#23 At Home (12/10/03 – 2/15/04)
TWISTS OF FATE
Much to our surprise, many of the challenges we successfully navigated around and thought we had escaped from, were actually waiting for us in Portland. My Portland physician wasn’t satisfied with the screening for abnormal uterine bleeding I received in France and immediately initiated a round of diagnostic procedures to rule out endometrial cancer. Even with speeding it along, the process took almost a month to conclude and ultimately lead to surgery for removal of a fibroid 13 days before we flew to Madrid. That was cutting it close!
We escaped a couple of real or imagined near-misses of getting bopped by unfriendly or crazy people in Europe the last 3 years and a similar person in Portland managed to actually make contact with my jaw. Surprisingly, it took about a month to recover from that startling but seemingly minor contact.
We were feeling quite smug that we had escaped the too-familiar cold, European winter nights by being in Spain in December and were then greeted by one of Portland’s rare snow storms around New Year’s Eve. Daytime temperatures were in the low 20’s F, the wind chills hovering around 0˚ F, ice was building up on the inside of our attic bedroom window and Bill retaliated by reading out loud the balmy daily temperatures in Spain and Portugal each morning at breakfast. The picture of Bill was taken before the snow really piled up. And Portland got enough snow in the course of a couple of storms that incredibly, we had snow on the ground for a month in some parts of town—very un-Portland like.
And if these ironies weren’t enough, after years of scrupulously avoiding beef products while overseas, the first identified case of mad cow disease in the US was confirmed mere miles from us during our first week’s back home. Bill reluctantly skipped his annual steak and now is thinking the beef in the EU is likely safer than that back home (because the US only screens a percentage of the animals slaughtered, whereas in the EU every animal entering the food chain is tested). The good news was that we were facing all of these unlikely challenges both where we spoke the language and knew our way around town.
The laugh is on us each year when we return home, though we are never quite sure where it will come from. The first year back in town, Bill had a hard couple of days remembering when driving that red lights really mean “Stop” around here, unlike many places in Europe where they mean “You might think about stopping if it gets really dicey.”
The second year it was remembering to turn the stove off after cooking, as we had hardly used a cook top all year.
This year, it was a little glitch at the bank when Bill was cashing his first check in almost a year. After carefully explaining to the teller that “No, my check guarantee card is in a safe deposit box in the next town” and “We never got around to ordering checks with our new address on them,” the teller finally agreed to cash his check. At least he had properly recited his social security number, his mother’s maiden name and a few other facts. But the clerk had to ask him to sign his name on the check twice, as he mistakenly signed on the memo line instead of the signature line. We can only guess what turnip truck she thought he just fell off.
And this year, like the previous trips back home, I went through a brief panic of “It’s just not possible.” The heaps of things to be packed and the long list of projects to be done were overwhelming. And then the deeper self doubt breaks through: “Even if I get all this stuff together, I can’t possibly travel by bike.” It’s an odd though fleeting interval of contradictions as I have already demonstrated both my competency at preparing for cyclotouring and actually doing it. It is so curious to have the beliefs about myself and my experience be so compartmentalized and so contradictory. Fortunately, the experienced part of my mind is credible enough to sooth the doubting, fretty one inside and the panic soon subsides for another year.
One of the harsh aspects of being back home is more bluntly being reminded that we are getting old. Visiting with our friends is a delight but their stories compound our own experiences of people our age getting dreaded diseases and dying too young or now being faced with living with chronic diseases. When we are on the road only a few of these stories trickle in by email, making the realities easier integrate. And of course, being in our early 50’s we are starting to have our own alarm bells going off—fortunately ours to date have all been false alarms. Clearly the deteriorating eyesight, gray hair and wrinkles in the mirror are just the warm-up for more to come.
MINI NERD NEWS
One of the joys of returning home each year is securing the latest revision of our gear after months or years of anticipation. Sometimes the upgrade is as trivial as having a slim sleeve in which to stash our spoons that live in our fanny packs or something as grand as getting new bikes. This year we did both and thought we’d share the details for those of you who savor the technical aspects of our life on the road.
The Dream Bikes
The big item on this year’s agenda while home was to get new bikes. Bill had built and rebuilt them in his mind over the last several years and this was the year for them to move from his dream world to our reality. Our 2 biggest desires were to have mountain bike-sized wheels and disc brakes, neither of which could be retrofitted on our old bikes (believe me, we tried).
-Mountain Bike Wheels-
The defining feature on our new bikes is that we have switched from the classical, 700C wheel size that is standard on road or racing bikes to the 26” wheels made so popular by the mountain bike boom. When we had our touring bikes build some years ago, we were told that 700C’s were the international standard and that we could buy replacement wheels in that size all over the world. Alas, the mountain bike craze changed all of that and fast and 700C wheels proved to be very difficult to replace each time Bill cracked a rim on his rear wheel. (In fact, our luck was so good with avoiding flat tires that Bill had fewer puncture flats than cracked rims while touring in Europe.)
As the months and years rolled by, we increasingly cursed our big wheels and tried unsuccessfully to retrofit our otherwise fine bikes for the smaller tires. Buying replacement wheels, tubes, and tires was a big problem. It’s only the northern, Central European countries of Austria, Germany and the Netherlands where we can reliably buy 700C, touring grade equipment. But in most any country we could buy mountain bike sized wheels, tubes, and tires. (The metal wheels on mountain bikes are about 2” smaller in diameter than road bike wheels. Ironically, since roadies tend to ride skinny tires and mountain bikers favor fat tires, the effective difference gets whittled down to only about an inch.)
But as we dreamed of switching to smaller wheels to solve the parts availability issue, we also savored the opportunity to remedy other wheel-related problems. One such problem was the lack of clearance between our tires and fenders, which literally ground me to a halt in gummy mud. I would sometimes stop multiple times over the course of several hours trying to dislodge the last dragging clumps of mud adhered to the underside of my fender. It certainly slowed me down and did nothing to enhance my disposition. (Last year Bill spent a couple of hours diddling with my fenders to give me 1-2 mm more clearance--the clearance had been so tight that even that made a difference.)
Another little joy that would come with smaller wheels would be a welcome bit of clearance between the tire and the front rack. It turns out that the front rack installed for carrying panniers also makes a good handhold for lifting the bikes up onto a train or coaxing them down a narrow hotel staircase and our current, close clearance occasionally caused the smarting of a pinched finger.
The long-coveted disc brakes will give us 2 things we haven’t had. One feature is positive stopping on steep grades in the rain; the other would be an end to Bill cracking wheels from wearing through the metal rims by braking. Bill had been toying with the idea of having disc brakes on our next bikes for years but became deeply committed to them on my infamous skid down a steep, windy, rain-slickened road over a year ago in southern Italy. The minor injuries of that spill quickly faded but I still recall the look of terror in the eyes of the car driver that my bike and I were sliding towards—yes, he was as worried as I was. That stretch of road is the absolute slickest pavement we have ever tried to walk or ride on and it made a compelling case for disc brakes, which would have allowed us to slow our speed earlier on the descent. Disc brakes will eliminate some of the drama and road-warrior stories from our lives, but we’ll gladly give those up for the increased safety.
And though the mountain bike sized wheels will be easier to replace in Europe than the 700C or road bike sized wheels we had be riding, the disc brakes should mean that we won’t have to replace wheels so often. Disc brake pads do their friction damage on an easy-to-carry-a-spare rotor rather than on the flat surface of the wheel itself. But even though Bill shouldn’t be wearing out rims so fast, the greater availability of the right sized tubes and tires is still welcome.
And while Bill was designing our new bikes, he added a suspension fork and seat post to give us a little more ease on the rough cobble roads (though “Plan A” was to again use flexible stems and not suspension forks). People often assume it is potholes that we curse, but those are relatively easy to skirt around—it’s the jack-hammer experience of cobbles that can go on for hours that we dread.
We had been satisfied with last year’s flexible stems for shock absorption but they are rapidly becoming obsolete with the booming popularity of suspension forks. And the unusually long length of the last available flex-stem made it incompatible with front disc brakes on bikes for smaller framed folks like us. In his “Plan B”, Bill had carefully selected a mechanical front suspension fork with minimum travel (not too springy) so we wouldn’t feel like we were on a pogo stick, especially when slowly climbing steep hills.
The suspension seat posts were also chosen to not be overly springy. Our heavily loaded bikes are hard enough to control at the low speeds of climbing that we didn’t want the seat posts or forks to add wiggle to our handling problems.
And in the spirit of suspension, Bill also purchased some thin strips of special shock absorbing foam that now lives underneath the cork wrap on our handlebars. That adds just a little more cushion for our hands. Bill developed chronic tendonitis in one hand on Year 2 of our travels and so has been especially attentive to shock absorption for the hands. Last year (Year 3) we had the suspension stems and taped bulky mountain bike hand grips onto the tops of our handlebars for a little more cushion.
We hoped to address some other problems with our new bikes too. One such problem on my bike was wobbling. When my bike is loaded with gear and the conditions are just right, I get a ferocious wobble going—it wiggles side to side like I am riding a fast moving snake down the road. It was terribly alarming at first and gave Bill a start as well just watching me wriggle. Strapping heavy objects (like locks) onto the central part of the frame and being careful to pack my bags so the load was shifted towards the middle of the bike as much as possible helped, but none of the adjustments ever eliminated the problem. I learned to live with the intermittent wobble and, as with other irresolvable problems, viewed riding my bronco as a “skill building” opportunity. Bill had his first bike built with a beefier tube in one of the 3 tubes in the big triangle and we assume that is why he never had wobble on his bike.
The combination of my short torso and the big 700C wheels doomed me to a significant toe clearance problem on my first custom bike, which means occasionally bumping the toe of my most forward shoe on the front tire on tight turns. And of course, such tight turns almost always occur when going up hill at slow speeds because I have to pedal (going downhill I can stop pedaling and rotate the pedals so neither foot is close to the wheel). This problem went beyond skill building and only served to erode my confidence on the bike as staying upright at slow climbing speeds is hard enough without unintentionally bumping a foot into your tire. Bill also had some toe clearance problem but he wasn’t as disturbed by it as I was. Solving the toe clearance problem with smaller wheels would also mean that our front fenders could be positioned over the front wheel the way they were intended to be, rather than rotating them up and out of the way a little.
So, mountain bike wheels, disc brakes, some form of front and rear suspension, no wobble and no toe clearance problems were all on our ‘Santa’s list’ for the new bikes. The bike frames to bear these gifts were to be crafted in Alameda, California in the workshop of Bernie Mikkelsen, an experienced bike frame builder that we learned about in a book about bike touring.
Bernie built the frames we’ve been touring on for the last 5 years in the US and Europe. We originally sought out Bernie as Bill has a very long torso for his leg length and I am the opposite, with a very short torso and relatively long legs. And of course, bikes you see in the stores are built for those folks in the middle. But Bernie has a unique “fit” bike that is total adjustable and can be ridden. All other fit bikes are stationery, so you get no sense of the proportions of the bike while it’s in motion. We loved our first “Bernie bikes” and so were eager to have him make our next, more refined pair.
We arrived home from Europe in the wee hours on Thursday, December 10 and on Saturday we were on a plane to Oakland, California for an afternoon fitting with Bernie. Airport security certainly scrutinized our early Christmas present of a wheeled backpack heavily loaded with the flexible stem and disc brakes for Bernie to measure. Problems in using our flexible stem surfaced during the drawing of our bikes, which immediately put us onto Bill’s “Plan B” of using a suspension fork instead. That instantly made the planning and fitting session with Bernie more complicated than any of us expected.
We expected delivery of the naked frames about 2 weeks later but there were delays. The problems we know of were in getting the suspension fork for Bernie to measure up before he could start cutting and welding our frame and then there was a delay because of problems at the paint shop.
Our State-side stay was intentionally extended from our usual 6 weeks to 8 weeks to allow plenty of time for building the bikes up. But almost 6 of those weeks were gobbled up by just getting the frames, the metal triangle part of the bike. We dashed to a local bike shop as soon as the frames arrived from California, taking along boxes brimming with bike parts for assembly. Bill “built-up” or assembled our first “Bernie bikes” so he’d know every bolt on those bikes. But time was short that he decided to hire out the job this time around. He had however; separately purchased almost every item to be attached to the bikes so as to get the best prices, as the frames were only about ¼ the total cost of the bikes.
The first of many calls to report problems began within hours of dropping off the frames and parts. In the switch from a flexible stem to a suspension fork, Bernie had overlooked a crucial detail: the fork he ordered for us was for road bike sized wheels and not mountain bike wheels. Unknowingly, he had built our much anticipated custom frames for the larger, road bike wheel in front and a mountain bike wheel in back—kind of a ‘chopper’ look. If we didn’t have a $1000 riding on nonrefundable plane tickets back to Madrid, we would have delayed our trip and demanded new frames.
So, the first of several scrambles was on. After many phone calls and much head scratching, the consensus was that the frames could be used anyway. We lost 2 things in this compromise. The first was some ‘stand over height’ or clearance between our crotches and the top tube of the bike when both feet are on the ground. The other loss was the ability to ever switch to conventional brakes as the welded-on tabs for those brakes wouldn’t line up properly with the smaller mountain bike wheels. Our hope was that we would love our disc brakes and wouldn’t want conventional brakes; but the ability to put on conventional brakes was a part of Bill’s carefully considered contingency planning in case we were unable to locate needed replacement parts for the disc brakes abroad.
The next call was that Bill’s head tube—the tube which connects the front wheel and handlebars--wasn’t quite round on the inside. The bike mechanic’s guess was that the head tube had been overheated during welding and consequently distorted. A precision piece of equipment, the headset, needed the head tube to be perfectly round. This too was salvageable as soon as the bike shop’s cutting tool was returned from repair—they could shave off enough metal to make the inside of the head tube round again.
Next, the fitting that Bernie welded on for the rear disc brake was non-standard. This problem too could probably be solved by locating just the right adaptor. Fortunately, the magnitude of the problems got smaller with each call but we could hear the cash register ringing up labor costs that were going to go well beyond the standard $150 fee for assembling a bike. And the 1-2 day assembly job dragged on passed the 1 week mark with the mounting problems.
Bill died a thousand deaths during that long assembly week. His time allocated for packing and getting ready for 10 months of travel was consumed with trouble shooting the frame problems. He spent hours and hours on the internet and making personal visits to several bike shops in town to research products and solutions to the unfolding problems. Our tension level was paralleling that at the Jet Propulsion Lab as they struggled with their ailing Martian rover, the Spirit at about the same time. But as the Spirit finally recovered, so did our bike building process.
At last, we picked up my bike for a 24 hour outing before being returned to the shop for final fitting of the racks, which was made more difficult by the disc brakes. My heart sank as I stood over my bike in the shop, as my crotch barely cleared the top tube. Stunned with disbelief, we stuffed the bike in the back of the borrowed car and solemnly drove to meet friends for dinner, wondering if the bikes would even be useable after all the time and money invested in them. We were 9 days from flying out of the country and wondered if our best hope was for my bike was for it to be stolen from the car while we dined. We struggled to set our despair aside to enjoy the evening out. But it was a very heavy and sad night for us both.
The next morning Bill saved the day by discovering that in moving my bike seat back to where I needed it to be, I would have just enough stand-over height to get by. The sharp, downward sloping angle of the top tube is why the seat position made such a dramatic difference. Ideally, I should have had more stand-over height, especially for touring, but at least the show could go on.
Eventually all of the problems were solved and Bill had time for 1 test ride of his new bike while I got in 2 on mine. And we squeezed in a fitting session with a massage therapist/yoga teacher to fine tune our riding positions. Our highly adjustable Look-brand stems and micro-adjustable seat posts allowed lavish experimenting with riding position to maximize our ergonomics on the bikes. The same day as the fitting, Bill began disassembling the bikes and packing them for our flight 4 days later.
Despite all of the traumas, the extra expenses and unwelcome compromises, we are cautiously optimistic about the bikes. The geometry of the frames seems even better than our first Bernie-bikes and we instantly loved the smooth, positive action of the disc brakes.
For the hard-core technical folks among you, look to our SideTrips section on our website’s home page for the file entitled “BikeSpecs” for a complete list of components on our new bikes.
Of course, not all of our delight about ‘newer and better’ is bike hardware. In the accompanying photo I am modeling some of our new gear for 2004. Much of it is hand crafted, though some of it is purchased, including:
retro-fitted mesh on our helmets to keep the bees out (and reflective stickers all around)
reflective Illuminate vests
red, watch-fob-styled lights on upper my arms
red, waterproof over-mitten & gaiter for those always-memorable cold, wet days
gray, REI’s snowboarder mittens for really cold, wet days
black, lightweight tote bags for grocery shopping and day hikes
little ripstop bags for the spoons we carry with us at all times
Lexan bowls replacing the Lexan cups in our portable kitchen
Bill’s yellow mesh rack bag to hold water and a jacket (still under construction)
Barb’s red bag to hold a Dromedary (water) bag and cooling sleeve
This year’s non-bike gear enhancements are weighted heavily towards warmth in the wet and cold weather and improved visibility. Map Man has us spending the warm summer months in Great Britain and Iceland and I am preparing for a damp, chilly traveling year. I am bringing a record number 7 pairs of gloves, testing out 4 different gloves in the rain. The sock count also went up this year, as it’s the hands and feet that are hardest to keep warm on a long, wet day. Oh yeah, and we aren’t even going to try to camp this year as I suspect it will be way too soggy to be fun.
And though we pretty much succeed in never riding at night, visibility in the fog and in tunnels is always a challenge. We’re trying out a new watch-fob styled flashing light by Cateye that we can easily wear on our arms or attach to our panniers for side visibility; we’ve substituted the more versatile reflective Illuminite vests for Illuminite jackets; and we’ve added reflective strips to our handlebar bags and helmets.
For the electronic buffs among you, I am sorry to say we have only 1 small new item with us on the road this year. The new toy is a USB flash drive about the size of a BIC lighter. Bill hopes it will allow him to transfer data from our laptop onto the internet when nothing else is working the way it is supposed to.
Unfortunately, he isn’t off to a stellar start with it. Our desk top computer in the States is too old to recognize the little gizmo and the computer with internet access in our Madrid hotel lobby didn’t acknowledge it either. But Bill is still excited about this inexpensive, feather-weight drive as it won’t have to help often to be worth carrying.
We are hoping our hard-used laptop computer will make it through another year, which is its third. Our year-old, instantly obsolete Handspring hand-held computers will tour with us at least one more year, as will our 2 year old digital camera. Bill drooled over a friend’s newer, smaller, cheaper and better digital camera while back home but he is resigned to getting another year of service from our present (and first) digital. So, aside from the addition of the tiny USB flash drive, we are content to start the year with our only other purchases being a new battery and new AC adaptor cord for our laptop. However, next year’s electronics budget could wipe-out all of the savings from this year’s discretion.
We did buy an electronics toy that is staying at home, which is a photoprinter for printing our own digital camera’s pictures. We were pleased with the purchase and printed out about 1000 photos. We bought an HP and don’t have any reason to recommend it over another brand but have shared our experiences on a SideTrip entry called “Photoprinter.” Rather than help you with selecting a specific photoprinter model, our comments might alert you to some issues to consider in deciding to buy one at all.
FOR THE RECORD
On our flight to Spain I finally read Lance Armstrong’s book about his near-death experience with cancer and just want to set the record straight. Though we enjoy joking about “Be like Lance” we have almost nothing in common with him. Like Lance, we have ridden Trek road bikes, are from the US and spend a lot of time cycling in Europe. Unlike Lance, we’ve always biked because we enjoyed it. We were captivated by cyclotouring on our very first trip along the Oregon coast and were mesmerized by having the world go past us at the same speed as our brains took in the information. We bike to discover the wonders around us at a slow pace in reasonable comfort—unlike Lance who uses the bike as a means of self discovery through pain and to make money. Comfort is what we strive for, not pain. For us, the next step after pain is injury. Oh yeah, and we braked so much on steep descents down the Alps that we had to stop to cool our rims to prevent bursting an inner tube from the heat build-up from the conventional brakes—no 70 mph drops for us.
BACK TO MADRID
With the beginning of our 4th season as travelers we are definitely feeling more at home with our homeless life. The transitions back to life in the States and then back to Europe are less and less jarring each time we make the shift. Now, being back in the States feels more like a vacation in a well-stocked second home than a big culture shock. Each year we delight in the easy access to the internet, a telephone and a washing machine while at home. It’s fun to reach into a closet or drawer and to have more than a couple of outfits to choose from and we enjoy being briefly reunited with our sewing machine and other tools. And of course, we enjoy the opportunity to catch up with family and friends.
We also like to get our bodies and minds tuned-up with familiar care providers when back home. I was especially pleased to get help in dealing with the scar tissue and adhesions developing on my shin after the difficult healing process from the skin growth removal in November. And I got some tips on minimizing additional adhesions and scarring as the deeper healing process continues over the next 6 months.
But despite those conveniences and treats at home, we love our traveling life and are always ready to leave our ‘off season’ way of life behind. We never get everything done that we hope to when at home but also know that there is no end to the preparing we could do. And those nonrefundable airplane tickets give us a compelling completion date for our projects, appointments and socializing.
Even before we left Madrid we began enjoying the little pleasures of our labors while at home. I was surprised at how pleasing the smooth, firm feel of my new clothes was after having worn the same clothes every day or every other day for 10 months. And we were all smiles as we put things to use for the first time, things like: the very compact and light weight shopping bags I made that hook onto our fanny packs; the homemade, whisper-weight rip-stop nylon sleeves for the spoons; a fresh and more robust battery for our laptop; and a new watch for Bill. And we are feeling very classy with our new, dark blue Lexan plastic bowls that are replacing our very scuffed, clear Lexan cups. Bowls and no cups will mean drinking the occasional cup of tea from our handless bowls in a more eastern tradition but it will also mean speeding dinner along. In the past, we couldn’t cook our vegetable course until we had finished both cooking and eating our entree from our little pot. Now we are very upscale—we can eat from our nifty bowls while the veggies cook. Yes, our traveling life amplifies the little pleasures.
And despite being in the haze of jet lag, we noticed a peacefulness that settled over us on our first full day back in Europe--clearly the hectic preparation stage was behind us and the more relaxed ‘doing it’ stage was at our feet. Returning to the same hotel we stayed in before departing Europe helped us feel more at ease too. And the dry air and sunny skies of Madrid made cycling in February seem like a very sensible thing to do.
Where We Are Now 3/17/04
We are on the northern coast of Spain, having ridden north from Madrid to Burgos on the mesa. Snow and bitter winds drove us off the mesa to Vigo, on the western coast and we have been biking the coastline since. We are plodding along, not wanting to get to France and travel any farther north before the weather improves.