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

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

English Mustard

We each have that seminal moment when we suddenly realize we know everything there is to know. I've been there myself, what with my advanced age and the attendant accumulation of experiences. Well in all honesty, I have been there several times. As sure as day follows night, as soon as we reach that nirvana of complete knowledge of all things, we will have an English mustard experience...

It is not unusual to find black pudding on the breakfast table in English hotels. This is a savory concoction of parts that do not quite achieve the level of "meat," masquerading as a sausage. And by savory, I mean "Yecch!" I happened to express this opinion with colleagues I was working with in Rochdale, England during one of my visits there and discovered that they did not share my lack of enthusiasm for this tasty, nutritional product ("Yecch!"). In the ensuing discussion it was revealed I had not used mustard; the obvious conclusion was that I could not lay claim to having had a proper black pudding experience. They would fix that.

At dinner, I ordered the black pudding appetizer, a specialty of the restaurant. It was served on a plate accompanied by a pot of yellow mustard, looking for all the world like the stuff you squeeze out of a plastic bottle onto your hot dog. I put a generous amount on the "sausage" and took a bite - "Yowww...!! -- Yech!"

A couple of things became crystal clear at that moment. First, in England, the word "mustard" is short for "fortified wasabi." I did not know that. And, with the possible exception of the numbing effect of searing taste buds, it improves the black pudding experience by exactly zero percent.

It is actually nice to know that you do not know everything because learning something new is, in the end, a satisfying experience. And, since I do not, in fact, know everything, one that I get to enjoy quite often. Like this example...

You would find Rotary International in the long list of things I knew little or nothing about. Nonetheless, In 2011 I was invited to present our work with schools in Uganda at a meeting of a local club: Rotary After Hours. Interest expressed then has turned into a plan for the group to get involved with a club in Uganda for the benefit of primary schools in the eastern part of the country. I was back at the club's meeting about a week ago as the project is starting to get some real momentum.

At the Rotary Meeting in October

Getting to know more about Rotary in general and this club in particular was another of those "English mustard" things. I might have thought I knew what it was all about, but once I got involved by talking about the schools and opportunities for helping, I had a real ah-ha experience. A club meeting is an impressive gathering of people with energy and enthusiasm, committed to serving others and taking seriously the Four-Way Test:

Is it the TRUTH?
Is it FAIR to all concerned?
Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Is that good or what?

You can be sure I am thrilled that the club has chosen work with the primary schools in eastern Uganda as an international project. But whether it is this project or some other avenue of service, I would still be impressed with this group that I did not know much about. Until that jar of mustard got opened...

You can find information about the Uganda project and a December fundraiser here -- OneUgly5k

Check it out. Sign up for the run. And start looking through your sweaters!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

Nelson Algren wrote, "Chicago is an October sort of city, even in spring." This isn't Chicago, but we are close enough to know exactly what he means...

It is now two-thirds of the way through the season formerly known as spring. Signs that things are improving are popping up here and there, although their appearances are sporadic at best. In the 65 days since the calendar reported our latest seasonal transition, I have ridden 36 times, 18 of those on a real bike. Outdoors. But, the last 14 in a row have had me out of the basement and onto the highways and byways that make this region so good for bicycling. A few of the rides were even accomplished wearing only shorts and a jersey; however, many have required base layers, tights, arm warmers, leg warmers, shoe covers, vests and jackets in various combinations.

These early, tentative, mini-tours do provide opportunities to witness the emerging signs of our next season. We might call it summer, but it will have to earn the right to be so named. And even though the pace of seasonal change has so far been glacial, I'm guessing summer is going to drop in on us like an Acme safe in the desert.

In the meantime, here are some of the sights and signs I've captured during the early days of this year's riding season.

This one should be obvious. It's a sign that there is an engineer on the bike. A ride computer, just visible at the bottom of the picture, AND a GPS. You say "superfluous," I say "necessary back-up systems."

The GPS is on board so I won't get lost. On my way down the highway that hugs the river. With few opportunities to turn off. But, you cannot be too careful, you know.

This small pond is at one of my favorite spots on the route I take often, going down the river to Stoddard than out a ways into the valley that runs east. It was a jacket and shoe cover kind of a day, as you might have guessed from the ice still on the surface. But, as you can see if you look closely at the second picture, the geese have found enough open water to keep them happy.

Regrettably, this is another not so uncommon sign of the season - various forms of wildlife that insist upon crossing the road, in spite of overwhelming evidence that such an endeavor is fraught with danger. You should be aware that neither I nor my bike were factors in this poor fellow's situation. By situation, I mean dead. And, if you knew anything about my affinity for snakes, you would know that he was dead because there is no other way that I would be where I was, stopped on the road, taking a picture.

One of my ride projects this year is to photograph another of my favorite spots, this one at a farm on top of the ridge. It changes dramatically during the course of the year and I hope to capture the effect by riding up three or four times a month and snapping a picture from the same point. Here are shots from early April and mid-May. A sure sign that things are looking up.

Some signs are omens and others portend good times ahead, like these two at the start of the descent down County O. A couple of my favorites in one place.

Finally, a sign of riding in wet weather, which creates an urgent need to clean the bike. It is surprisingly satisfying to do this after a long ride. Perhaps it is because it signals being ready for the next one.

Are there signs of spring where you live? Or perhaps even of summer?

In closing, if you know where the Acme safe analogy comes from, then, I am sorry to say, you are as old as I am.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

San Giovanni Rotondo to Rodi Garganico

There was not a lot of riding on this last day on the road. But, that was OK - we'd put in 600 miles and yesterday's were the hardest of them all. This was another glorious day and the short ride we did enjoy provided great views of the Adriatic coast. And, a chance to get my feet wet.

Today's ride
Monday, March 26, 2012
San Giovanni Rotondo to Rodi Garganico
15.7 miles
1,266 feet

We rode out of San Giovanni in the bus and started a rather long descent to the Adriatic coastline. There was a mid-morning stop at Monte Sant Angelo. This provided a chance to look out over the vineyards on the hillsides and down to the sea while enjoying the castle in town and a church in a hillside cave...

As we neared the coast, Laurenz stopped the bus at the entrance to a national park, saying this would be a good place to start the ride. It was not all that clear that we would ride today and to be honest, kicking back in the bus watching the scenery wasn't looking like too bad of a way to spend the day. But, we unloaded and headed out. After a nice descent the rest of the way to the coast, we were treated to views like this...

After looking at his GPS and the maps, Bob declared the ride to be flat but it was actually a roller coaster of ups and downs on winding roads. It wasn't that long until we all met up again in the town of Veste where we had a light lunch at a small cafe, sitting outside in the sun. Here is the view, just before arriving in town...

Bob and Pat opted to ride to Rodi, but the rest of us called it a tour and enjoyed the drive along the coastal highway...

Fishing. It would have been nice to see this arrangement in operation!

Looking back on the cliffside town of Peschici. We would return the next day for a visit.

Highlight of the day
Finishing the ride is a highlight of any tour. And that holds for the 2012 ride through Puglia in southeastern Italy. Not wishing to haul my front wheel (with bike attached) across the wide stretch of soft sand, I opted to declare the ride over by putting my feet in the Adriatic instead.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Canosa to San Giovanni Rotondo

There have been hard days during other tours. But this day in southern Italy, with no snow capped mountains and no insane distances was, if not the hardest, one of the more unpleasant days I've spent in the saddle.

Weather was a factor even though it was, in most regards, a nice day. We'd had no reason to complain about it at any point during the tour with very cool mornings and comfortably cool afternoons. Many days were finished still with leg warmers and vests. There was this headwind that dogged us every single day, but that became the norm. But, it had been getting gradually warmer during the tour and today, while quite nice, would be the warmest yet. Just one of the rocks in the pack for the ride today.

Today's ride
Sunday, March 25, 2012
Canosa to San Giovanni Rotondo
60.1 miles
3,015 feet

We rode to, then through, the city of Cerignola, covering a distance of about 14 miles. In maybe 2 hours. At home, we would have had 25 miles behind us and be enjoying a break at the Kwik Trip in Coon Valley. But not here. As Bill noted, you can always tell you're having a good day if you've had to haul your bike over guardrails 3 times before 10 a.m.

As for this painfully slow pace, there were the usual slow-downs for navigational decisions. These come more often in the cities which are not laid out in the Iowa-grid style, but we've done this every day. Today, we decided to go off of one of the suggested routes as that would have taken us to the larger city of Foggia; we'd already had enough of winding cobblestone streets.

After spending some time with maps and GPS units, we worked out a plan to get us out of town. It seemed clear enough; we would just go north, cross over the 4 lane divided highway and pedal contentedly through olive groves and fields of flowers, like this one:

Alas, it was not to be so easy. The road went TO the four lane. But not over it. Or under it. It took us 20 minutes to find a way to get on the other side of this obstacle, this effort including the third hauling of bikes over guardrails. But, we were finally heading north.

The wind was heading south, however, and the road deteriorated at a slow but steady pace.It became rocky and pot-holed and was straight as an arrow through the flat countryside. And, there were the gradually increasing temperatures. We were so perfectly aligned (maybe that's misaligned) with the wind that I wondered if the road had possibly been carved out over the years by its effect.

It was wide open country, no Kwik Trips here. We had picked up panini in Cerignola and stopped near a farmhouse for a quick lunch on the side of the road. Basically, it was a ditch; but, it was in the shade...

It had now officially become a long day. I am not sure there is anything harder than riding a long stretch of straight, flat, rough road into an unrelenting headwind on a warm day.

Head down. Pedal. Pedal. Pedal. Look up. See that nothing has changed. Repeat.

The hills we would have to climb to finish the ride seemed to remain just barely visible on the horizon. I thought, seriously, that if Laurenz came by in the bus (hardly any chance of that, actually) I would hop on in a heartbeat.

We finally reached the climb and started up. It was not such a steep climb, but the effects of the day were heavy on my legs. And, as much as I had been nursing the water along, I had less than 1/2 a bottle left. There had been absolutely no chance to stop for a snack or a drink since Cerignola. Foggia was begining to look like it might have been worth the hassle.

Just a short way up there were 2 switchbacks followed by a long straight stretch. On the map, it looked like it might be a respite, but it was steadily uphill and open to the headwind. I stopped along this section to remove arm warmers and drink 1/2 the remaining water. Then, it was 8 more switchbacks on the way up the steeper face of the hill. After a couple of more passes at the water bottle, it was empty. And I was wondering if the hill had a top. I had no interest in taking pictures, so this capture from Google Street View will have to suffice...

When the road finally crested the hill, we are met by our in-the-plains headwind's older, and stronger, brother, the top-of-the-hill headwind, aka hurricane. And, the grade was still up. Twice I went around gradual bends and got sheltered from the wind, only to get nearly blown over when it figured out where I had gone.

But I eventually arrived at the top. Julio was waiting for me in a sheltered bus stop and we pushed on. It was a slightly downhill, with-the-wind ride into San Giovanni. There, we went into a small bar/cafe where we could get cold Cokes and plot the path to the hotel, just a few blocks away, but not easy to find.

All along our ride in Puglia we encountered reminders of Padre Pio, but nothing like what we saw in San Giovanni. A large plaza and church/convention hall was situated above the town and there were small hotels everywhere to accommodate the pilgrims who came to pay homage. I was glad to have seen these reminders here, as while on the climb I had actually expected to be seeing him face to face at any minute.

The day ended well in another small bar/cafe near the hotel. Beer followed by gelato and then coffee as we sat at the table and went over the ride. It had been quite a day.

Highlight of the day
Surviving, as represented by arriving at the cafe in San Giovanni. I can still remember how that cold Coke felt and tasted.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Gravina to Canosa

A castle and an historic battlefield were on tap today. On the way out of Gravina, we were met by a group of Italian riders. And by met, I mean overtaken, passed and left in the dust. But as had been the case on every day of the tour, the weather was glorious, the countryside was spectacular and the wind was in our faces.

Today's ride
Saturday, March 24, 2012
Gravina in Puglia to Canosa
65.4 miles
2,749 feet

After the encounter with the Giro d'Italia riders, there was a nice climb through an open valley. At the top, we found the van pulled over with some of the group out looking over a wide plain to the hill and castle we would be riding to. The castle had an oddly contemporary look from outside - precise shapes, symmetrical, unmarked, smooth, white walls. Inside, it did look a bit more like the medieval structure it was with rough stone floors, rambling hallways and rooms connected in a hard to discern order and steep, winding staircases. It was a nice rest stop and an interesting piece of local history.

We were not through with historical sites by a long shot. As it happens, Julio was quite absorbed with the famous battle between Hannibal and the Roman army at Cannae. The site was well marked on our maps, but when we arrived at the location, we found ourselves on an overpass above a four lane highway. Turns out, there was a service plaza named after the battle site, which was only a few miles further on.

We started the visit here at the ruins of a castle above the battlefield. It was not really part of the history of the battle itself, but there was a visitors' center with some artifacts and descriptions of the events. However, considering the magnitude of the events that happened there, it was a bit understated.

Here is a view over the battlefield, now a large vineyard and not part of the memorial.

After racing a thunderstorm into town, we settled in to the hotel. Dinner that evening was actually typical of many we shared during the ride. We would go to a small restaurant, several times being the only customers, and ask the staff to just serve what they felt best represented their establishment and the area. Meals were exceptional and we were often treated to complimentary grapa or home made limoncello.

Highlight of the day
The visit to Cannae was something Julio had been hoping to do for a long time. The story of the battle first captured his attention while he was in high school. Sharing the visit with him was clearly a high point of the tour.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Ostuni to Gravina

This was the longest, but not the hardest (stay tuned for that one), ride of the tour. Early in the morning we found ourselves on this wonderful, wide, well paved road. Until it just ended abruptly at the top of a long climb. Dead end. Stopped. This sent us back into the narrow, winding rural roads to practice navigation skills and work on climbing. Later in the day we took a planned detour to ride through a national park on a sand and gravel road, did an unintentional tour of the city of Altumbara and finally rode in to the hotel a few miles outside of Gravina on a road I am sure was paved with broken tile.

Today's ride
Friday, March 23, 2012
Ostuni to Gravina in Puglia
80.5 miles
4,203 feet

We ride just a few miles north of the area around Alberobello and again encounter the Trulli. This a rather impressive new or significantly restored home it seemed...

Riding here, it is hard not to find street scenes like this one. It is so, well, Italian...

The road in the national park was rough and responsible for two of us having flats almost simultaneously. On the way up, we were passed by a tall rider on a mountain bike; I am not sure he even saw us...

The hotel was out of town and served primarily for weddings and retreats. It was nice, in spite of looking a bit like a minimum security prison, but pretty much in the middle of nowhere (the prison thing maybe?)...

We would be here two days, providing an opportunity to catch up on domestic chores.

Highlight of the day Hmmm... There is the whole thing about being the longest day with the most climbing. Or maybe the numerous navigational challenges. But the ride through the park (the excursion to the north of the direct route on the map above) was very pleasant so let's take that as the highlight.

Another day in Gravina in Puglia
Today was a not-on-the-bike-at-all day as we Walked down into town. Here are some bonus pictures from our stay. First, the hotel dining room - pretty fancy for a bunch of bikers...

Every town, it seems, has war memorials. This one is in the center of a nice promenade in the town. Too many names...

Francesco's in the middle caught my attention. Interesting name. And descriptive of the events that led it to appear here...

There was a highlight on this day. We walked back up the rather steep hill towards the hotel watching a gathering storm. It was gathering faster than our progress towards shelter; the hotel was the only option as there was no other opportunity for refuge. Just before the heavens opened in a torrent of wind and rain however, a small car pulled up and the driver asked if we needed a ride. He asked in Italian, but that was not a problem with Julio on board. We replied in the affirmative and he drove us into the hotel grounds and dropped us off near the entrance to our rooms. An angel for sure.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Lecce to Ostuni

And, we are back on the road. If there were a disappointment in the tour, then it would have been that we arrived in Lecce in the afternoon and left early the next day. It seemed a nice place to have had a day to just stroll around and take in. But, it is a tour, so touring we went...

Today's ride
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Lecce to Ostuni
66.4 miles
1,814 feet

Less than ideal roads (for riding) were not unusual, but this one was even a little less than less than ideal...

But it took us through a rural area where artichokes were in full bloom or whatever they get full into...

And, just because there are some good roads - this one was better than most - it doesn't mean we won't have navigational problems to solve...

There were more than a few on the ride in, especially in the town of Ostuni. Where the hotel wasn't. Eventually, we found our way out of town and onto a narrow country lane that led us to this marvelous hotel in a restored church building...

The hotel was run by this family who treated us most gracioulsy. Appropriately, the center of attention here is the bike - it is 1940's vintage and had been carefully restored by the proprietor. He even rode it around the courtyard to give a proper showing...

Highlight of the day
The restored church / hotel, no doubt. Although there may be a few votes for just having found it being the real highlight!

It was a nice enough place that a few bonus pictures are in order...

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Gallipoli to Lecce

The second longest day of the tour, bringing us across to the Adriatic coast then inland a bit to the old walled town of Lecce.

Today's ride
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Gallipoli to Lecce
72.8 miles
1,690 feet

It was not unusual to find yourself on a road like this one - rock walls and olive groves abound.

Still bucking the headwind that has followed us, so to speak, since Alberobello, we get to enjoy a ride along the rocky Adriatic coastline.

"Where's Lecce?" Lecce today is much larger than the older walled town. As we got closer to our destination, the GPS maps kept pointing out turns. Trouble is, the walls were in the way, a fact lost on our navigation devices.

Excavation of even older parts of Lecce - these on the walk to dinner.

Highlight of the day
It might have been the shepherd with his goats we rode by on the coastal highway. But I'll have to go for the late afternoon walk through the old town, to the cathedral. In addition to the interesting architecture and winding, narrow streets, we saw paper mâché carvers at work on their masterpieces in one of the town squares.