Saturday, May 11, 2013


Growing up in the U.S., one of my cycling dreams has been to ride my bike across the country. That’ll likely never happen which, truthfully, I’m fine with. (I imagine that riding from the West Coast to the Rockies would be pretty spectacular but after that, it’d be sorta boring—cornfields, cowfields, cities and strip malls. For 2,000 miles.)

That’s why living in a country that’s only 30 miles wide by 50 miles long is great. Starting in the morning, you can ride the length of it in a few hours and be back home that same evening to watch highlights of the Giro d’Italia on TV and sleep in your own bed. That’s basically what I did last Sunday.

With eight other riders, I caught the 7:15 train from Luxembourg City and after placing our bikes in the dedicated bike carriers (laid them in the aisle of the nearly empty car), paid a hefty fee (2 Euros), and enjoyed a scenic hour-long ride to Troivierges, the northernmost stop in Luxembourg. Ferdy Adam and Gilbert Jacobs put the ride together and assembled a terrific group of folks, but unfortunately, I don’t remember everyone’s name. (Already lousy at remembering names, I’m even worse when I can’t speak their languages.) 
All were Luxembourgers except for myself and Axel Molinero, who’s from Spain but lives in Germany where he runs Atracktive mountainbiking, a mountain bike guiding company. Axel is a fun, enthusiastic kid, whom I took to immediately. As often seems to happen since I’ve been in Luxembourg, we talked languages—he, like seemingly everyone else in this country except for me, speaks about five different ones—and I attempted to entertain him with various English accents: British (Austin Powers, Beatles, Month Python), New York, Boston and U.S. Southern. He seemed amused or was just being polite. 

From Troivierges, a small village seemingly right out of a storybook (like so many places in Luxembourg), we began our journey south. This is the hilly Ardennes country where we rolled up and down big hills via a mix of unbelievably smooth roads, fun swirling singletrack, farm fields, and forest dirt roads, always trending south back toward Luxembourg City. Ardennes hills are short but steep and some of them hurt like hell. Tiniest gear, up on the nose of the saddle, just trying to keep from falling over, type climbs. At times, the open views were breathtaking—rolling hill upon rolling hill in all directions, a lineup of giant white wind turbines not spinning at all on this windless day, a pointy church steeple from a village down in the valley over there. And another one over there! And over there too! Back home, there’s a climb where I’m always extremely moved when I pass this particular ridge of pointy North Cascade Mountain peaks. Just happy, lucky-as-hell-to-be-healthy-and-alive-type moved. I had similar moments on this ride as well.

A fun, funny, enlightening moment:

-About three hours into the ride we stopped for lunch (spaghetti, Cokes, Apfelschorle and espresso) at a café in tiny Kehmen. It was yummy and energizing. As we were about to leave, I asked Ferdy if he knew where the restrooms were.

“They’re inside on the right, by the bowling,” he says.

“By the what?”

“The bowling,” he says. “Right before the bowling. ... Here, I show you,” he says, seeing my confused look. 

As he leads me inside, I’m thinking ‘bowling’ must some little game of chance played while sitting at the bar, like pull tabs. But no, it’s real bowling. This small café has a single lane for European bowling (jeu de quills), something I’d never seen or even heard of before. Looking at the café from the outside, you would never think there’s a bowling alley inside. It was like something out of Harry Potter where they cross a portal revealing a whole other elaborate world inside. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration but still, it took me a moment to get my head around it. 

The lane looks to be as long as a bowling lane that I’m familiar with from the U.S., but is really narrow and flares out down near the pins. The balls are smaller, not much larger than a softball, but heavy and have no holes. They seem to be of varying size too. Ferdy tells me that there’s much strategy involved in spinning the ball as you roll it in order to make it curve. (Who knew?) 

Ferdy and I take a couple turns which was fun and funny and I feel pretty safe in saying that I might be the only American who has ridden his bike the length of Luxembourg and played jeu de quills in the same day. That’s something to be proud of. 

I took no notes and after a while, the riding all kind of blended together in my mind. Sorry, for not many details. We saw some stunning castles. The north part of Luxembourg is much hillier than the south. From Mersch on down, much of the riding seemed to be a fair amount of what I would call gravel-grinding: dirt roads through fields and forest, interspersed from time to time with fun singletrack. 

We lucked out in myriad ways. The weather was perfect—sunny, high 60s (F) with no wind—not a single flat tire or mechanical for any of the nine riders. Everyone finished strong. 

Strava has my distance at 60.7 miles with 7,012 feet of elevation gain. Ride time was 6 hours and 25 minutes, 8:53 total time. An absolutely incredible day and a huge shout-out of thanks to Ferdy Gilbert (and Franz Schneider who wasn't with us but who helped create this route) for putting it together!

Thursday, May 02, 2013


In the 2-1/2 months I’ve been in Luxembourg, I’ve ridden four mountain bike randonnees of between 30K and 70K. They’re not races, more like road bike century rides in the U.S. and are a great way to learn the landscape. Lots and lots of forests, bizarrely beautiful rock formations in the north, windswept open fields and farmland that call to mind the springtime pro bicycle races I love to watch on Eurosport. 

Randonnees—and mountain biking in general--have been a great way to meet people too. My entry key into the Luxembourg mountain bike scene has been Fränz Schneider, who runs the site and club. (I think it’s a club; I’m still not sure how Luxembourg bike clubs, associations and the like work.) He’s the Grandmaster of all Connectors (Google Malcolm Gladwell and Connectors and that’s Fränz) who’s been a terrific friend and guide and has allowed me to follow him around like a new puppy ever since I arrived here. 

Apropos of nothing, here are a couple tidbits that only marginally have anything to do with the randonnees I’ve ridden. 

-After a 36K randonnee in Beaufort, not far from the amazing Château de Beaufort there, dozens of us tired, muddied riders gathered in some sort of community center for a spaghetti feed. Just before we dig in, Fränz says to me: “Gudden Appetit!” (Pronounced appe-teet). 

But I thought he said, “Looks good enough to eat,” so I said “Yes, it does.”

We went back and forth like this a couple times before he cleared up the English-Luxembourgish discrepancy. By this time, however, I’d found myself distracted and a little intimidated by the beauty and skill with which this room full of Luxembourgers ate their spaghetti. 

Using a knife and fork, they spin the spaghetti on the fork using the spoon as a sort of base to support said fork spinning and then, with a quick subtle move, pull out the fork so that the spun spaghetti dollop now sits in the spoon. Which they then spoon into their mouths. (Somewhere in the recesses of my brain is the knowledge that this is how one is supposed to eat spaghetti but I’ve never seen anyone actually do it.)

Looking around and seeing every single person eating this way except for me seemed a bit surreal. It reminded me of the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and Elaine are in the diner and realize that everyone around them is eating cookies, donuts, Snicker’s bars, etc. with a knife and fork except for them. There was a balletic beauty about these Luxembourgers’ spaghetti-eating, worthy of a Vivaldi soundtrack. Meanwhile, I shoveled my spaghetti into my piehole caveman-style feeling like I was Tony Soprano crashing dinner at Downton Abbey. 

-The longest randonnee I’ve ridden so far here is the Mill Man Trail, a 70K near Echternach, Luxembourg’s oldest city located across the Sauer River from Germany. This was with my friends Ferdy, a Luxembourger, and Jean-Louis who’s French. Both speak excellent English and on the drive to Echternach, we talked much of languages, etc. They said that American English is harder to understand than British English and that some of the time when I speak all they hear is “Grrrr-Grrrr-Grrrr.”

So I affected my best British accent and said, “Do you think there will be a lot of people here today?”

“Ah, that’s much easier to understand,” they both said, almost in unison. I imagined it was as if I had fine-tuned a radio station so that it came in much clearer.

Later, on the randonnee I was surprised with the freeness with which riders (albeit, all male) would take out the garden hose, when the need arose, and water the lawn as it were. On an organized ride in the U.S., there’re porta johns (usually not enough) and stern warnings of the consequences if you don’t use them. Just for shaking a little dew off the lily. Here, you’ll see whole pelotons of pee-peeing pedalers mere feet from the aid tent or wherever.

“We’d get fined for doing this in the U.S.,” I said to Ferdy as we and a dozen or so others were poised at the edge of some trees personally trying to put out a forest fire. 

“Fined? Why?” asked Ferdy. “It’s natural.”

Such is true.