0420–There’s a strange sound. I’m in a strange place. Oh, that strange noise is just my alarm clock. The strange place is the airport hotel in Bilbao. I’ve just finished a two week block of racing and training in the Basque Country on the Atlantic Coast in Northern Spain, and I’m off to Denmark for the next round of the UCI Cyclocross World Cup. It’s Friday morning and the race is Sunday in Bogense. The flight leaves at 0655 and we’re only five minutes from the terminal, but there’s a rental car to return, and two bike bags to check in. My partner, Annick and I, fumble out of bed, roll the bikes to the car, and are out the door 25 minutes after the alarm goes off.
Words: Andrew Juiliano/Photos: Annick Lamb and Balint Hamvas
0545–We wait in line for café Americanos and tortillas, potato and egg omelets that are commonly served at bars across Northern Spain. The Basque region wins my unofficial award for best bar food in the world. A wide variety of bocadillos (small sandwiches), tortillas (omelets), and other variations of thinly sliced meats, fishes and eggs line the counters of establishments across the region. In small Basque villages, these cost a euro a piece. Here in the airport, they nail us for 4.50. However, it’s the only café open at such an hour, and we’ll take what we can get. The Spanish prefer late night tapas, not predawn meals at the airport.
0630–We’re onboard the plane to Brussels, Belgium. It should take an hour and 20 minutes instead of 10 hours by car. I’ll continue onto Denmark for the weekend. I think about getting my computer out to write. I’d begged my editor to extend the deadline on my weekly article. It’s normally due Monday. That was four days ago. “Is it okay if we shoot for later this week on the article…my brain is kind of fried. Could I write Spain piece on the plane Friday?”
“We have Gravel Mob this weekend in Ojai [California], so I won’t be able to post anything until Monday-ish.” he replied.
I still had two thirds of Friday left and the phrase “Monday-ish” soothed me into a sweet state of procrastination. I closed my eyes as we accelerated down the runway. “There’s another plane ride anyway,” I thought as our flight rumbled its way north. over the Bay of Biscay.
0830–We touch down and wander into the Brussels airport. This is where Annick and I part ways, at least for the weekend. Tickets were a bit pricey to Denmark, and only my bikes and I could afford to continue the journey. We say goodbye to each other for the first time during our season in Europe. I’m a little sad as I watch her walk through the security zone, but I tell myself it’s only for a couple days. I’m sure I’ll manage just fine. I find comfort in a shot of espresso and a Belgian waffle as I wait for the flight to Billund.
0930–As I board the bus that drives across the tarmac from the terminal to our plane, I run into Ismael Esteban Agüero. The 34-year-old is the reigning Spanish National Cyclocross Champion and he was also on his way to Denmark for the fourth World Cup of the season. We’d become friendly during the two race weekends in the Basque Country, which borders his home in the region of Cantabria. We discuss a variety of things, all in Spanish. I’d paid enough attention in my high school foreign language classes and worked in enough bilingual environments to express myself in a variety of grammatically incorrect ways. Still it’s times like these that I wish I’d listened a little better to Señora Rivera. Ismael and I relived the barro y patinando (mud and skating/sliding) during the previous two race weekends in Karrantza and Elorrio. We talked about his vertabreas fracturadas (fractured vertebrae) and the recuperando (recovering) to returning to top-level racing.
“Pienso estas mejor. Tienes bien carreras las fin de semanas pasadas.” I say. I think you are better. You have good races the last weekends.”
“Dia a dia. Poco a poco” he responds. Day by day. Little by little.
1020–The plane takes flight, heading across over Northern Belgium and the Netherlands. The landscape is a patchwork of green, grassy pastures; brown, tilled farm fields; beige, village roofs and orange forests whose leaves change along with the seasons. I pull out my computer and begin writing about the past two weeks of barro and tapas in the Basque Country. I get about half way through before the plane descends toward Billund. “Moday-ish deadline” I reassured myself as we touch down in Billund.
1140-The plane lands in central Denmark under uncharacteristically sunny skies. I breathe the same sigh of relief I always do when the two bike bags pop from the oversize luggage carrousel. I’ll be truly happy when I unpack them and see that all the spokes are still intact. For now I triumphantly walk to the Enterprise counter to pick up my rental car. There’s a line, so I sample the local airport cuisine, an extra long hot dog stuffed inside pølsebrød (a bored out, not sliced hot dog bun). I abstain from smothering it in mayonnaise and mustard–I am a bike racer, after all…
1345–I am in a constant state of hunger. I blame it on my cycling, though I’m sure I could also blame it on my upbringing. There was a time in my life when I could go to South Philly and eat two cheesesteaks and two 16-ounce cups of cheesy fries (whiz is the fromage of choice at these fine Philadelphia establishments). I ask the B&B manager where I can find a grocery store and some lunch. Not even she can resist a giggle when she points me in the direction of the unfortunately named town of Middelfart, 10 kilometers away. She also says there is a fiskehus (fish shop) just three kilometers down the road. I opt for that, as I’ve still got bikes to build up, legs to spin out, and only two and a half hours of daylight remaining.
1400– I order the fried rødspætte filets. I assume they are the Scandanavian equivalent of fish sticks. They just sit out on the counter, unrefrigerated. Normally, I’m a stickler about food handling and proper storage temperatures, but I figured this was okay. The inside of the fish market was colder than outside, which according to the thermometer was around six degrees Celsius. Denmark, from November through March, seems more or less like nature’s ice box.
“Are they caught right out here? Are they local?” I ask, gesturing to the Baring Fjord about 400 meters away.
“No, no. They are from the other side of the island.”
The island we speak about is Funun, and the other side is less than hour away. “If you speed,” the fiske man adds.
I am slowly realizing that in Europe, something isn’t local unless you can smell it from your house.
1515–Fueled by the fried rødspœtte from the far flung reaches of Funun, my bikes are finally built and I’m bundled up for a quick spin. The sun sinks low in the southwest, and it will fully disappear by 1610. I set off through the rolling farm fields, keeping the fjord to my right as I wind through tiny villages and forests. The occasional stench of cow shit wafts along in the brisk breeze. “Whatever they’re gonna grow in that well fertilized field must be really local,” I thought. The soft evening light shines on rolling fields as I open up the cadence and and start to sweat under my three layers of winter wear.
1920–The sun’s been set for more than three hours, and I’ve been holed up in the hotel room unpacking and stretching like a good little bike racer. The rooms at the country B&B are advertised as 14 square meters on Booking.com. These dimensions translate in English as follows: room for a double bed, a chair, a nightstand (not next to the bed) a closet, and a bathroom where the shower toilet and sink take up three quarters of space, and just enough floor space to do some planks. But it’s clean, warm and comfortable. A real estate agent would call it “cozy.”
I’ve made my way to Middelfart for dinner and some race day fuel. I stand in aisle two of Fakta, the Danish grocery store, for 20 minutes staring at the oatmeal. I’m looking for the instant variety. They have at six options, but this is my first real interaction with the Danish language. I have no clue what I’m actually looking at. It is only after the fact that I realize that word I was looking for was øjeblikkelig. Silly me. I wander off down the street searching for some familiar menu items.
Even in a foreign land “Pizza” seems the universally accepted term for delicious cheesy bread. The pizza parlor is also a safe haven, a place of comfort for me. I grew up right around the corner from Franco’s in New Jersey, and these joints are my epicurean safe space. Fear not, dear reader, this bike racer exercised a bit of restraint–I crushed a gyro wrap, instead of slices of peperoni, and there were definitely some vegetables in it.
2030–I roll back to Møllers B&B and see a familiar face in the parking lot. Well sort of a familiar face. It’s Belgian cyclocross super star Tom Meeusen and his face is plastered on the back of a giant Beobank-Correndon team RV. The massive vehicle is struggling to pull into the small ally way and into the parking area. The actual Tom Meeusen stands outside, guiding the behemoth into its place.
“That thing is the size of these rooms,” I say to him.
“Ooff, it’s not the cheapest thing to drive more than 800 kilometers.” He responds.
20:58–I flop down into bed and pull out the lap-top one last time. I attempt to chronicle today’s journey. I’ve been thinking about how I would write about it for the last six hours. Now I just had to get some of this out. But I run out of steam. “There’s always tomorrow.” I thought. After all, this isn’t really due until Monday.