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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Rick’s Amazing Race

I was very confident on the way to the airport in Orlando on Wednesday. I was wearing my Team USA shirt and was confident that I could talk my bike onto the plane without paying the $200 fee. Others had done it; I could too.

I was wrong.

Foolishly I put the $200 fee onto my credit card. I didn’t know then but that decision would change the entire trip. Was it for good or bad? I will never know.

I got on the plane bound for Madrid, Spain to do the first ever ITU Cross World Championships.

I was excited, but as it turned out, totally un-prepared for what awaited me across the pond.

The flight was painfully long and boring. Eventually we touched down in Madrid and I walked off the plane and up a flight of stairs.

I bet not many airports in the USA have two flights of stairs right off the plane…

I had made a reservation to rent a car. I was off to get my bike and get my car. The plan was to camp but that changed when I met Bill in the baggage claim. He said he had two other athletes staying with him in a villa. On a whim I asked if I could throw a few Euro his way and sleep on the couch. He said fine. Cool. I got my bike and was off to get my rental car. Things seemed to be going well.

Then I went to get my rental car.

My credit card was declined. I’m still not sure why now but there I was with no car. Crap. There was another athlete from the USA named Greg there and he offered to help but couldn’t give me a ride. Being quick on my feet and now in Amazing Race mode I went looking for Bill. I asked if I could jump in his van with them. 

He said sure and now there party of three just became four.

It looks like it wasn’t going to be a lonely trip after all.

My adventures were just beginning…

So we went to the rental car area to get Bills car. There I met Brain and Lisa. They were both 20 something youngsters from California. Bill was from Utah so we made quite a diverse group.

While we waited for the van to arrive we assessed our new situation; four bikes and four people in one car was a lot unless it was a big van. Hmmmm….

Out of the blue, out popped  Gary in his rental car. He asked if there was anything her could do. I asked if I could through my bike in his car to insure that we would have room in our van just in case. He said sure.

Rock on. I put my bike in his car and said we would meet him at the team dinner tonight to get it. Off he drove.

Holy crap what did I just do? I just loaded my bike into the car of a dude that I met at baggage claim in the airport. We couldn’t even remember his name. What if he didn’t show up to the dinner? These are the thoughts I had as my bike went off into the streets of Madrid, Spain in the back of the rental car of a guy named Greg, or was it Gary, Jerry…from Tennessee or did he say Texas?

Oh man. What had I gotten myself into?

Then the van showed up. The term van is being very generous. It was more like a mini-mini van. We’re going to fit three bikes and four people in that?

We put two bikes and our bags in and the spots for people were sketchy at best. My spot was lying down in the back between the bike boxes. Lisa was sitting on the console in the middle, Brian had half of his butt the front seat and of course Bill was driving. He was the only one with a seat belt. We crammed in and set off to get Lisa’s bike.

Yeah, we still needed to pick up a rental bike for Miss Lisa.

It would take us 3 hours to find the shop. Welcome to Europe.

So here we are driving through the streets of Madrid trying to follow the GPS to get to the shop. We “arrived” but had no place to park when a Madrid Policia came to the window. He said we can’t have three people in the front. (Who knows what the hell he really said. That’s what we took from his angry gestures) I don’t even think he saw me lying in the back. With probably the dumbest decision on the trip Brain got out walking. We disappeared down the street and he was left alone in Madrid.

We were within 200 yards of the shop but we wouldn’t see Brain again for 2 hours.

After driving around for an hour we finally parked and set out for the shop on foot. When we finally found it we assumed Brain would be there; he wasn’t.

Lucky for all concerned Bill found his phone number and Lisa was able to call him.

He was close by so we were able to reconnect. Thank God it was him and not me. We would still be looking for me; my cell phone didn’t work. Actually I think I would have found the shop…anyway…

We loaded Lisa’s bike up and we were off. My spot in the back was now even smaller and less safe. Now my hips were wedged between two bike boxes and Lisa’s bike was my ceiling. I was in a very small space. I couldn’t sit up or move at all really. I hadn’t slept really in 30 hours so I fell quickly asleep.

I woke up hot, having to pee and having an anxiety attack. I felt like I couldn’t even stay in my skin a second longer. I begged them to stop. We did and I got out to pee. We got going again and they were able to open a back window to cool things down. This made me feel a little better. I’ll admit it was uncomfortable and very nerve racking. After about an hour we stopped to eat.

We sat down in the restaurant and the waiter came over speaking in Spanish; none of us knew any Spanish. Lisa is from San Diego so she knew a little but not enough. The waiter spoke no English. I was so hungry that I just pointed to an item on the menu and ordered. Everyone else did the same. Brain was the only one that got something that looked like what he thought we ordered.

Lisa wanted chicken salad and got a piece of chicken and a side salad, Bill thought he got the special of the day and it was a bowl of soup and I got a plate of asparagus. Yep, apparently I ordered a side order of asparagus. It was good asparagus though.

We climbed back into the car and we all fell fast asleep. Yeah, we ALL fell asleep including Bill.

I awoke to the sickening sound of metal on metal. I lay there frozen in fear bracing for an impact that never came. Apparently while Bill slept the car veered off the road and we redirected by a guard rail. When we stopped later the entire left side of the car was dented by the guard rail. Apparently no one else but Bill knew that something dire had happened. I went back to sleep and luckily Bill did not.

After what felt like 300 hours (which was actually three) I felt the car come to a stop then turn around. Apparently they thought they had gone too far when they had not. They found a local who gestured us to follow him and Bill drove up a crazy small alley up a hill into the village of Cassa Del Monte.

By sheer luck we had run into the husband of lady who cleaned the villa apartment that we were supposed to stay. We think this was the case because no one in that town spoke a lick of English.

This isn't the town we stayed in but it looked like this!

After of two hours or gestures, dictionaries and correct and incorrect assumptions we moved our stuff into a three story villa with four beds. Just when we finally got situated we met the Australian guy from Texas that spoke Spanish in and English accent. He talked to the apartment owner and in 30 seconds confirmed all that it took us our group two hours to figure out.

That guy’s name was David. Although the whole trip we referred to him and the Australian guy from Texas that spoke Spanish in an English accent. The other cool guy we would meet later was the Japanese guy who spoke Spanish in an American accent; he was my favorite.

Now it was off to the team dinner and to see if my bike was in town or if it had been sold on the Spanish black market.

We arrived at the team dinner 30 minutes late. Apparently getting around Spain was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the maps. It’s like the road were designed in the 15th century or something…oh wait.

Dinner was good… so was the free wine.

Exhausted, full of Spanish ham (they love their ham in Spain!) and a little tipsy we headed back to the villa. 

When we got there we headed out to find wireless. I had no luck and around midnight fell fast asleep and totally exhausted.

I woke up feeling like total crap. I don’t know if it was the wine, the ham, the asparagus, the jet lag or the anxiety but man did I feel like crap. After a trip to the local store to get some funky tasting bananas and Spanish yogurt I managed to purge the contents of my stomach in an alley to start feeling a little better.

After a while we loaded the bikes up and headed to the course.

The found the race course with no problem. We pieced the bikes together and headed out to see what the world championship bike course was all about. Turns out it was really stupid; some dirt road but mostly just tape through fields and up and down some orchards. Parts of the course were along the lake which was kind of cool but 90% of the route was literally no trail just a taped alley through the country side. High grass, rocks, sand and mud made the course interesting but slow.  I avoided the mud on Friday but I just know that wouldn’t be the case on Saturday.

After we finished riding the course it started to pour. It would rain on and off till the race the next afternoon.

Can you say mud pit?

After the pre-ride we loaded the bikes up and headed out to find food and wireless. We went off to the city of Hervas where the team dinner was the night before. Surely they would have a supermarket and a place to eat. We would look for a place to eat first. We managed to find a bar that gave us a small sandwich.

In Spain most everyone goes home for a nap around 2pm. Sure enough it was 3pm and nobody wanted to serve us food. We had to beg to get them to open up the kitchen and make some sandwiches. I was also able to find wireless so I could let people know that I was alive and well in Spain. It had been a day and a half and no one in American knew if I were alive or dead. It felt good to let everyone know.

We set out from there to find a supermarket.

Spain really isn’t like the US. (No shit, right?) They really don’t speak our language and they really aren’t into convenience. It is impossible to find a place to eat or shop. There are no chain stores in the country side! 

After asking about six people that didn’t speak and English we got a shop owner to send is son out with us to find the grocery store. (By know we knew how to say supermarket in Spanish. That helped)

Now with some supplies we headed back to Cassa Del Monte to relax and prepare for the race the next day.
I went for a nice walk up the hill in town and found some cool stuff. What a neat town! Who knows how old the town is but man is it ancient. Some of the alleys could barley fit a bike never mind a car. There is a river that goes through town with some cool waterfalls and bridges. I really enjoyed my walk through town that night.

Finally that evening I found the wireless spot. If I put my laptop in one certain spot at the right angle I could pick up the WiFi from the local library. I was able to make some posts to Facebook and chat with Teresa. That made my day.

I went to bed feeling a little better physically and really to race the next day at 1:20pm.

I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of heavy rain. That can’t be a good sign.

The plan to get us to the course was to have me ride my bike. It was only like 8 miles and I volunteered. (There was no way to fit four bikes and people in that car.) When I woke up to rain I then volunteered to drive Lisa and Bill to the course. They were racing in the morning and Brian and I weren’t going off time after lunch so it would work out.

I dropped them off and proceeded to get lost on the way back to the hotel.

This was another “oh shit” moment for me. I didn’t have my passport or money, I had no phone, and I couldn’t remember the name of the town and I still don’t know the name of the villa I was staying at. What if I broke down or got pulled over? What if I crashed? I quickly re-found the route and get back to the villa. 

Brian and I relaxed for a while and then headed down to the course.

By the time my race came around it had warmed up to the high 50’s and the water was in the low sixties. Not ideal temps for a race but not as cold as it was with rain in the morning. That didn’t look like fun.

I raced hard in the mud and finished 14th in my age group and was the first American. This trip was about the race but it was so much more. It had become a battle to stay emotional and physically strong and to be mentally smart. The race was the easy part.

After the race we brought the bikes back and watched some of the pros race. Of course it was raining so my only warm cloths got a tad wet. Lucky I just wore the wet cloths the rest of the night to make them dry again.

Later that night we went to the awards dinner. What a bizarre event. Several hundred people showed up for this event. Somehow I don’t think the organizers expected that many. We waited outside in a massive line for 45 minutes. Finally at almost 11pm (Yeah, the awards dinner!) they let us into the room filled with about 20 round tables. Each table had plates of Spanish looking food. But there were no plates, silverware or chairs. 

After a few moments standing around looking at each other we finally just dug in with our hands and consolidated the serving plates to put food on. It was really weird.

By the time we finished the meal and got back to villa I was ready for bed. I went to sleep having no idea how we were going to all get back to Madrid, what the hell I was going to do till Tuesday, and if I would have money to fly my bike home. I was also homesick and missing Teresa like crazy. I was very anxious. I slept like a rock however.

When we awoke Bill, the elder statesman and the organizer of the group, had an idea. He said that they would drop Brian and me off in Placencia, a town about 20 miles south of where we were. We could take the train to Madrid from there. He and Lisa would take the bikes in the rental car.

Sounds good to me; of course we get to the train station and there is a 5 hour wait for the train and it is raining. Awesome. Five hours in a train station. In about 20 minutes the rain stopped and Brian and I headed out to see the sites in this town that we knew nothing about.

After walking for about 10 minutes we saw a big ancient cathedral up on a hill. We headed that way. Soon we found the old town wall and a gate. We went in and found what I’d always wanted to see: an ancient European village behind a wall with cobblestoned narrow streets, churches and relics as far as the eye could see. The next four hours was spent exploring this amazing little city. What a find! It truly was a lemons to lemonade day. We had so much fun!

Placencia, Spain

We got back to the train station to find the ticket office closed! Darn siesta!  I can’t read Spanish but from what I could tell it wasn’t going to open up again till 4pm! Our train was at 3:45pm. We sweated it out a little but the ticket guy did show up to sell us our ticket. We were on the train to Madrid.

We arrived at the train station and walked to the meeting spot in Plaza Mayor (Main Plaza or Town Hall).

We somehow beat Lisa and Bill there by about an hour. We didn’t mind though. What an amazing Plaza! We were having a good time people watching. Did you know that it is fashionable for women to wear leather books that go over there knees? The European men all seemed to wear blue pants. (Baby blue. Not like blue jeans)

Be had dinner and headed back to the hotel near the airport.

Now it’s Sunday night and my plane doesn’t leave till Tuesday. I had no plan. My first bad idea was to go to the airport on Monday morning with Bill and Brain to see if I could re-book for an earlier flight. Lisa flew out to Paris early; she was backpacking around Europe. Bill was flying out and Brian was bringing his bike to the airport to fly it back with Bill. Brian was also going to backpack around Europe but he was flying to Paris on Tuesday. (Ah to be in my 20’s again and to back pack around Europe…)

Of course they wanted $250 to change my flight. It’s 10am and my plane didn’t leave for 24 hours and I was stuck in the airport with my bike box.

It took a few minutes but I finally found someone that spoke English well enough to tell me where the lockers were so I could store my bike. For 5.50 Euro’s I had a safe spot for my bike and now I could go explore Madrid. Brian and I got on the bus and we were off to the big city.

Man if I only didn’t have to carry around my bag of clothes.

That problem took care of itself when I stupidly got off the bus in Madrid leaving the bag with all my cloths on one of a million blue busses riding around Madrid. Boy was that dumb.

I asked the bus driver on the next bus what I could do. He just gave me the number of the bus company. My phone didn’t work in Spain, Brian wouldn’t let me use his (it was like $1 per minute) and I couldn’t use a pay phone because I needed every penny I had to get my bike home.

Maybe I’ll call when I get home…

The saving grace was that EVERYTHING that I NEEDED was in my backpack which I did think to bring. My phone, laptop, chargers, passport, money, camera…I had everything. I am glad that I thought to grab my back pack.

We spent the next few hours taking pictures and video in an amazing city! Madrid has some really spectacular sites. After a couple of hours we ended up back in Plaza Mayor. While there we ran into a tour group where the tour guide was speaking English. It was a FREE TOUR! Right on. We jumped in and for the next three hours we say a TON of wicked cool sites and got to learn Spanish history at the same time! It was awesome and totally free. Pretty good times for a guy with no money!

During the course of the tour Brain met some girl and I could tell he was going to ditch me for this girl. I bailed him out. It was alright because I know that I was heading back to the girl of my dreams back home. I wouldn’t trade going home to Teresa for a million hot Spanish girls…

We parted ways and I went back to the airport. I wandered around the airport for hours and hours. 

Eventually I found a quite place to lie down and sleep for a couple of hours (or minutes?). At 5am I got my bike. At 7am I got in line to check in.

I got a break at the check in. I didn’t have the 200 Euros that it requires to get my bike on the plane. I had 130 Euros. My credit card was shut off so I was hoping that they would put the rest on my debit card. Would they do that? In Orlando I begged and pleaded and was honest. They still charged me. Here I simply lied.
Hockey equipment flys free on Delta. I turned on the charm (as much as guy who hasn’t shaven in 7 days, showered in 2 days, changed my socks or underwear in 2 days could possibly muster up) and lied though my teeth. I was teaching Spanish kids to play hockey! In the box were sticks and pads. I was going to resort to the ol’ “My country just killed Osama Bin Laden” but I didn’t need to. She put the tag on it and I kept me Euros in my pocket.

I survived the long boring flight to New York. As I type right now I’m in the air en-route to see the most beautiful and wonderful girl in the whole wide world. I am so lucky.

I learned a lot of things on this trip.

Not people all over Europe do not speak English; we only found the Australian dude from Texas who spoke Spanish with and English accent and the Japanese guy who spoke Spanish with an English accent.

Mini vans do not have unlimited space.

Stop in restaurants that have the menu translated or that have pictures.

Some tour company out of the US gives free English speaking tours all over Europe.

The ITU Cross race has nothing on Xterra
OK the list goes on.

The most important thing that I learned?

I can’t leave my girl behind ever again. I missed her like crazy the whole trip. Never again do I do on a trip without Teresa…

Yeah and I guess I should have money…and a credit card…and a place to stay…maybe leave a little of the language…

1 comment:

  1. Haha what a great adventure. Sounds like it was great fun and well worth the effort on balance.

    I always travel with half a dozen credit cards just in case plus it's worth telling the bank that you're travelling overseas as they often block it if they see unusual activity i.e. overseas spending.

    BTW I accept that Spaniards may wear baby blue trousers but please don't lump the rest of us "Europeans" in with them, Not the British at least. haha