To be a cyclist is to be a connoisseur of roads.
Unlike the cager, whose connection with the surface is managed with antilock brakes, computerized independent suspension, power steering, and an onboard radio to drown out the chatter from the road, the cyclist’s life changes from moment to moment depending on the street.
When the surfaces constantly change, cycling is at its peak, with the road going from wet to dry to smooth to rough to paved to dirt, and the rider adapting to the endless differences in order to preserve life and limb. Of all the things that have been fun about riding in Vienna, that has been the best, sampling from an endless buffet of streets.
Today what I wanted, from the minute I left, was coffee. It was cold and damp, and after my experiences with the tricky rails-embedded-in-asphalt, I set out to avoid such roads as best I could, which in Vienna, it turns out, is fairly impossible.
Having done a few five-star climbs on different rides, my goal was to cobble them all together into a single route. Somewhere along the way I’d pull over and get a hot cup of cappuccino; that was the plan. The street buffet was scrumptious! The cobbled, 3k climb up Hoehenstrasse, the crazy door zones-and-rails getting out of town, the steep walls, the twisting climbs, the manicured bike paths, and then … the end of the road.
Or was it?
At road’s end there was a curb and beyond the curb a tiny dirt track, more mud than dirt. “Should I try it? What would MMX do?”
I hopped the curb and plunged down the trail; what looked foreboding turned out to be a beautiful wooded trail with a lush forest on the right and people’s backyards on the left. Off in the distance I could see the end of the trail and the re-start of a gravel road.
Just as I thrilled at having successfully sampled a piece of off-road mud, I swung ’round a bend and ran into a front loader that was bulldozing mud, shrubbery, and undergrowth onto the trail. I was blocked.
“Go ahead? Turn back? What about my white shoes? And what would Surfer Dan do?”
I got off, shouldered my bike, sank my foot shin-deep in freezing mud, and began bushwhacking. The ground sloped away and if my legs hadn’t plunged so far down into the mud I would have fallen down the hill, but I slogged and grunted and thrashed for a couple of hundred yards until I could climb back onto the widened gravel road.
My shoes were caked in mud frosting and my cleats wouldn’t fit into the pedals, so I found a stick and began cleaning off the shoes. I should have been pissed, but I wasn’t. This was total street dessert, a rare vintage with a muddy bouquet and overtones of manure and shrubbery.
Several miles and a couple of hard climbs later I was back in Vienna, rolling along the Donau bike path, still craving that hot cup of coffee, when I blew by a little place called “Radlertreff” with a bike rack out in front. There was also a hanging sign that said “Kaffee.” Since “radler” means “cyclist” and “treff” means “meet” and since bike racks mean “bros” and since “kaffee” means “Fugg’ yeah!” I pulled over and entered the cafe.
As soon as the door slammed shut I realized that this wasn’t a cyclist meet-up joint. It was noon on Thursday, everyone was already hammered, and let’s just say that there wasn’t a lot of lycra, nor was there anything that could have easily fit into any.
Turns out that “radler” is also a kind of alcoholic drink, and what I’d thought was a cyclist cafe was an old boy bar. I ordered a coffee. The guy next to me asked, “Where are you going?”
“Where are you from?”
Everybody thought about that for a minute. “It’s warm in California now, isn’t it?” the guy asked.
“And it’s cold here, isn’t it?”
“And rainy and shitty, too, eh?”
“So what the hell are you doing here?”
“My son is getting married and we’re here for his wedding.”
A chorus of groans broke out from the others. “Married? Oh, no! Stop him! It’s not too late!”
I laughed. “She’s a wonderful local girl.”
They groaned even louder. “So why’s he stealing our women?”
“He’s not,” I said. “He’s staying here.”
The guy next to me brightened up. “Well that’s good, at least. Hey boys,” he said. “Let’s get this nice fellow a couple of drinks to speed him home.”
The drunks all cheered and thumped the table with their fists, big hammy fists that looked like they could hammer posts into dry cement. “Beer and schnapps for the Californian!”
“Oh, thanks, guys, but I can’t. I’m still riding.”
The guy next to me was crestfallen. “What’s that got to do with anything? It’s on us.”
“I’d hate to crash into the river and drown.”
“But it would delay the marriage!” the drunkest guy shouted, and everyone cheered.
“Beer and schnapps and a bath in the Donau for the Californian!” Everyone cheered some more, emptied their glasses, which were already empty, and clamored for refills.
“If you don’t want to damage the bike we can throw you in by yourself and fish you out after you’ve gotten good and mostly drowned,” the guy next to me offered. More cheers.
“Why don’t I come back this summer when the water’s warmer?” I suggested. Everyone cheered.
“That’s a better idea,” he said. “We will all be here. We’re here every day.”
“I’d never have guessed,” I said.
“Here, California. The coffee is on me. Now go and enjoy the boy’s funeral, I mean wedding.”
I hurried out, feeling pretty lucky that I’d avoided a dunking, and even luckier that the coffee was tasty, scalding hot, and had thoroughly warmed me up. The streets had been tasty, but on reflection, the coffee even tastier.
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