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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Riding on the Shoulder

Friday, September 5
Sumiswald to Madiswil Langenthal

FWUMP!!!! The reverie of the grand descent is shattered... the bike suddenly goes into an erratic wobble as I process the image of something in the road. Odd. My first impression is of the channels I have ridden over numerous times on the trip: steel-lined grooves running from shoulder to shoulder that can be traversed with little more than a soft bump, sort of like going over a very well laid out railroad crossing. What is it with this one? There really isn't a lot of time to sort it all out as, failing to regain control, the bike swerves sharply to the right, throwing me violently down onto the pavement. Landing on my left side, I start a long slide on the shoulder ~ MY shoulder ~ across the rough surface of the narrow road.

The harsh skkkrrritccch'ing sound of helmet on pavement adds a soundtrack to the surreal sequence of events that my conscious train of thought has yet to catch up with. When all of the skittering across tarmac finally comes to an end, I lay on the road, dazed and confused. My feet are no longer clipped into the pedals and the bike is down on the ground a few feet away. I'm thinking, "Nothing good is going to come from this." But maybe that's just me.

Looking back up the road, I see that the farmer here had run what was basically a fire hose from the house on one side of the road towards the barn on the other side. He had placed two wooden ramps over it so cars could go over without crushing it and it was one of these that I had hit head on, not seeing it until the moment of impact. Coming down the hill, I had concluded that the road was clear. I had not seen the small, generic warning triangle by the side of the road up from the turn. Nor had I seen the road SURFACE. So there I was in a post-crash heap on the side of a road in rural Switzerland.

Here are some of the things I remember from the next few minutes. Much of what happened is still pretty clear in my mind, but I'm fuzzy on the chronology:

I get up and look at my calf, finding a large, ugly abrasion. Same for my left knee and elbow. My left hip is very sore and from the condition of my shorts, I know there is a big patch of road rash there too. When I reach up to my left shoulder, I feel a protuberance which I am pretty sure wasn't there when I got dressed this morning. My jersey is torn and I can tell that there is another abrasion. The injuries, or maybe more to the point, the thoughts of the injuries, give rise to a sort of deep-down sick feeling so I lower myself back to the gravel on the side of the road.

As I get back to the ground, Ruppert comes down the hill, followed closely by Bob. They have descended more slowly and apparently more alertly than I had. And of course my bike lying in the road with me sitting next to it raised a warning sign or two. They either stopped before getting to the hose or made it over it at low speed. I'm not sure. As Ruppert came over to me, Bob had the presence of mind to turn around and shout back up the hill, "BILL! SLOW DOWN! SLOW DOWN NOW! JACK'S DOWN! SLOW DOWN!"

Bill, Bob and Ruppert are soon in front of me, asking questions such as, "What is your name?," and "Where are you?" As challenging as these questions are, I get the answers right and we all relax a little. Ruppert gets on the phone, trying to reach Laurenz. Bill retreives my helmet (not sure when I took it off) and after looking at it, comes back quickly and starts to poke around on the back of my head, asking about how I feel and if there is any pain. My helmet, it turns out, is cracked, the plastic shell is eroded to paper-thinnesss at one spot and the foam on the left side is crushed. It did its job as not only was my head not injured, I didn't even know I had banged it on the pavement, which clearly I had.

Ruppert reaches Laurenz who is almost to Basel on a run to pick up the bike boxes for those leaving the tour tomorrow. It will be hours before he can get back. We will have to deal with this without his help. I stand up once again and Bill fashions a splint / sling thingy from two pair of tights. Orthopaedic trauma is not his specialty, but he does a well above average job and the support and protection offered by this makeshift rig provide some relief. Checking my shoulder, he figures out right away that I have broken my clavicle, a.k.a. collar bone and, in German, Schlusselbein. When he is done, I get back down on the ground, this time on my knees, my head resting on the rocky ground.

The farmer has appeared and is talking with Ruppert and Bob (Ruppert translating, I'm sure). Then the farmer's wife joins the growing crowd in the road. I ask Ruppert to tell the couple that the accident was my fault. At some point, Bill reports that the wife has suggested she take me into the next small town to the local doctor. We discuss the logistics of this. Bob says to leave the bike on the side of the road. He'll mark the location on his GPS and will be able to guide Laurenz to it when he gets back to the area. My first reaction is reluctance to accept this idea, although I have no idea what else to do. As the discussion rolls on, Bill hears the word hospital (Spital) and jumps in and says to Ruppert, "Yes. The hospital. Tell them that we really should get to a hospital." Or something reasonably akin this.

The hospital is in Langenthal, about 15 miles away and the farmer's wife says she will take me in their car. Bill says he'll ride there on his bike, but it turns out that the car is big enough for Bill and me AND the bikes. So I get into the front seat under a nice, warm quilt graciously provided by the wife (which I bloody thanks to the injuries on my leg and elbow) and Bill climbs into the back seat. Deja vu. Only the chicken is missing (private joke). Ruppert will let Laurenz know where we are and we pull away, leaving him and Bob to continue on with their ride.

So I'm off to finish the tour in a most unexpected way. To be continued...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Grand Descent

Friday, September 5
Sumiswald to Madiswil

Brzzzt! Brzzzt! Brzzzt! The little cell phone Laurenz has provided goes off insistently at about 5:00 a.m. Looking at the small screen, I see that there is a message. A text message. It is in German, but not too hard to read. It suggests I respond to the call, then punch in a few random numbers. You know, things like my age, the length, in centimeters, of the Gothard tunnel, the number of days since my last haircut*. Stuff like that. Doing this, I am told, will result in my receiving a special message, prepared JUST FOR ME! In addition to this intriguing invitation, there is the suggestion that I forward the message to 14 people within the next 42 minutes. Oh. And failure to follow these instructions will result in five years of bad luck. The clock starts ticking on that one as I erase the message and crawl back under the covers for a few more minutes of rest before rising for the last ride of the tour.

* Poetic license invoked: these aren't really the numbers I was supposed to type in, but I forget what was actually suggested in the message.

This is going to be a big day for Bill, one he has been talking about for years, actually. A chance to return to Affoltern and the cheese factory. In a country where good cheese is a source of great pride, you might guess this would be the top of the top in cheeses. And you might be right. But that's not the attraction. Actually, we are going there to visit the men's room. I am NOT making this up. This is a BIG DEAL for Bill. It seems as if there is some sort of robotic toilet seat cleaning device in use there. Bill has seen it before. Apparently he was so impressed he has just spent three weeks on a bicycle in Switzerland for the chance to see it again. Me? I can't wait, of course.

Our little group collects at the back of the building to load suitcases into the trailer and prepare the bikes for the ride. It is, as has often been the case, cool and the iridescent yellow-green favored by cyclists is in evidence in the morning's clothing choices. Ruppert, Bob, Bill and I head off to the east in search of a route across the multiple hill-valley combinations that radiate like fingers around the base of Mount Napf. It is foggy as we follow the road along to Wassen where we turn off and start climbing the first of the hills. Just after the turn, my chain comes off and gets caught between the ring and frame. Getting this straightened out takes a few minutes and, since I'm stopped, I decide to remove the tights. The fog has cleared and the morning is getting more pleasant by the minute.

Preparing for the Ride out of Sumiswald

I try to make up ground during the climb, but do not catch up until the next descent. This up-down process will be repeated at least two more times before we get to Willisau where we plan to turn to the north than back to the west to go through Hutwil on the way to Affoltern. The top of the next rise finds us out in open farmland. We stop at an intersection but the road running off to the left has all the earmarks of being solely for access to the next farm over so we decide quickly to forge ahead.

The road does not descend too rapidly at first and takes us through another of the small, dense woods that we have found scattered across the countryside. Following the group, I brake off and on, not wanting to have to pass on the narrow roads. Emerging from the wood, we come to another of the uncountable Kodak Moment stops. A few cows across the road in the dark green grass. Grass that cascades down the slopes to the town below. The sun is out. The sky is blue. We are on a white road with what appears to be a nice long descent ahead. Oh my goodness.

In the Hills Above Eriswil
Bill suggests that, since I am the quickest descender in the group, I go on first. The road sweeps us down into Eriswill and we then head back up once again. Near the top of the rise we stop for a navigation discussion. It is not absolutely clear where we are, but maps, GPS's, a road sign pointing towards Luthern and a little dead reckoning help us orient ourselves, this leading us to turn left where we climb a bit more then head down. At the bottom of this descent we expect the road to "T" into a north-south road, where we will need to turn south to pick up the road to Willisau.

It is a grand descent as the road sweeps down, winding back and forth through a series of switchbacks. Knowing that the hard won altitude gain of the last climb is being given up and will have to be earned again does not take away even one bit of the enjoyment of this part of the ride. Nearing the bottom, the road offers up one final switchback. As the road straightens again, I can look down see that it drops to the level of the valley floor then takes a right turn. There is a farm just past the turn and a little farther on, the intersection at which we will be turning.

There are no cars on the road, no tractors, no cows nor are there any people around down near the farmhouse. The road is clear. I brake a little coming down to the turn. Once through, I let my momentum carry me along as I look up at the intersection a hundred yards or so past a small bridge on the far side of the. FWUMP!!!!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Looking Up

Thursday, September 4

"...when it rains on your parade, look up rather than down. Without the rain, there would be no rainbow." Jerry Chin

It was a day for looking up. There was too much rain and not enough desire for riding; so, we decide a field trip is in order. Lucerne it is. The first order of business was a walk to the small train station near the sports center. As luck would have it, we find a little hardware store and we do have a short time to browse. The stuff on the entry level was pretty pedestrian, but the basement... now this is more like it. The company Swiss Tools has a major operation in town and their products are sold here. "Shirley will really appreciate these fine screwdrivers," I think. Bill and Bob have higher ambitions, looking at bigger, fancier things. However, they eventually back off to select tools-that-can-be-packed-in-checked-bags, including screw drivers and a nifty magnetic driver bit. The day has been a success already.

We'd stay longer, but feared missing our train. But here's the thing. We get to the station and Bob buys his half-price ticket in what should have been just in the nick of time. But the train does not show up on time. Omigosh~a Swiss train is late! Where is the Eyewitness News Team when you need them. We may have been all of 7 minutes late when we FINALLY left. Things are in the hand basket...

Does this Train Look Late?
There are very few passengers and the trip to Lucern is nice; we speed along quietly on the continuous rails, damp, green panoramas moving swiftly by the large windows of the red and white train.

Aforementioned Damp, Green Panorama
We pull into the station late in the morning and walk out into the large lakefront plaza to get our bearings.

We are not Alone in Not Bicycle Riding Today
Lucerne reveals itself to be a large city that leans towards quaint Swiss town. The lake gives an open feel and provided Swiss engineers a reason for constructing the wonderful Kapellbrueke or Chapel Bridge.


We cross the bridge and enter a square just off of the lakeshore. It begins to rain harder and we settle on an outdoor table under a canvas roof. Beer and brats provide warmth, each in their own way, and thus fortified, we go off in search of, well, Swiss Army knives, it turns out. What says "I was thinking of you while gadding about Europe," better than a little knife/scissors/light/pen/flash drive combo? Right; I can't think of anything else either.

Rain in Lucerne
We make a big loop and eventually end up back at the cavernous station. Bob has had enough and works out a plan to return to Sumiswald. I'd like to visit the Art Museum and Bill concurs so we bid Bob bye-bye and set off in search of culture. It doesn't take long to find the museum, as it is connected to the station atrium. Our SwissPass gets us in for free; almost immediately I think that this is a really good thing, as the first exhibits are not anything I'd want to pay to look at. Dark, war themed, visions that are passed by not quickly enough. But then we get to collections from Swiss artists and the tour turns in an ever so much more pleasant direction.

A bit more than an hour and we've seen (OK, at least walked past) all the good stuff and we follow Bob's example and train back in to Sumiswald. End of the trip conversation really takes over at the evening meal ~ it is the official farewell dinner. It is here that Bill makes his now famous, and never to be repeated if he knows what's good for him, remark about losing trailers, to which Corinne responded with her even more famous, "Bill, that's not a funny story" rejoinder.

While the tour ends with a short ride to Basel on Sunday, tomorrow is the last day of the ride for several of us, by plan. Chris and Paula have a mid-day flight from Zurich on Saturday, so they will leave the tour Saturday morning for the airport. Bob has decided he needs to be home earlier than planned and he has re-scheduled such that he, too, will take the early train to Zurich. My plan all along has been to leave for Zurich after sleeping in on Saturday and disassembling and packing my bike. I have a hotel room at the Zurich airport so that I can easily make my 7:10 a.m. flight to Brussels on Sunday morning. Even Lorenz and Corinne will leave the tour Saturday, as they need to be at a family birthday celebration in the afternoon. This leaves Bill, Earne, Ruppert and Art and Pat to make the short ride to Basel.

But tomorrow, Friday, is a riding day for us all and once again we gather around the warm glow of the big Swiss maps and plot our attacks on the route from Sumiswald to Madiswill, a very short ride as the crow flies. But a few of us crows decide on a plan that would take us first out to the east of Sumiswald, then looping around to the north before beginning the run west to Affoltern and the cheese factory. Finally, we will swing north, looking for that last "white road" ride before ending the day at the Hotel Baeren in Madiswil.

It's good to have a plan when you turn in. I had one. And I did. Good night!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Rocky Climbing

Wednesday, September 3
Grindelwald to Sumiswald

This turned out to be a unique day in the tour. You might not think it would be so, this being a CYCLING tour, but today was the only day of the ride that did not include at least one leg ridden on the train. It was a great route and another beautiful day.

The good thing about climbing up to your evening's destination is that you get to descend to start out on the day you leave. So it was as we left Grindelwald. Once again going in the opposite direction of the tour buses, we drop down the not-too-steep descent with little traffic to contend with. The navigation issues experienced two days ago in Interlaken are all in the past as we fairly efficiently get through the city and out on Seestrasse, the highway that skirts the north shore of Thuner See.

Along the Lake Road
In spite of the fact that they had a perfectly good lake to hold the road at an even level, we climb on the hills and soon get well above shoreline. This is OK though, as we are afforded wonderful views of the lake and the opposite shore. The road is winding, hugging the hillside on the right, with a few short tunnels adding to the cozy feel. There is not much traffic and we make really good time, passing through the towns of Neuhaus, Sundlauenen, Beatenbucht, Merligen, Usserdorf, Gunten and Laengenschachen before getting to the outskirts of Thun.

On the Way to Stefisburg
We follow the highway that runs just to the east of Thun up to Stefisburg. This is an urban area with lots of traffic and many opportunities to make a wrong turn, so we pull over a few times to check the map and GPS. We stop once at a multi-option intersection and ask a store clerk which one of the several roads leading in more or less the direction we want will eventually get us to Eggiwil, one of the landmark towns along the way. We are soon out of Stefisberg and into Unter Emberg, where we stop for lunch. There is a small store where we get cheese, fruit and something to drink, but they don't have the bread we want. The clerk directs us to a bakery around the corner where we get the small rolls that go well with the cheese and sit at the town fountain to eat.

Traffic doesn't taper off as much as expected as the ride continues out of Stefisberg, but conditions improve at the turn to the north at the appropriately named Kreuzweq. Here the road rolls - boom- over the high farmland, green grass - boom- kept clipped by the Swiss cows, -boom- the clingh, clangh of their bells backed up -boom- by the sound of the Swiss army on bass, apparently training on the -boom- finer points of firing off artillery pieces. As has been the case on many sections of the ride, the road takes us through a short section of dense woods, cool and dark enough to make the re-emergence into the light of the open road almost startling. Turning to the east at Jassbach, the road treats us to a long downhill run into Eggiswil.

Just Another Picture Post Card Town
Getting nearer to our destination, we cross the river to a highway that looks like it is going to be busy. Checking the maps, we decide to head up into the hills and wander around a bit. This is one of those hard-to-explain bits of a ride that can really make the day. We climb up on the slopes, again finding one of those single lane roads that serve the farmers in the area. The climb does have its steep sections, but overall isn't too difficult and it rewards us with another awe-inspiring view of the valley below. And, once again, we ride into a deep wood, this time on the descent. We come to another more heavily traveled road (well, it is two lanes, anyway) and decide to finish out the ride using the more direct route afforded. It isn't too long before we pull into the Sports Center in Sumiswald, a sort of super YMCA. Bill and I are first in and get beer and chips; as in "chips", not "pommes frits." To our disappointment, we find out later that we could have actually had french fries. Bummer.

Above the Main Road Near Sumiswald
It is not too long and Lorenz arrives, allowing us to get our keys. We take care of the bikes and go check out the room which is such that Bill is moved to remark, "Not bad for a minimum security facility." It is, in fact, basic. But it is also large and comfortable with a bath and lots of hot water. Can't ask for much else.

We have a basic meal, as befitting the surroundings, and during this meal we start the process of ending the trip. Only two more days and discussion at the table is leans a bit towards reminiscing. But the tour is not over yet, so the evening ends with some discussion of tomorrow's ride options. There is, however,a heavy dose of not-riding options as the weather does not look promising.

On the way back to the room, we are treated to quite the display of youthful energy as a group of climbers are practicing on the faux rock wall which rises from the basement level up to the fourth floor. One old couple ~ they must have been every bit of 35 ~ are taking turns climbing and spotting, negotiating their chosen paths with graceful efficiency. The two young ladies there each make several climbs on some of the more difficult sections. I deduce that there are various routes defined by the colors of the "rocks" bolted to the wall, each route with a different set of challenges. The routes cross each other and the climbers meticulously avoid all but their chosen color for the climb they are on. Must be some sort of a grand score keeping system that metes out penalties based on bad color choices. I wonder what kind of scores we bikers would get with our helmet/jersey/shorts/socks/shoes fashion statements?

And then there are the two young men. They climb the most difficult of routes with speed and agility that are quite amazing. At one point, one of them quite literally throws himself away from the wall to negotiate an overhang. Then he looks to see if the girls are watching. It is easy to see from where he gets some of his rock wall elan. And later, he hung from his feet like a bat in a rack at the bottom of the wall and knocked out about 10 upside down sit ups. Having just eaten, I decided I wouldn't join him. But I could have done it. Really.

The Faux Rock Wall
It was a great day, every minute of it spent on the bike. Tired from the ride and absolutely worn out from watching the rock climbing, I turn in with my iPod plugged in for a bit, then drift off...