big land with big skies and big ranches, but not so many big towns. One young girl had set up a refreshment stand, raising money for her 4H Club. CGY had drinks and snacks, of course, but that did not slow down her business at all. When asked about her efforts, she told us she had made all of the cookies and brownies herself the day before and that she could offer two types of lemonade, "pink and yellow." She only asked for tips for whatever you took. But she could sell – I selected a couple of cookies and she said to me, "They are a lot better with lemonade. Would you like pink or yellow." I chose yellow; what else could I do?!

Providing us with refreshments and a lesson in hard work for something you believe in!
As it was here in Nye, most of the people we met while riding all through this area were hard working, independent, tough, resourceful, helpful and friendly. It was refreshing.

On the way in to Red Lodge, we got into the construction zone we were told about at the meeting the night before. The road was seriously torn up and there was a stop light where we had to wait for the guide car that led traffic through the zone, one direction at a time. I ended up in a group that had to wait about 10 minutes which was a problem. It was getting cold and rain was obviously on the way. Exacerbating the chill was the fact that the stop was at the top of the steepest climb of the ride so far, a climb that warmed you up. Once our group got through it started to rain and we worked hard to get back into the camp at Red Lodge.

This can't be good
After getting in, I waited in a fairly long line for a spot in the showers then met Bill under the dining area tent. Our plan was to go into town for a beer and an afternoon snack. And now you know, we don’t eat to be able to ride, we ride to be able to eat! But before we had even turned to leave, the skies opened up and a wind-driven rain poured down into the camp. After a few minutes of this, we were resolved to just stay and wait for dinner which the catering team was unbelievably still working on at the unprotected grills next to the tent!

It would stop raining about ten minutes later, but not before a brutal three minute onslaught of BB sized hail. We looked at each other and agreed to make a dash for the pub where we decided to stay and have dinner. We did meet one other rider who had been on the road during the storm. As you might imagine, he described it as being an unpleasant experience. And, he had just come back from seeing to his sister who was warming up in a nearby hotel room after getting thoroughly chilled.

I should point out that he ride was accompanied by an ambulance and a team of EMT's in a Jeep - they had gotten her warmed up and were involved in the decision to get her to the hotel room. We were being watched over during the ride and I give CGY good marks for their plans to deal with such situations.

The evening turned pleasant and we headed back to camp for the evening meeting and discussion of tomorrow's ride. What we heard was - how shall I put this? - not comforting. The full story will be revealed in the next post, the account of the ride over Beartooth Pass ...

Round and Round – Piedmont
Today we rode 45.6 miles putting in 3,300 feet of climbing.

Routes for our two rides
 We rode two separate loops (green and red in the map) out and back from the hotel in Acqui. Bill had some ideas for a ride looping around to the south. But, he was not here, a story to be told in a special edition of this Tale of Two Rides series. It won’t be long now…

Using our map to find a reasonable facsimile of a southern loop, we loaded a plan into the GPS units and set off. Or maybe I should say, we set UP. After leaving the hotel we quickly found ourselves on a very narrow rural road with a not-so-great surface and crazy-steep sections, probably the steepest I'd ever been on. John, an amazingly strong climber (he lives in Stockholm, not a great training ground for climbers, I think), had gone out ahead, I followed and Julio was behind. On one particularly steep section, I heard Julio call out, so I stopped and looked back. He had gotten off of his bike and said that he was just going to go back to the hotel.

It took several tries to get started again due to the steepness of the hill. The cumulative effect of the climb so far and the extra effort of getting started set me up for ---

If you have not read the post Hssssgrrrrhssss yet, you can do that now by clicking on the highlighted text. This 2009 post addresses what happens next.

--- getting off of my bike and, for the first time ever, walking on the climb. As I had said in 2009, I knew this would happen one day and today was the day. To my relief, I reacted as I had hoped, just recognizing that age and gradient had combined to bring me to that critical point where a short walk was just what needed to be done.

I did not have to walk too far to find a more moderate section where I could get back on the bike and ride up to where John had stopped to wait. On the way, I went by a farmer backing his truck out of a driveway. As I went by, he looked at me and motioned with his hand a signal for "this is a really steep road" followed by the sign for "it gets flatter up the road a ways." That's what I got from his gestures, but remember, I was interpreting from the Italian!

It was steeper than it looks. Really!
John and I finished the climb at a wider, better paved road where we took out our maps and discovered that it was the road we had wanted to come up; taking the road that had just beaten us up (by "us" I mean "me") was a mistake. We also discussed what to do next and decided we really should go check on Julio so instead of making the larger southern loop as we had planned, we went down our intended "up road" – a wonderful descent, by the way – and back to the hotel. Not finding Julio, but seeing his bike, we decided on another loop and headed out. We had no sooner gotten underway when we saw Julio walking back from town. He agreed that getting back on the bike would be a good thing so after he changed, we set out together.

We aimed for the town of Monastario where we planned to then plot a loop based on a route I seen on the web site MapMyRide. At Monastario, we left the main road, which had been relatively flat, and began climbing. Again, we encountered some significant steepness, though not quite up the standard set by our "mistake road."
John and Julio entering Monastario
The monastery
Still, it was a long, hard climb, but one made tolerable by the very pleasant scenery provided by the winding road  carrying us up the wooded hills, with an occasional farm house thrown in for effect. We finally reached the summit just past the town of Roccaverano and started down what would be an exciting descent.

Near, but not yet at, the summit in Roccaverano
The road down to Mombaldone was steep and winding. Several sections would qualify as "technical" descents. With some encouragement from a broken collarbone in 2009, I've learned to do such descents confidently and safely. But … on this afternoon, we were buffeted by a very strong wind which came at us from every direction, not because it changed course, but because we were constantly going around switchbacks and executing longer, sweeping turns. It was, as I said, an exciting descent.

Station in Mombaldone. You mean we could have taken a train?!
I waited for the others at Mombaldone and once together, we rode that way back to the hotel. All that riding and all that climbing and here we were, right back where we started.


Lessons learned
You will find that hill that you cannot climb. But you can walk if you have to. Whatever it takes, don't give up, but keep going up...

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Enjoy the Ride

"I think the thing to do is enjoy the ride while you're on it."
                                                                              Johnny Depp

Sound advice and in theory something that should come naturally. But it seems appropriate to consider the truth of this observation by Albert Einstein:

 "In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice they are not."

The first day rides in Montana and Italy would provide quite a contrast in what, in theory, were to be pleasant introductions to the tours ...

Enjoy the Ride - CGY
Today we rode 59.5 miles from Red Lodge to Absarokee, putting in 1,529 feet of climbing.

The route from Red Lodge to Absarokee
Red Lodge is already at an elevation of 5,500 feet and in just a couple of days, we would ride up Beartooth pass, reaching an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet. My assumption was that this relatively easy leg was chosen to start the tour for altitude acclimation. It was not too long, there was little climbing to do and the first 26 miles were gently downhill. And on this day, we had cool, dry conditions and tailwinds - always welcome on any route.

The ride to the first rest stop at Joliette was flat and fast. We were riding through ranch country and you might imagine cowboys out tending their herds or riding fence lines. In fact, I did see one of these hard working man-horse pairs early in the ride...

I waved, but he seemed not to notice
Heading northwest, we enjoyed some gently rolling hills, sloping up on our left and flowing into a rolling grassy plain on our right. Cattle and hay bales were scattered in the fields and the morning light warmed the landscape with a golden yellow glow.

Fields glowing in the late morning light
A nice series of rollers on the way to our lunch stop
Stopping to take pictures is always a tug-of-war between the questions "Will I stop to capture the moment?" and "Do I want to take the time and interrupt the flow of a good ride?" Along this particular stretch of road, I was presented with another question: "Would my stopping be somehow provocative?"

I was really hoping taking a picture was not provocative
After lunch in Columbus it was a short 13.5 mile ride into our overnight stop - Absarokee, pronounced Ab-sore-key by the locals. We executed the standard "first bar on the right" stop, ending up at a tavern called Chrome. A few other riders were already settled outside and we joined them, watching for about an hour as riders continued to roll in to town.

We finished out the ride, going the last couple of miles to the camp at the local high school where the tents were set up on the athletic field. Even Bill could not find shade here.

Camp in Absarokee
At the evening meeting, one of the CGY staff asked, "Could any of you ever have imagined you would be camping on a high school athletic field in Absarokee, Montana?" My reply was, "Absolutely - it is number five on my bucket list!"

A nice day and I did enjoy the ride.

Enjoy the Ride - Piedmont
Today we rode 26.7 miles from Alessandria to Acqui Terme, putting in 2,598 feet of  climbing.

The route from Alessandria to Acqui Terme
It is pretty hard to ride without a bike but on this day I was beginning to think I would need to figure out how to do it. There was progress and more than a little frustration as I found out that my luggage was located at Heathrow and then had arrived in Linate at about 10:30 am on Saturday morning. However, the luggage forwarding desk had not thought it important to let me know until about 4:30 when they called the hotel and left a message with the front desk, adding they would call back at 7:00 pm to provide information about the courier delivery. I asked the desk clerk, somewhat rhetorically, "Why would they wait so long?" But it was crystal clear to him and he replied quickly, "This is Italy!"

Without keeping you in suspense any longer, my bags arrived at about 7:30 am on this Sunday morning, the day we would set out on our first ride, one that would bring us from Alessandria to Acqui Terme. I unpacked and assembled the bike on the sidewalk in front of the hotel and as I was finishing up, it started to rain. John and Julio received the bikes they had rented from Giro Libero, the company providing us support in the form of hotel reservations and carrying our bags from town to town, and we waited for the meeting that was mentioned in our ride notes. The rain got progressively heavier as we waited and eventually we decided that "meeting" really meant "meet in the lobby to pick up the rented bikes then start riding." So, we set out.

This "setting out" was not what you are probably thinking. It was very late in the morning and, given the weather, we had some concerns about the suggested 80 mile route. But we thought we would give it a go and left the hotel in a now dumping rain making it difficult to see, among other things. There was considerable uncertainty as to how to actually get out of town so when we reached the train station, we huddled and decided to plot our own course, a shorter, more direct route. We went back by the hotel then finally out of town, John having done a remarkable job of navigating.

Wandering around (black) and finally getting out of town (red)
I know it is said that "Not all who wander are lost." But sometimes they are!

Once we got going, things smoothed out. The rain stopped after about an hour and the rest of the morning was cloudy and cool but dry. We figured out our route by looking at towns between Alessandria and Acqui then loading a route into our GPS units connecting them.

After 15 miles on gently rolling terrain, we turned off onto a narrow, winding rural road. And we went UP. The climb alternated between 8% and 14 % with only a few 5% respites. It was a foreshadowing of things to come. At the top of this first climb, we managed to find an open restaurant in the town of Mombaruzzo where we enjoyed the first of many marvelous on-the-road meals. It was a nice, white-table-cloth kind of place, so we offered to sit outside, being somewhat disheveled as we were. But the proprietor would not hear of it and personally ushered us in.

Mombaruzzo - the first of many towns situated at the end of long climbs
After a leisurely meal we set out for Acqui. This leg started with a really nice descent, but there would be another climb, this one starting right out with a stretch of 10% to 14%. It was, though, a beautiful road and the weather had continued to improve, now turning sunny and warmer.

Across the valley from the second climb of the day
Yes, we sampled a few ...
After a bit over three miles of climbing, we dropped down into Acqui Terme, stopping to admire evidence of the early Roman infrastructure before making our way to the Hotel Roma Imperiale, situated across the Bormida River.

Remnants of an aqueduct in Acqui Terme
It was not the easiest of days and there were things to not enjoy. But, in the spirit of cycling, it was challenging and we arrived at our destination not too much the worse for wear and with a few more stories to tell.

Lessons Learned
The CGY ride got off to a great start. The Piedmont ride was a bit more of a challenge. Of course, as has been pointed often by a distinguished panel of British philosophers ...

"You can't always get what you want.  ..."

The panel
But there were some similarities. For example, both tours required us to get ourselves from one town to the next. In each case, this required some effort, a bit more in Italy to be sure. This, too, was addressed by our panel:

"...   But if you try sometimes you find you get what you need."

Sometimes, you need to try really hard!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Getting There

Getting there is half the fun.
                                    Cunard Line

Happy people, walking arm in arm, obviously having just enjoyed a rousing game of ring toss with equally happy fellow travelers, now on their way now to a comfy chair and a cool drink...

Getting there is half the fun!
Yep, that was pretty much what it was like for the Cycle Greater Yellowstone (CGY) and Piedmont tours. Well, for half of them anyway...

Getting There - CGY
There should be a sunrise picture on getaway day, right? Of course, so here it is:

"Sunrise" on getaway day
A street light stood in for the sun on this morning as we pulled out of La Crosse, the GPS set for Gillette, Wyoming. Once out of town, we started getting directions from our electronic guide: "In 750 miles, turn right." A retired engineer and a retired surgeon can certainly handle that degree of complexity.

A route even we could figure out
So it was. In spite of occasional bad press, we found the drive across Minnesota and South Dakota to be quite enjoyable. The scenery, if not of the spectacular nature, is varied and interesting and it helped that we had a good audio book to listen to. We made Gillette in good time, helped a bit by the one hour time difference, and celebrated this trouble free day with a good steak dinner - we were in Wyoming, after all!

To Gillette...
The next day was devoted to the much shorter leg to the start point of the tour, Red Lodge, Montana. This was going to require going over a mountain pass and we had two from which to choose. We opted for the longer, somewhat more scenic route and were rewarded with the really spectacular landscape that we didn't get in the first day's drive.

...and then to Red Lodge
Pulling in to Red Lodge, we took care of our first priority, finding a good place to eat. This could, after all, be our "last meal" as our expectations for the food in camp were not, I admit, all that lofty.

Bison burger in Red Lodge
At last it was time to join the tour and we checked in at the park, set up our tents and settled in. For me, preparing my tent required me to open up the one that had been set up for me as part of the CGY tent porter service. Bill chose to set up his own tent and easily found a suitably shady spot - an advantage as the tent porter "village" was generally in the most open space available.

CGY registration
My tent porter service home for the week
Bill is an expert at finding afternoon shade
The CGY camp in Red Lodge
And that was it. A nice drive, much of it through places I had never seen and an easy transition to CGY camp life. Half the fun? Probably not, but it was a most enjoyable start for the tour.

Getting There - Piedmont
Then there was the trip to Italy. This should be easy: hop on a plane in La Crosse, change in Chicago and New York on day one then get through the airport in Milan and onto a train to Alessandria. It would be just like the trip to Red Lodge, except for the fact that the airlines would be involved. Still, I could see no way that this could go badly ...

Well, there was terrible weather at JFK on getaway day. And a mechanical problem that would delay the flight from La Crosse long enough to guarantee a missed connection in Chicago. OK, so yes, there were a few ways for the trip to go badly and I had already run into two of them.

But it turns out that everything worked out well, something I really could not see coming. First let me offer up kudos for the American Airlines staff at the La Crosse airport. They handled the delay well and before getting on the plane I was rebooked to go through Chicago and London, connecting to Milan, now through Linate airport, not Malpensa. The fact that I was indifferent to the airport gave me more options and that helped. And it turned out that Linate provided an easier connection to the central train station in Milan.

Also, while waiting in Chicago, I saw that my original flight to JFK had been delayed - "I could have made it," I thought; but I didn't try (recall the observation about the weather at JFK). A bit later the flight was cancelled. So once in a blue moon, a mechanical problem on your first flight of the day can be the best thing that happens on the trip.

Rainy day at O'Hare but it was worse at JFK
The connection in London went smoothly save for a delay of about 40 minutes for the flight to Milan.

Terminal 5 at Heathrow
An upscale shopping center with a few planes in the parking lot
Now in the second day of travel and a bit tired from the long trip so far, I watched for my bags at Linate. Hmmm... perhaps I dozed off or was standing at the wrong belt. But no, it seems my bags - a large red rolling duffle and a bike shipping box - had apparently sneaked off unnoticed and gone on a side trip; they left no word as to where they were headed nor when or if they would join me.

Easy to see how these two could get lost in the shuffle!
(The staff at LSE did change the tags to ORD-LHR-LIN)
This was not good, but there was a sliver of silver lining. I was assured by the British Airways baggage service that my bags would be forwarded to the hotel in Alessandria. This would take care of an issue I had been a bit concerned with, that being the need to deal with these cumbersome items on the remaining legs of the trip – making my way to Milan's Central Station then taking two trains to get to Alessandria and further on to the hotel there. Luggage-less as I was, the trip was easy and I checked-in at the Hotel Alli Due Buoi Rossi in the late afternoon with John and Julio showing up late that evening.

Milan Central Station
Another upscale shopping center, this one with trains in the parking lot
And that was it. Half the fun? No way. But, successful with, in the end, a net delay of only about five hours. It was a difficult trip, but one that could have been worse.

Lessons Learned
In spite of the issues, I was again reminded that it is a great privilege to be able to travel and see the wonders of this place in which we live. And as always, the pain of problems fades while memories of the journeys will always bring a smile to my face.

I pause here to consider the question I know is on your lips, "Where was Bill through all of this?" Well, he decided to personally and rather dramatically illustrate the point that this trip could have been worse. More about this later. For now, let's just leave it at "The Piedmont tour was underway ..."