Friday, September 1, 2017

My Big Fat Greek Ending

Day: 37 (Konispol, Albania to Preveza, Greece)

Average Speed: 16 km/hr (10 mph)

Distance Today: 143 km (89 miles)

Distance Cycled Total: 3721 km (2312 Miles)

Mood: Satisfied

Allow me to translate my response:
"That's this weekend?!?"


I done screwed up again.

Thought I had another week left before I had to be back home for a piano playing commitment. 


If I ran my pic through one of those
"What Will You Look Like" Apps...
here's me.

You know when you give a person a gift… but it’s really not a gift… it’s just something you think they could really use in order to make him/her a better person?

There are two types of these “gifts” that I get on a semi-regular basis: Daily planners and nose hair trimmers. 

I’ve never made practical use of either. 

Time to book that flight home ASAP (thanks, mom!). 

And a Sunday flight out of Athens left me with two options:

OPTION #1: Pedal my ass off to Athens. Get those 150 mile days in that I said I would. Stress out over finding a cycle shop open on the weekend with a spare box to donate in order to pack. Risk missing the flight or leaving the bike in Greece… actually the latter isn’t part of the option. Wouldn’t dream of leaving my bike behind. 

OPTION #2: Stop. Camp on a beach near beautiful Preveza. Take two days to find a bike shop. Swim in the Ionian Sea. Talk with people. Get a haircut. Eat real Greek food. Watch the sunset on a beach. Take a bus to Athens on Saturday.

Anyone for Option #1?

Yea. Me neither. 

If I had a real goal- a real destination for the end of this trip- I might care. But this has been Bike Wander 2017. I never planned on ending up here in the first place. Originally, I thought I’d go through Switzerland and head over to Italy. 

No one was even here to take this photo.

Besides, I have an entire beach all to myself, and a 500 meter walk to a mini-market for a cold one. 

I’m good with calling it quits here. 

I met wonderful people this year. 

I had several great reunions. 

And I did my work. 

I pushed myself like I’ve never pushed myself before. I mountain biked day after day with a fully-loaded road bike. I climbed the steepest mountain I’ve ever climbed. And then I climbed some more. 

I just wanted him to get the gray out...
That's all...
I shed better than 20 pounds in the last week alone. 

Now bring on the tzatziki and the moussaka. 

And the razor. 

Yup. Time to shave that gnarly thing. 

I got to the barbershop just as it re-opened at 6 PM.

That’s right. 6 PM. 

Bustling cities in Greece become ghost towns between the hours of 2 PM and 6 PM for “siesta,” which is a misnomer if I’ve ever heard one. As far as I remember from my years of Spanish class, “siesta” means “nap.” And you can’t say “I just took a four hour nap!” without an ironic twinge in your voice. 

Although I haven't a clue where everybody suddenly goes during these four hours, I’m a bit jealous. I would love to see this practice implemented in New York. Can you imagine what a Broadway matinee would be like if the entire cast just abandoned the stage 15 minutes before intermission? I guess if you were stuck watching Cats, that’d be great news (spoiler alert: nothing of any substance happens and the songs sounds the same as any other Andrew Lloyd Webber show), but what if you never found out who/what Godot is in Waiting for Godot (spoiler alert: you don’t)

What you can't hear:
Me humming a Sweeney Todd song.

Anyway, the barber was delighted when he saw me pull up: a true challenge. I was going to be his Mona Lisa. After some Usual Questions, he was even more excited, and explained in Greek to everyone who came into the shop over the next 45 minutes that I wasn’t as homeless as I looked. I can’t be sure of the exact words he used, but I did hear “Forrest Gump” quite clearly. 

Damn. That's a nice lookin' flag.

I do regret that I’m not spending more time in this country. I’d happily trade the entire Czech Republic ride for a couple more days here. It’s beautiful. The roads are maintained. And the people have big, fun, loud, overly-emotional personalities. They often sound like they’re arguing with one another, even when they’re just saying “hello.” 

And their “Goodbyes” seem heartfelt too. 


I only had a 50 Euro note on me, which the barber couldn’t break. Neither could the other three waiting customers. So I went to the mini-market around the corner to buy something in order to get smaller bills. 

I came back with the payment and five cold beers- one for each of us in the shop. He had already started snipping away at the next guy, but work came to a halt. No one was in a rush. No one complained that they’d already been waiting too long for the hairy American. 

Instead, we took a brief siesta, and talked. 

One of the new Usual Questions is “Where are you cycling next?” And this was the topic of our Barbershop Beer. 

I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about that. In fact, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with maps lately.

Turkey’s not too far away… and it looks like I could make my way down to Israel if I’m careful, which makes Egypt very doable. And as long as I avoid The Congo and Somalia, I could probably make it to Cape Town by Christmas…

Then I snap out of it. 

If I were slightly more irresponsible… just slightly… I might go for it. Because it’s hard to look at a map and think of the people you haven’t met after having nothing but fantastic experiences with those you have. 

But those encounters will have to wait for another time. 

Where to next?


Thank you so much for following my blog this year. The support has been incredible. 

Once again, I never felt like I was riding alone. 

See you soon. 


My favorite sign of this year.
In the middle of nowhere.
And it's simply being polite.

I said "Thank you. You too" when I saw it.
Then I realized the sign probably wasn't going anywhere.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Ignorance, a Dominatrix, and a Ferry to Nowhere

Day: 36 (Himare, Albania to Konispol, Albania)

Average Speed: 15 km/hr (9 mph)

Distance Today: 82.6 km (51 miles)

Distance Cycled Total: 3578 km (2223 Miles)

Mood: Whipped

What's this? A cycle path in Albania?? It can't be! It's too good to be true...
200 meters later.

Want to know something that I know practically nothing about?


I know a little bit about irony, but damn… that thing that I’ve ridden over 8,000 miles on in a calendar year- No clue. We get along great, me and Trek. We really do. But it’s a very superficial relationship. Just pats on the back and smacks on the ass after a tough ride. 

We have the same relationship that Little League coaches have with their outfielders. 

I started losing my rear brake a long time ago. I noticed. But I ignored. 

It’s a lot harder to ignore when that brake becomes absolutely worthless and the front starts to call it a night as well. 

Especially when you’re on the coast of Albania, where long 10% climbs are the par, and the switchbacked descents are equally as wicked. 

I remember when I thought the coast of Montenegro was difficult with those silly 8% climbs. Ha! Ha ha! ha ha ha…. ugh.  

And Croatia, your 6% is pathetic. You should be ashamed. I barely needed brakes for you.

I had intended to watch a few YouTube videos on bicycle maintenance before leaving New York- but then “Orange is the New Black” released a new season on Netflix, and… you know how that goes. 

Whatever. It’s just a bike. How complicated could it be?

This morning, with brimming confidence, I found my multi-tool, looked at the brakes, and saw three screws I could’ve tightened. 

I stared at each of them for about 30 seconds. 

Then I put the multi-tool back where I found it and decided I’d use Fred Flintstone style brakes if need be.

I’m not mechanically inclined. 

This tool and some brains is all you need to fix a bike.
I have the tool.
But it’s rather a problem when it takes 200 meters to come to a stop. Really. It’s also very, very scary. 

I dealt with it until I reached the city of Sarande- only four huge climbs away from my starting point- and asked a car mechanic if he knew of a bicycle repair shop. He briefly assessed my problem before answering. Looked at me blankly. Grabbed a screwdriver. And fixed the problem in less than thirty seconds. Then he looked at me blankly again and shrugged.

I would’ve loved to take a self-deprecating photo capturing my ignorance, but the repair was over too quickly. I still don't know which of the three he tightened. 

Best dollar I’ve ever spent. 

Goats stare at me mock my effort.

It turned out to be another brutal day on a bicycle here in Albania. I still love this country, but wow. I really think they designed these roads just to mess with cyclists. 

The coast of Albania, personified.

A mountain range like the Rockies politely demands respect. 

And the Albanian coast demands respect too, but in a dominatrix sort of way. 

These mountains are dressed in leather and wielding a whip. It gets to the point that you don’t even feel a sense of accomplishment when you finish a climb because celebration is futile. All she’s doing is temporarily putting away the whip and bringing out the ball gag for a bit. 

There's a woman spewing chunks to my left.
I stopped for a photo op at one point, and a car pulled in next to me. I went to approach the passenger side in order to ask the woman to snap a pic of me, but it turns out they weren’t there to take in the scenery. Instead, she opened the door and vomited. 


I decided this was a good time to try the iPhone’s panorama mode instead. 

This kid gives a fig.

Still, these climbs do offer their rewards. At the top of one, a small child saw me and came running over for a high five. Then he ran back to a fig tree, picked one, and offered it to me with a huge smile. It was delicious, and his innocent delight was refreshing. It’s this sort of thing one will never experience touring by bus or car, and it’s this sort of thing that happens constantly. Day in and day out.

Also, things eased up eventually. 10% climbs became 4% climbs and several flat sections helped to restore some confidence. But the bulk of the day was spent fighting the first 40 kilometers of the ride, and by the time I got to Sarande, I was secretly delighted that the cycle route suggested taking a ferry to the island city of Corfu and then another back to the mainland. I figured I was done for the day, and took a long lunch break, picturing myself sipping on Mai Tais and playing shuffleboard while the sun set on my first night in Greece. 
Not quite the ferry I was hoping for...

But the last ferry left at 4 PM. 

And I arrived at 4:09. 

Oh well. 

Neither Google nor my new cycle app seemed to know of a way to head south without the ferry or a drastic detour, so I aimlessly created my own route.

There was a ferry of sorts… a tiny barge that’s pulled back and forth over a small inlet by cables. I took that instead.

There were no mai tais. 

And I ended up in the tiny town of… hold on… let me check… Konsipol. 

The setting sun vs. the directionless cyclist

I thought about pedaling through the night, but I wasn’t prepared enough. Low on water and rations, flashlights not fully charged, external battery at half-power, and a SIM card that will be rendered worthless when I cross the border into Greece. 

But I was rejuvenated by the time I got here, and my gas tank was full.

I’m off the tourist trail- no familiar faces of the same backpackers hopping from town to town anymore. 

Pretty much everyone in Albania is willing to rent out a room for 10 bucks, and when I saw a small sign that simply said ROOM, I bit. 

I’m charging all of my devices and trying to mentally prepare myself for a big ride. It’s time. 

It may have been a tough day under the whip, but I feel good. 

Never knew I was into that sort of thing.


In America, we protect our crops with scarecrows...

Albania is much cuter about it. 


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A Cinderella Story, a Stick of Pepperoni, and Starting at Sea Level

Day: 35 (Vlore, Albania to Himare, Albania)

Average Speed: 12.8 km/hr (8 mph)

Distance Today: 72.1 km (45 miles)

Distance Cycled Total: 3495 km (2171 Miles)

Mood: A bit low

Sign in tonight's hostel.
Cheryl, one of the secretaries where I work, bought a similar sign for me last year to hang in my classroom.
She painted the saddle green.

Over lunch yesterday, Inka said something in her chipper nature that I found surprising:

"Albania is my favorite country so far!" 

Wait... where did the potholes go?
Really? I thought. I mean, it's growing on me, but favorite? That's a stretch.

Being frugal travelers, I assumed she and Fabi were most attracted to the rock-bottom prices here, and I left it at that. 

Personally, I put the country last on my list after Day One. It nudged itself past the Czech Republic on Day Two. Day Three, it scored a spot above Germany. And today? It skyrocketed to #1 on my list as well. Sorry, Austria. 

From last Sunday's NYT crossword


Kudos, Albania. A Cinderella Story.

I would hate to take my route in reverse and leave this incredible place with a bad taste in the mouth. 

I'm aware of my affinity for using superlatives in description, but... I think today's climb tops anything I've done before as far as difficulty goes. Hard to tell. I live in the present. But still. 

Over coffee this morning, the hostel guests and owner warned me about it when they heard about my goal of making it to Sarande: 

"Dude. There's a serious, serious mountain coming up. Change your plans. Aim for Himare instead." 

Pffft. What do they know?

More than I, apparently.  

Only part of the way up.

This was not just a "proper climb" (to borrow Jamie's phrase). This was a big, beautiful, badass bitch of a climb: The length of one of the Rockies with the steepness of one of the Ozarks. I may have only cycled 45 miles today, but in those 45 miles, I climbed 5,800 feet. And of those 45, I'm guessing 15  were downhill, and about 10 were relatively flat.

That's a lot of climbing in a short distance. 

Partway up- when I was already sweat-soaked and out of breath- I stopped at a tiny fruit stand to refill my water. I met some fellow New Yorkers (ex-pat Albanians) who were familiar with the area and we struck up a conversation. 

"I can't believe I have to go up there," I said, pointing to barely visible cars high above us.

They laughed.

"You're not going there, friend. You're going THERE." They took my arm, moved it to the left a bit, and drastically changed the angle. See pic. 

"Wait... what?"

For once, traffic patiently waited behind me as I crawled my way up, and when they carefully passed it was thumbs-up only. No honks. Two police cars put their lights on when they approached, and accompanied me for a bit. All grins. 

Sections of the climb

Five hours. One climb. 

Heck, even the Strava App that I recently started using automatically labeled one 2.5 mile section as "Welcome to Hell." I climbed that part at 2.6 MPH. You feel like you're going to fall when you drop below 3. 

Still, I could've done more today. 

I should've done more today. 

I need to get going. 

I need to be finished.

I didn't even start pedaling until 12:30 PM, and it is with a serious lack of excitement that I mark that square off the Bingo Board. 

My ride is coming to an end. 

I confess, it's already past its expiration date. 

And I still haven't booked a flight home.

My CVMS family (can't use the word "co-workers") is prepping their classrooms, and I'm not there. 

My choice. I need to not be there this year.

At 37, I still need to figure out where I'm going. 

Not too long ago, I watched a close friend of mine hack away at a stick of pepperoni with a plastic knife, trying to cut off piece for himself. It took him a while, and when he finally made it through, I snagged it up and swallowed it. It's the sort of thing that friends do. I wasn't even hungry... I just wanted to nullify his effort. Seemed funny at the time. 

But he was pissed. 

"You're so lazy," he said. I thought he was joking at first, but then he went on to enumerate examples of my sloth. He was dead serious.

It stung. Worse than the wasp that found its way under my cycle shorts a few weeks ago. And he didn't stop there.

That's what I heard today, over and over again in my head as I climbed this fucker. 

You're so lazy. (I can do this. I know I can.)

You're being selfish. (If a car can do it on four wheels, I can do it on two.)

You're giving up on your school family. (Don't look five kilometers ahead. Look five meters ahead.)

You're on a cycle-tour like a vagrant. (One More Pedal.)

You have no direction. (Your hand's asleep. Slap your ass. Don't stop.)

You can't hold a relationship because the only thing you care about is your job. (Turn up the music.)

Your wife left you because you were too busy working. (Almost there.)

You miss your nephews' and nieces' birthday parties. And their soccer games. You're a shitty uncle. (I got this. This is easy.)

You're a sucker. You volunteer for everything. You have no personal life. And your bank account is laughable. (Sweat never felt so good.)

You. Are. Lazy. (Made it.)

I solemnly celebrated with a beer at the top, breaking my "no booze while riding" policy. 

I thought about the kids I won't see this year; the kids I consider to be my own. 

I thought about the heartfelt letters I got from students who have graduated, thanking me for influencing their lives.

I thought about my mom. My dad. And 10,000 things I could've done to be a better son.

And then I climbed onto my bicycle, and descended. And I thought about Albania. I'm not ashamed to use a superlative here. It was the most incredible descent I've ever experienced. 

Feel free to ride a tiny portion of if. No time lapse. No editing. You'll see it as I see it, with the same song I had playing in my earbuds in the background.

It wasn't sweat that stained my cheeks. 

I assumed I had finished climbing for the day.

I thought it would've been all downhill to my destination. To Himare. 

I really thought that. 

But when I met sea level once again, I looked up, and saw tiny cars maneuvering high above me with tiny headlights. 

"You gotta be kidding me." 

Another huge climb. 

You can do it. 

You're 37, and you're starting at sea level. 

Cinderella Story. 

It's just a mountain. 

Climb that fucker. 


 This hitchhiker may have beaten me yet again (to Himare this time)...

But damn, it was a great reunion with a big hug.

And I hijacked one of his signs.