In more than seven years I’ve never skipped three days of blogging due to exhaustion. BWR? I blogged it the following day, every time. FTR? Aw, hell yes. Big Day, with 240 miles round-trip to Santa Barbara plus as much of Gibraltar as I could stomach? Yep.
But these last three days finally got the best of me, culminating with a little 108-mile pedal from Vienna to Slovakia, up into the mountains, and back. The distance was doable. The route was doable. But the wind and the Croatian Hammer were not.
Damir Fister is my biking friend here in Vienna. He arranged my rental bike, hand-delivered it, and has ridden with me every day since we got here. It is always hard to compare cyclists, since everyone has their own strengths, characteristics, and weaknesses, but suffice it to say he is easily one of the best two or three I’ve ever had the honor to ride with.
Let me tell you something about Damir. He is hard. You know how when people talk about “hard man” this and “hard man” that? Damir is next level. Fifty-two years old, he’s been riding all his life, knows every trick in the book, and has that chief characteristic of every badass everywhere: No one will ride with him just two-up, or at least not more than once. You go out with this guy, it is going to hurt.
The first day he dropped off my bike and said, “Do you want to ride?”
I’d been in Vienna for two hours and hadn’t even moved into our apartment. “Sure,” I said.
We got going and he asked, “How far today? 120?”
“No, dude. I’m pretty tired.”
“Can we do 80?”
“Okay,” he said.
Damir rides at about 100-110 cadence, and after the ride I was shellacked, but I chalked it up to jet lag, days on the road, not being on my bike since Tuesday, rental frame, etc. We finished with 90km. He barely looked like he had ridden.
“Tomorrow?” he asked.
“Yes, but I am pretty busy so can we just do two hours?”
“Yes, of course,” he said.
The next day we did two hours and I was even more tired than I had been the day before. I couldn’t figure it out, and then I could: It was the fucking wind. When we left Bratislava for Vienna by bus I noticed that the freeway was essentially a nonstop wind farm. Hundreds of windmills everywhere, and having lived in the Great Plains I knew that they do wind studies for several years before planting a wind farm. Those turbines go where there is all wind all the time, and in these windiest of places, the wind on the farm sites is windiest of all.
In short, it is windy.
We were finishing the ride and Damir asked, “Why were you in Slovakia?”
“It seemed like an interesting place to visit,” I said.
“You want to go back?”
“How far is it”
“I don’t think I can. My German class starts at 2:00.”
“I will have you home by one.”
It seemed like a great idea with overtones of horrible, a hint of nasty, and earthen notes of flat fucking miserable. Local tour with a local who knew the roads. Plus, Damir also spoke Slovak so we’d never get lost. “Okay,” I said.
“You will like this ride. Sometimes it is a little windy. I often ask my friends to do it with me, but … ”
“Bah,” he said. “Only whiners.”
Color me whiner
We left at 5:15. Damir didn’t believe that I was going to be ready, so he called me at 4:45. “Are you really coming?”
“Yes. Just finishing my coffee.”
“Okay, you crazy Californian. I’ll be there shortly.”
As soon as we got out of town we hit the crosswind, but it was a little to the rear and not so bad. The wind turbines were barely moving, and many not at all. After an hour Damir said, “Seth, not too hard. We have a long day ahead. Save it for the return. We may have a big tailwind, but we may have a small headwind.”
I wondered what he meant by “small.” Those turbine blades didn’t look like they were built for “small.”
I backed off and dropped onto Damir’s wheel. I would stay there for another seven hours.
After a while we came to a small river, more like a fat brook. On the far side was a ferry that only held about ten cars; the ferry was powered by a 4-hp outboard motor. A surly Slovak was at the helm. “What’s this?” I asked.
“Border crossing,” said Damir.
I greeted the ferryman in Slovak but he only snarled. The Slovaks hate the Austrians. On the other side we entered another world. The roads went from Austrian Manicure to Slovak Shit. The houses and buildings were dilapidated; it was like crossing the tracks in a small Texas town.
But the good side was that there were no cars. We had the entire road to ourselves, and it was beautiful. Without cars, factories, or industry, the air was so clean, it actually had a fresh and sweet taste as you breathed it in. I sat on Damir’s wheel, endlessly.
“There,” he pointed off into the distance. “We are going there.”
I looked. “There” was a small range of mountains.
See ya and beer
My water bottle was running low. “Hey Damir,” I said. “Can we stop and get water?”
He shook his head as he handed me his bottle. “We cannot stop yet.”
“We only stop when all the bottles are empty and all the pockets are bare.”
I shuddered. The road had been gently going up for miles, but Damir’s pace never slackened. I could feel my heart pounding against my ribcage simply sitting in his small slipstream. He weighs about 145 pounds and has nothing on his frame except muscles that help the bike move forward. You know how demoralizing it is to sit for hours on a wheel, watching the pistons go up and down, never changing cadence, with only the rarest change in gears?
No stop lights, no intersections, no pausing … and of course no fashion cyclists, no people out on $19k bikes promoting the “brand” on “the Gram.” No fucking nothing but pavement and pain.
After a long while we hit the base of the climb. I exploded the moment the road kicked up. Damir hesitated for a moment. “Go on,” I said. “I’m done. See you at the top.”
He nodded and sped off.
Several miles up the endless 15% grade I got to the top. There was nothing to blame it on except weakness. Thankfully there was a cafe at the top, just opening up for the day, but I was fearful because even though my bottle was empty, my pockets weren’t bare.
“Water?” I said hopefully.
“Sure,” he said. “And beer.”
I filled my bottle and tore into my baggie, which had a giant slab of Austrian rye sourdough and a stick of cheese. I washed it down while Damir chugged a beer and nibbled on some air.
“Shall we descend the other side and then climb back up and go home? Or turn around here?”
“Dude,” I said. “I am completely fucking done.”
“Okay, then we will not go down the other side. It is very long and steep.”
I wondered what he thought of the wall we’d just climbed. Obviously not long and not steep.
The rest and food did me good, and I resisted the urge to take a pull. Damir sat on the front and churned into the wind, and when I say wind, I mean unbelievable fucking maelstrom of churning air blowing a horrific crosswind from the depths of hell.
Finding the draft was an art in and of itself because it constantly changed with the undulations and turns of the road. Most of the time the best draft was the deadliest spot; my bars a couple of inches from his hip, putting my wheel dangerously close to his pedal. With the blustering and movement caused by the wind, it was a constant game of “how close can I get without putting his pedal in my front wheel,” scary as shit but worth the risk because the wind was so awful.
He never flicked me through or suggested I pull; he just churned on. No wonder no one wanted to ride up into the Slovak mountains with him. A Damir Day was like a lifetime sentence of hard labor and no food.
We came into a small town and realized we were lost. Damir stopped to ask directions. Simply sitting on his wheel I had been riding at threshold for an hour. We couldn’t have been going more than ten miles per hour. I was panting.
We remounted and got lost some more. Each person he asked gave him different directions until we wound up on an isolated farm road. “Isolated” in Slovakia means no cars have been on the road for a month. We got a respite from the wind and actually had a tailwind for about thirty minutes, the only time the entire day I could hear myself think.
“Too bad about the tailwind,” Damir said.
“Because I think we are going back to the mountains.”
I wanted to cry but somehow didn’t. Miraculously through an amazing sixth sense of direction, Damir got us back to the ferry landing. I didn’t know whether to be happy about seeing Austria again, or broken because I had been watching the wind turbines and they were spinning like a kid’s pinwheel stuck out of a car window at 60.
Home in pieces
The next two hours proved Einstein’s theory of relativity. Time is indeed relative. When you are gazing at a pretty woman, an hour goes by in seconds. When you are stuck on the hip of the Croatian Hammer, grinding into the crosswind from hell, each minute becomes twelve hours.
I finally couldn’t hold his hip any longer, and he rode away. He dropped back, cut his speed down to about 8 mph, and I struggled for another hour or so until we stopped at a gas station, out of water.
I gobbled what was left of my almonds and dates, drank a liter of water, and resumed the torture. Damir dropped me off at my apartment, wrung out, wasted, sopping in sweat and stained with salt. He looked tired but only as tired as if he had, say, walked briskly up ten flights of stairs. I could barely stand.
“Thanks, Damir,” I said.
“Nice job today,” he said. “You rode well.”
I gazed at him for an extra second to see if he was joking, as I hadn’t taken a pull for seven straight hours.
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