Monday, August 18, 2014

The Road Less Traveled By — Part 2

“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.” 
 Søren Kierkegaard*

Our four biking excursions have each been a combination of fun and adventure. We had a lot of fun in Denmark, but for one day on this trip, we were caught up in quite an adventure.
Preparing to mount up. Clockwise from bottom right: Phyllis, Audrey,
Leah (in purple), Barb, Casey, Patti (in green), and Harvey.
Now, where was I in my story? (See Part 1 for the beginning.)

Oh, yes. We had just completed the gravel detour taking us from near Egeskov Slot (castle) toward Faaborg. All of us had been jostled on our arms and bottoms by riding over the loose rocks—something Audrey particularly hates—and three of us had gone the wrong way at the noted fork in the road. We were reminded of a Yogi Berra-ism—“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

But the “lost souls” had been found, and now we were regrouped on a paved road and ready to begin part two of our ride. We mounted up, and this time I moved near the front of the line. I planned on staying as close to Lars as possible just in case there was another fork in our future. We did some ups and downs over hills. I, of course, shifted gears to help climb more easily; Lars never felt that need. He pedaled steadily and evenly no matter what the terrain. 

We got into such a good rhythm that we hardly noticed when Lars turned onto another gravel byway. This one moved steeply downhill and became swift when the gravel gave way to sand and then slippery when the sand turned a little muddy.  Even Lars nearly skidded out on that stretch. I breathed a sigh when I got through the bad part and reached pavement again. Then we heard a shout that someone was down. Leah had lost her balance in the muddy section. Several other bikers stopped to help her up, and one shouted that she had cut her leg badly on some rocks during the spill.

Looking out from the first gravel path to see a windmill
and wind turbine both creating power.

The next few minutes were a blur as various riders searched their belongings to locate some ointment, swabs, and bandaging materials. Luckily, we had Patti in the troupe. Patti, also from South Dakota (what are the odds that in a nine-person group from around the country, two would be from South Dakota?), was an ob/gyn who spends much of her time working on Indian reservations or going into scary-sounding places in Africa, and Central and Southern Asia. She even worked one time within shouting distance of Abbottabad, where Osama bin Laden holed up until the CIA found him. (But I am getting off the point.) As self-appointed medic (we would gladly have voted for her), Patti calmed Leah and cleaned her cuts. Then she applied bandaging and tape. When she was done, no blood was visible, thank goodness. Leah bore up really well, and even insisted on biking on. Which was a good thing, because Lars was unable to get any service to contact Per, our driver, to come pick her up.

[A few weeks after the trip, Leah sent us all an email noting that her cuts and scrapes were healing fine, but the pain in her shoulder turned out to be a fractured collarbone. None of that stopped her. Obviously, she is made of stronger stock than I.)

We were at a crossroads, literally, and started up the road going straight ahead. Our new path had both good and bad qualities. It was paved (positive) but moved fairly steeply uphill (in my opinion; and, after all, I’m telling this story). We had gone a little over a mile when Lars thought something wasn’t right. He reviewed his map and instructions and called a halt. We needed to head back down and go the other way, he announced. I wasn’t even a little upset. After all, we would be going mostly downhill this time, even if we were retracing out steps.

We got to the bottom, turned left and kept pedaling. It turned out that we still had a number of miles to go, and soon I was ready to begin grumbling again. But I was so grateful when Lars announced that we were only one kilometer away from our hotel, that I stifled my complaints. And, there it was!

According to an Internet account I found, the approach to the harbor town of Faaborg by sea is gorgeous. We got there by land and were covered with sand, mud, a little blood, and lots of sweat. But that hotel looked gorgeous to me! Tomorrow, we are promised a shorter day of riding and two ferry boat trips. Piece of cake. . . .
Our hotel in Faaborg is directly ahead. Note the bike lane on the highway.
*[Based on the above quote, I would bet that Kierkegaard was never called “the happy Dane.”]

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Road Less Traveled By — Part 1
“To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”
—Soren Kierkegaard
International Biking Tours (IBT), the company that organized our Danish trip, has a unique system. Each day, our tour guide appoints one traveler to be the “sweep.” The sweep rides at the back of the line of bikers to make sure no one gets left behind and to let the tour guide know if any of the bikers has a problem that may require attention. The sweep is entrusted with two key tools—a cell phone programmed to make a quick call to the guide and a pump to blow up any rider’s tire that may go flat.

No special skill is required of the sweep, just patience and observation, which was evidenced by the fact that Lars appointed me to the task for our first day of biking, the trip from Menstrup to Nyborg. Luckily, that trip was uneventful and not even very hilly. I had no trouble keeping up from my farthest back position. The cell phone remained thankfully silent all day.

On Day 2, we rode from Nyborg to slightly larger Svendborg, both on the island of Fyn (the home island of Hans Christian Andersen). This time, Casey, a computer programmer from UNC who often dressed in Carolina blue, was appointed sweep. Casey is a powerful rider who told us during the previous night’s introductions that she often bikes to her job each day, and the trip includes a level 5 hill. I’m not exactly sure what that is, but I’m certain I would hate it. Her day sweeping also went smoothly.

When Doug, a retired Spanish literature professor from Colorado, was appointed sweep the next day, Casey and I kidded him that he had to maintain the trouble-free tradition we had established for the trip. He laughed and promised to follow our pattern. It must have been a hollow laugh. Trouble was ahead! No one expected the trouble. In fact, we had been told that our day of biking would actually be much shorter than the previous two days. We even started the day later and, by the time we biked to a grocery store to prepare for the day’s picnic lunch, it was nearly 11 a.m. We were on our way to tour a famous nearby castle, Egeskov, built in 1554. [Danish castles are unique in their appearance, use, and history. I will write about Egeskov and a few other castles we visited in another blog post.] We walked around Egeskov, picnicked on the grounds where we had a brief encounter with a nosey peacock, and then mounted up to continue our trip with Lars at the front and Doug at the back.

Egeskov, like many other Danish castles, is still being
used part of the time by one of Denmark's noble families.

I had checked my trusty iPad earlier in the morning and noted that the trip from Svendborg to Faaborg was only about 28 kilometers (17 miles), a piece of cake for “talented” bikers such as we. And we would break it up into segments punctuated by water and bathroom breaks. (I would say “no sweat” here, but as I noted in an earlier post, Denmark was experiencing a record heat wave, and I did some serious sweating.)
Audrey is willing to pose with me despite my sweaty appearance
But that distance was based on using the main road between the two towns, a pretty busy thoroughfare. True, it had bike lanes delineated on the side of the road, but the fast-moving passing cars were a little intimidating. Lars signaled that we were making a quick left turn onto a side road. I figured a detour would add to the distance we would travel, and I was right. (Later, Lars would confess that this alternate route was a new one mapped out by the tour company and provided for him as a way to save time and distance while avoiding the high-traffic main road; he didn't know it very well yet. Oh, ho!)

The detour turned out to be mostly gravel with some sandy patches, at least for the first part. There would be paved road ahead, we were promised. So we braved on through the gravel. Now, as I have noted, I hate hills. Audrey, on the other hand, hates gravel, especially when the gravel path heads downhill, which this one was doing. She was riding her brakes, but she wasn’t complaining aloud. Under her breath? That’s another matter.

The road narrowed out a little more, and we had to go around some fallen branches and even had to maneuver through a gated entrance. This apparently was Robert Frost’s road less traveled by. The group was starting to separate a little. Somehow Casey, Leah (a retired school teacher from New York who is petite but tough and plays tennis almost every day when she is not biking through Central Park), and Doug as sweep fell a little farther behind and lost touch with the rest of us.

Then Lars led us to a fork in the road and took us into the left branch. Someone in the group (perhaps Barb, the massage therapist from a little town in South Dakota, who had noted that she was in training for the upcoming “Tour de Corn,” a ride of scary length) hoped aloud that no one behind us would choose the right-hand branch. She turned out to be a prophet. Doug’s bad luck as sweep was just beginning.
The rest of our group. From left are Harvey in profile, Per and Lars (our guides),
Casey, Leah, Doug, Phyllis, Patti, and Barb

Lars and six of us finally completed the gravel portion of our ride (or so we thought) and took a break to begin the paved segment. We waited for our three comrades. And waited…and waited.  Lars finally decided to head back on the path to find the missing bikers. Luckily, he spotted them near that infamous fork in the road, and they quickly rejoined us.

We were all together again, and ready to continue. We were looking at paved road and figured Faaborg couldn’t be that far away. As long as we didn’t encounter any more surprises, we were home free, and Doug could retire his cell phone and air pump. Which turned out to be wishful thinking.

Stay tuned for Part 2. One warning—there will be spilled blood ahead!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dining and Biking Like a Dane

—Soren Kierkegaard

On our first day in Denmark, we got treated to the country’s two extremes. We started out in the bustling airport in cosmopolitan Copenhagen. Then we took a bus to miniscule Menstrup in the southern part of Zealand, the same island on which Copenhagen is located, but a million miles apart. Lars, our tour and biking guide, warned us. “Menstrup is a small village. Well, really it’s not so much a village as just a few houses.” He wasn’t understating. Menstrup was one block long with a small but well supplied (and fairly expensive) grocery store. I was especially impressed with a display outside the store of some of the tiniest heads of cauliflower I had ever seen. Those became the focus of my first Danish photo op with my new iPhone.
Two of Menstrup's houses and those tiny cauliflowers

Amazingly, Menstrup also featured a fairly spacious hotel with a huge dining hall that was nearly packed at dinner time. Why, we wondered? It seems that many Danes vacation by moving around the country from hotel to hotel. They get special deals from certain hotel chains that include breakfasts and dinners. Our hotel was a place to stay on the way from here to there. Menstrup clearly was not a destination in itself. I went online to see what information I could find about the place. One website was entitled “Things to do in Menstrup.” When I clicked on it, there was nothing listed. I would have at least included the unusual miniature golf course located on the hotel grounds. The holes were made of roughly planed and badly weathered wood with rather steep inclines. If your ball didn’t fall directly into the hole, it would roll back to the beginning and beyond. Harvey and I took on the course, and the course quickly won.
A colorful and challenging miniature golf course

The hotel provided our introduction to the special Danish treat known as smørrebrød, an open-face sandwich built in layers on a special type of rye bread. Being open-faced, the sandwiches have to be eaten with a knife and fork; lifting them up would just be an invitation to getting mayonnaise on your nose. Because of my vegetarian/fish diet, my sandwiches featured cucumbers and herring, salmon, or shrimp and lacked some of the strange-looking meats that graced everyone else’s sandwiches. I considered myself lucky. Also on the positive side was the abundance of Carlsberg beer that most of us indulged in.

Our smørrebrød did not look this appetizing.
The hotel was also our introduction to two other Danish (and anti-American) customs—lack of air conditioning and very limited offering of ice cubes with drinks. None of the hotels we stayed in, no matter how highly rated, had air conditioning, even the one in Copenhagen, and we had to make special requests for ice. This would not have been such an issue except that during our stay, Denmark was experiencing its strongest heat wave in nearly 100 years. (Now I know I am sounding like the “ugly American” here, but I’m just trying to give you some flavor.)

As it turned out, the hotel in Menstrup was a perfect place to start our biking adventure. It was calm and quiet, and so were the roads and bike paths nearby. We fitted and tested our bikes, discussed our next day’s route, and learned the rules of the road in Denmark, which are somewhat different from those in other countries. Danes are very reserved people, and they are serious about their biking. In Italy, we were encouraged to shout encouragement to each other, call out landmarks, and give warnings to the rest of the group when a car was approaching from ahead (“car up”) or from behind (“car back”). Italians like and expect a lot of noise. Danes frown on such “verbal assaults.” Danes expect bikers to stay single-file in line and preferably not too close together, just in case a car needs to go between bikers on a narrow road when another car is approaching from the opposite direction. They also expect them to do their biking quietly. Since Lars, our guide, was Danish, we quickly realized that we were expected to bike like Danes. At the end of our trip he praised us for being “American” in our enthusiasm about everywhere we went and “Danish” in our biking seriousness. (I think he even included me in the latter, even though I occasionally biked like a grumbling American.)

After a quick stop at the aforementioned grocery store to buy items for a picnic lunch using lots of the Danish krone we had exchanged for in New Jersey, we were ready for the first of six days biking through the Danish isles. Not all of them, of course (there are more than 400), but a respectable six or seven. We were nine relatively serious American bikers and one ultra-serious Danish guide. And we had already experienced Menstrup. Next stop, Nyborg, which was 30 miles of biking and one of the world’s longest bridges away. Bring it on!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Denmark Is Not What You Expect

Ready! Set!

I say “Denmark”; you say ­­­­­­­­­­­­_______


The odds are strong that for most people, thinking about Denmark would lead them to focus on the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen or some other landmarks in the Danish capital. Up until three weeks ago, I would have been part of that majority.

Then Audrey and I joined with seven other intrepid bikers (plus a Danish guide and Swedish driver) to explore the Danish countryside on two wheels. [I’ll write about the group in my next post.]

And what we saw for the most part were “amber waves of grain”—miles and miles of wheat fields, barley fields, sugar beet fields, and grape seed fields that help to bolster Denmark’s strong economy. To my consternation, those fields were not American Midwest flat. They were planted alongside rolling hills, the kind that go up as much as they go down (or that seem to go up a whole lot and down not nearly long enough). The kind that make biking a challenge—at least for me.

Of course, we saw lots of other scenery—beautiful coastlines, majestic castles, streets lined with thatched-roof cottages, and lovely churches, made even lovelier by the fact that each one featured a clean public restroom that bikers were welcome to use. (That feature should definitely be included in guidebooks!) And no matter where we rode, there were paved bike paths or off-the-beaten-track gravel trails reserved for bikers. But what I seem to remember most are the hills—and one incredibly steep bridge that seemed to intimidate only me in our group. This probably says more about me than about Denmark. When it comes to biking, it seems that I am a “flatlander.”

This is the fourth consecutive year that Audrey and I have gone on biking adventures in Europe. We started in Holland, famous for being flat and quaint. Then we headed to Belgium, famous for being flat and quaint and noted for hundreds of great beers. Then we tried northern Italy, between Mantua and Verona, famous for its vineyards and wines and pastas that help riders like me put up with a few challenging hills. Then came Denmark.

I recognize that my problems with this riding adventure were a matter of mind over muscle. In my mind, I had somehow envisioned the Danish isles south and west of Copenhagen as being designed for a flatlander. My mind was wrong. Plus, I seem to have added some poundage in the past year (as Audrey is quick to note) that didn’t help my mind convince my legs that they were ready to take me up those hills and over that steep bridge. For the most part, I kept pumping. But I grumbled. Oh, how I grumbled! [And, as you can imagine, Audrey did not greet my grumbles with sympathy and understanding. I was alone in my “misery.” Though, I must admit, in retrospect, that it is hard to be miserable when you are traveling in Europe on bikes through a beautiful country with a group of interesting people who happen to be disgustingly fit (grumble, grumble)!]

So, now I have done my venting. In later posts, I will write about what we actually saw after climbing those hills and about the people with whom we traveled. Stay tuned. And, by the way, the trip did end with a visit to Tivoli Garden, which is worth waiting for.