Sunday, June 3, 2018

Catalonia finale - Girona-Barcelona


Wednesday, we went on a nice ride through the mountains to the Costa Brava, which is a tourist destination and fancy vacation-home region that reminded me somewhat of the Panoramic Highway & Hwy 1 north of San Francisco.

We got back just in time / a few minutes too late, when a freak storm flooded the streets of Girona. My phone was too wet to take the craziest photo, of rivers of water cascading down the cobbled steps!

After the ride, we went to a semi-formal place for a late paella lunch/early dinner; delicious, 2 hours long, and only about 35 euros total (the Euro is doing poorly right now, so dollars are pretty close to 1=1, good time to visit!)

Vilassar del Mar

Thursday, we received notice that our Sunday Gran Fondo was canceled (postponed to September) due to some issue with a municipality; terrible news for the race promoters, who already had organized so many volunteers, permits, food, logistics, police, etc! But also sad for us, since obviously we can't participate in September. We changed our ride plans slightly and did a longer 'transfer' ride to a town about 10 miles north of Barcelona along the coast. 
Some gorgeous small roads, bike paths, then a bigger trafficky road heading toward the city that necessitated me to use my asthma inhaler yet again (so many little diesel cars/vans, really exacerbates breathing troubles, super annoying!)

This town, like all others we have seen, is full of walking streets with pedestrians everywhere and many outdoor cafes. Really nice! (other than that so many people smoke cigarettes at adjacent tables)


Friday, we performed a logistical masterpiece. We rolled from Vilassar to downtown, slowly rode a sightseeing tour of Gaudi famous sights, checked into the Airbnb in the Raval district, then speed-walked to a Michelin star restaurant for a 3pm 'lunch' reservation. 

Sagrada Familia - not-yet-finished, fantastic architecture

Park Guell

Lunch at Via Veneto, Michelin star restaurant; family friends Cherubino  and family gave us a Smartbox as a wedding gift, and after a bit of a struggle trying to redeem for lodging, we found it would work for a fantastic meal. I have never been to such a formal restaurant, and Zack was worried/stressed about being turned away lacking anything remotely formal to wear; but they were very hospitable and served a delicious tasting menu. I wouldn't pay that much for food normally, because I am equally happy with $3 gelato, but it was a fun experience. I would be interested in a multi-course gelato tasting menu...

Saturday, we did another huge ride, since the Gran Fondo was canceled and rain was forecasted for Sunday. The first 20 miles getting out of the city were unpleasant/trafficky, then the rest was awe-inspiring -- so many amazing rock formations, monestaries, other cyclists.

 Montserrat - funicular kind of reminded us of Pittsburgh...


Sunday, we embarked on a long sightseeing walk, stopping by the Art museum, olympic stadium, botanical gardens, tapas, and a chocolate museum. 

Bonsai tree section - very neat

Chocolate artwork - truly intricate

Tomorrow, we plan to ride a slightly extended route to the airport to end up at the final 'stats' below - then for a long couple flights and drive!

Trip Stats

Pretty close to projected - hopefully pretty fit/fast now :) 

  • Miles: 508 (235 w/ panniers)
  • Vertical feet: 36,000
  • Bike moving time: 37 hours
  • Kilojoules (S): 13,957
  • Kilojoules (Z): 16,570
  • Gelato consumed (total): approx 20 cones
  • Café con leche / espresso consumed: approx 40
That's a wrap on big trips planned until Christmas-time!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Catalonia Pt 2 - Marxa Jufre, political demonstrations, and Vic to Girona

Vic ended up more lively than expected; our first evening there, while wandering around the main plaza area, a parade of giant puppets and musicians traipsed through the narrow streets! The giant puppets symbolized Catalan separatist political prisoners, and throughout the city (and region) there seems to be intense pressure to "Llibertat presos politics".

Gran Fondo #1

Sunday morning, we rolled a few miles to the start of what ended up as a very fast/competitive 'Gran fondo' from Santa Eulàlia de Riuprimer, La Marxa Jufre Riuprimer.

At 95 miles with 8,700 feet of climbing, this didn't seem like a good ride to go all out in the first hour, yet that is pretty much what happened. Feeling like European pros, we rolled around both sides of the roundabouts where we got to use the full width of the road for the first few miles - very fun but a little scary. The groups spread out on the first major climb, with Zack in one of the front groups and me farther back but somewhere in the top half. Some incredibly fast/intense women also made the front group, impressive. By the first rest stop, I was already tired and a little cranky, since I'd hoped to make friends and practice chatting in Spanish, but so far the only person to speak to me had told me my bike was noisy ('ruido'). Ugh. I slowed down a bit and met some friendlier folks for the next section. Zack was waiting for me at the halfway point, so we rode together after that. My legs cramped up and I sort of fell apart from miles 70-90, but ate some more and did ok for the last 15 miles.

The roads were all gorgeous - mostly small/no centerline, smooth pavement, nice views.

After the ride, we went out for another good meal. Catalonia has a lot of restaurants open for lunch until ~4pm that serve fixed price menus with a first (grains/pasta/toasts), second (meat), dessert, and drink for ~$11-13 inclusive. We have been enjoying those most days! However, authentic Italian pastas are hard to beat post-long-ride, so we also went out for a late pasta dinner that night...

Day 4 - Vic to Girona

A long night's sleep helped the legs recover from tender jelly into something a little stronger, but the 50 mile 'transfer' did seem daunting. The route worked out well, with 15 miles of climbing (on a tiny road parallel to the highway), then essentially 35 miles of gradual, scenic downhill spinning, with Girona situated at lower elevation than the start in Vic. We went directly to a lunch spot owned by the same family that runs a $$$$ restaurant but serving $11 simpler meals; they were kind enough to serve us outside (normally drinks-only) so we could watch the bikes, after I tried to explain our situation in Spanish. They probably also didn't want sweaty weird people in spandex inside. 


We have 3 nights in Girona, staying in the center of 'old town' where we can easily walk to hundreds of cafes and attractions. Like Vic and Barcelona, most of the streets and plazas are pedestrian-focused (though we have seen several very-intense-looking cyclists here!), with the occasional delivery van slowly weaving through the cobbles.

Girona was besieged dozens of times, and its ancient walls have been rebuilt across several empires. From the wall, lovely views of mountains in all directions, plus a monastery, huge cathedral, and basilica.

We spent day 5 wandering through the city, visiting the cathedral, basilica, art museum, Jewish museum, and sampling gelatos, with a long 'siesta' for Zack to work on proposals. Some of Game of Thrones was filmed in the narrow, maze-like streets of old town where we are staying.

Next we have a day-ride from Girona, then another 'transfer' day to ride to the coast!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Touring Catalonia, part 1

A nice thing about our current jobs & responsibilities is that we can be super flexible about when and where to take vacations. Zack receives weekly emails with flight deals that are "too good to be true" (with fares that usually only last a few hours). When Barcelona came up for $400 round-trip and no bike fees, we jumped on it and figured out the details later! We would drive to JFK (NOT a short drive, in retrospect an annoying way to save a couple hundred $), arrive in Barcelona on a Friday, and depart 10 days later on a Monday, straddling 2 weekends and Memorial Day (and hopefully minimizing my vacation time-taken).

We considered various permutations of bike-heavy trips: Point-to-point through the Pyrenees ending in France (very ambitious/little room for error); renting a car and doing long day rides in Andorra; or a shorter tour to Girona, a cycling haven. While looking for prime routes, I stumbled upon 2 big gran-fondo-style events ("Marxas", not to be confused with death marches, or maybe so), one happening each Sunday in the vicinity of Barcelona. Each ride is ~100 miles, and while not officially races, probably will be fast based on last year's videos...This would be a great way to get a less-touristy cultural/athletic experience, so we signed up for both and worked up an itinerary from there!

The plan:

  • Barcelona to Vic; ~55 miles
  • Marxa #1 from Vic; ~105 miles
  • Vic to Girona; ~45 miles
  • Girona - sightsee, eat a lot, day-ride (miles TBD depending on leg-tiredness!)
  • Girona to the coast; ~65 miles
  • Barcelona; sightsee, Montserrat ride
  • Marxa #2 from north of Barcelona; ~105-145 miles depending on which route we take

Barcelona day 1:

We started our adventure from Barcelona airport Friday morning. We put together the bikes in the airport and left the bike-suitcases in left luggage. This is our first time longer than a weekend of legit-(credit-card-)'touring', carrying all our stuff in panniers. We brought nice-but-not-the-nicest road bikes, and fitted them with rear racks that don't require rack eyelets (instead attaching via extra-long quick release skewers and seatpost collars or brakes). Luckily, the weather looks fantastic, so we packed super light; 1 not-full pannier each with casual & ride clothes (and packable down jackets just in case!), 1 pannier with Zack's laptop/my tablet/misc stuff, and 1 with some bike tools/parts and room to carry lots of pastries. Unfortunately, I am carrying half of the stuff, so overall not a fun as our weekend trips where Zack carried everything ;) 

We rode to our first Airbnb, right in the heart of Barcelona in the Gothic Quarter. The ride from the airport was OK; a bit trafficky, with a lot of discontinuous bike sidewalks. Not terrifying, but not like Copenhagen or something. One thing that struck me immediately is how pedestrian-friendly Barcelona is; people are definitely the priority, with walking signage everywhere and many super-narrow streets completely closed to vehicle traffic. It was a beautiful day, and lots of people were out and about.

We stopped at La Boqueria, a big market, and got our first meat-cone (a classic snack)

Then we stopped for an ice cream cone, because I get grumpy walking unless I have gelato.

Finally, we had a classic seafood tapas dinner, and went to bed before most people in Barcelona even started their evenings. Successful first day!

Saturday: Ride to Vic

Saturday morning, we took a lovely first real ride, 55 miles northwest to the small city of Vic. 

I only accidentally routed us on one dirt trail.

Most of the ride was lovely.

One of the mountain passes had a tiny paved road where we saw lots of bikes but only a couple of cars - gorgeous!!

I don't know too much about Vic, but it's known for its Saturday market. Our Airbnb here looks right over the market plaza!

Aside - the Airbnbs so far have been amazing; prices are very low, and the locations couldn't get more central. We've also made sure to get places with washing machines, since we don't have many clothes. 

After a big lunch, we returned to the room during 'siesta' time for Zack to do some work and me to play with photos/blog post. Tomorrow is our first Marxa, and I look forward to practicing my Spanish under physical duress! (unfortunately, though I studied Spanish in school for ~9 years, I never learned Catalan, so it is less helpful than I'd hoped...but still helpful. I'm trying to teach Zack key bike-phrases, such as "I am hungry" and "My legs hurt" and "go faster"!)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

NZ Pt 2 - The Joker Stage and the Queen Stage

Taupo, NZ

After a few days of non-stop rain, we were elated to wake up on Sunday to blue skies, despite a weather app that said "rain will continue". We stayed at Lake Taupo, home to an Ironman and other adventure sports, for 2 nights and did some lovely riding and eating. Then, on to the final 2 Big Adventures of the trip!

Lake Taupo on unexpected sunny day

The Joker Stage - Tongagiro Alpine Crossing

One of the most recommended and obvious activities for a trip to New Zealand is to do a gorgeous day hike ("tramp", in NZ terms) in the mountains. The highest-rated tramp within reasonable driving distance is the Tongagiro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4km (12mi) point-to-point trek that passes through a Dual World Heritage site and passes by huge volcanoes, the most iconic being 'Mt Doom' from Lord of the Rings.

My heart was set on doing this hike and not wimping out due to weather, and Zack played along nicely. We parked in National Park Village, rented some trekking poles, and took a shuttle to the trailhead. Despite raging thunderstorms that morning in Taupo (1hr drive away), the weather seemed OK - around 60 degrees and misty. We hoped to get above some clouds to see some of the world-renowned views! Unfortunately, we soon climbed up into the cloud, then were pelted with cold rain in heavy bursts! We hurried along, not stopping for a pleasant picnic, passing hundreds of boy-scout equivalents and jogging a little bit at the end to make it back for the earliest shuttle back. Mission accomplished, glad we did it, but a little bit ridiculous. Luckily, the Airbnb host that night had a very sweet dog to warm us up.

Warning sign

Going up the 'Devil's Staircase'

Summit viewpoint

One spectacular view - descending

Crater walk in the rain

Queen Stage - The Timber Trail MTB

The hardest day of a cycling stage race is called the 'Queen Stage'. We often seem to have such epic days toward the end of our 'vacations' (not sure who plans them! ;)
Zack actually introduced me to The Timber Trail a few months ago, and when he expressed interest in an all-day MTB ride, I readily acquiesced. It's an 84km (50mi) point-to-point ride through timber forests and natural preserves, all on dirt, mostly non-technical singletrack. We'd book a shuttle to the start, then ride back to end at our car. 50 miles doesn't sound that huge compared to road rides, but our longest MTB ride this trip so far had been about 15, so it's a different beast! The website estimates 11 hours for most groups to do the ride and recommends camping or staying at a lodge at the halfway point.

The trail contains amazing suspension bridges, built specifically for cyclists/trampers!
We woke up with tender legs from muscles unused to hiking. We figured if the muscles were so sore, they must not be cycling muscles anyway so not to worry! The prior day, the shuttle company concernedly sent a few emails confirming "do you really want to do the full ride in such bad weather?" We got worried, asked whether it was still rideable, to which they replied that it would be much slower than usual but doable and that only 2 of that day's 30 booked riders ended up going. Morning of, standing in just light rain, we decided to just go for it and bring a bunch of extra food and clothes just in case.

There were only a few major obstacles;
otherwise, the trail is meticulously maintained and engineered
After a nice shuttle ride to the start, we slogged off through the woods, legs and aerobic systems feeling surprisingly good. The dirt in NZ is mainly volcanic pumice soil, which drains water incredibly well, so we had good traction and overall much better conditions that one would expect after these downpours. The route took us up and over a mountain (fine trail conditions, pelting rain), along some rolling sections (very nice), up a second climb (much muddier, lots of puddles), then down toward the endpoint (still very muddy/slow-going). We stopped for cookie and egg-sandwich breaks, passed some other riders, and altogether had a really nice ride. The sun peaked out for the last hour, making this whole ride feel very upbeat. We finished in 6.5 hours, plenty of time to get an early Valentine's Day dinner and soak in the hot tub at the next Airbnb!

Peek of sunshine toward the end!

2km from the end, the entire creek flooded. Zack just went for it and didn't realize he went against the NWS PSA of "Turn Around, Don't Drown".

Last Days

Thursday we awoke with the bright sun in our faces. A gorgeous, typical summer day in NZ after all that rain! We mainly relaxed and savored the last day of vacation, doing a little work, reading, and going for an easy kayak paddle on the Bay to Pancake Rocks. Raglan, NZ is a little surf town, with black sand beaches, nice water, and a great left-hand wave break (not sure what that means, not being a surfer). Lovely last day.

Gorgeous beach at Raglan

Friday will span 42 hours with the time changes, so should be a big day. We plan to drive back to up to Auckland Airport, drop off the rental car, go for a quick final MTB spin nearby, shower (the terminal has free showers, supposedly), fly 13 hours, wake up at 6:30am also on Friday in LAX, work from LAX until 2:40pm (hopefully using my 2 free United Club passes), then fly to PIT. Looking forward to seeing our puppy again and spending the long weekend with Zack's parents!

Overall trip route: Map

Thursday, February 8, 2018

New Zealand Honeymoon

While we went on a lovely Pacific Northwest road trip after our wedding last summer, we didn't classify it as a 'honeymoon', instead saving that for a later occasion when Zack might need more of an excuse to be absent from work. The opportunity presented itself in the form of $800 roundtrip tickets from SF to New Zealand during NZ summer/Pittsburgh ice-season! Ever since seeing Whale Rider and Lord of the Rings, NZ has been on my radar as a bucket-list destination, so we jumped on the tickets. The plan is a thoroughly relaxing 10-day vacation, staying 2-3 days at each place, renting mountain bikes for the majority.

First, I spent a week in the Bay Area, catching up with my coworkers during the week and friends on the weekend. It feels right to go work in my home office every few months to check in with everyone, so that worked out great. The weather was ~70 and sunny every day, which didn't hurt ;)

I don't miss commuting, but this part of the commute was pretty amazing.


We flew to Auckland Sunday night (arriving Tuesday morning NZT). Auckland is by far the largest population center in NZ, with ~30% of the country's inhabitants at around 1.5 million people in the metro. It's bounded by the Tasman Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east, with interesting topography containing dozens of volcano cones, craters, and lava flows. The weather for the first couple days of our trip was 65-80 F and mostly sunny, which I think is pretty typical summer weather.

After a deluxe second-breakfast then dropping off our (minimal) luggage at an Airbnb shared apartment right downtown, we walked over to the ferry terminal and jetted over to Waiheke Island. We were exhausted, not having slept that well on the plane and with tired legs from a bike ride that was technically on Sunday but really only the day before!! The time difference wasn't bad, only 3 hours (21 hours) from CA. We wandered around the island, swimming, reading, walking on paths and eating acai bowls and gelato. It was lovely, though the 'clapping cicadas' chirps made it hard to hear or talk on the trails!

View from Airbnb window, Auckland

Waiheke Island

Wednesday morning, we rented city bikes for the morning and pedaled along the Strava Local curated route "Triple Peaks". The city is full of green space and parks and has certain bike-friendly areas, though some of the roads definitely included bikes as an afterthought (e.g. "bus/bike lanes" - terrible idea, buses are the vehicles I least like to share a lane with!). After some more pricey but tasty cafe-food, and the fanciest, most over-the-top gelato I've ever seen, Zack went off to University of Auckland to give a seminar! I went for a hike through more city parks (Albert Park and Auckland Domain) and read for a while.

Mt Eden (crater) in Auckland

One Tree Hill in Auckland (with sheep)

Auckland Domain - park downtown feels like a jungle

This hazelnut gelato work-of-art was 'only' $13.
Would have been easy to spend $40 on a really fancy one!

Thursday, we departed Auckland in the morning for the rest of our adventure. New Zealand is really known for its scenery, not its cities. That said, I liked what we saw of Auckland; it reminds me a fair bit of San Francisco, with good parks, weather, food, topography, and expensive.

Take that, San Francisco!

Really well-done 'shared zones' in Auckland -
mostly pedestrians, but cars allowed


The North Island has very scenic roads, but they are narrow and don't have shoulders, so the road biking doesn't sound great. However, the mountain biking is world-renowned. Zack and I have both been mountain biking more since moving to Pittsburgh and decided to rent MTBs for this trip; we picked up some Specialized Rockhopper HTs along with our rental car, and headed off or the rest of our journey. Rotorua is home to Whakarewarewa Forest, with over 100 miles of trails, most of them well-maintained and banked for riding. We originally planned to travel and sight-see Thursday, then do some riding Fri-Sun, but a huge rainstorm was forecast starting on Friday, so Thursday afternoon we hopped on the still-dry trails for a few hours. They were all well-marked, directional, and fun, as long as we stayed to the appropriate 'grade' (a grade '4' descent was too steep for our comfort). The forest is known for its California Redwoods, ironically, so felt a lot like the Bay Area.

MTBing in Whaka Forest

Rotorua hosts a Thursday Night Market, so we wandered around there for dinner and exploration. There are around a dozen different bike shops capitalizing on tourists visiting the Redwoods and the gravity lift-assisted downhill parks. Everything seemed incredibly overpriced, even at the 'discount' shops and after taking into account the NZD-USD conversion, but luckily we didn't need too much. The area is home to incredible thermal features that permeate the area; the whole town smells of sulfur, like Yellowstone. There are thermal springs for swimming, geysers for viewing, and Maori villages with cultural performances.

Boiling lake in downtown Rotorua park - eerie!

Friday, we bought eggs/bacon/bread/jam/coffee and made ourselves what would  be at least a $20/pp breakfast at a nearby cafe. After that great start, we braved the first day of rain and rode through the forest for another few hours; it seemed to be holding up well, mostly clay/hardpack dirt that the water rolled off or formed puddles on rather than becoming deep mud.

Rainy jungle

Since the rain is expected to continue for another few days, we aren't sure whether riding will be possible or if areas will flood; but will go see some cultural sights instead! After that, we're planning on a long day hike, a long day ride, and a beach day before heading back to winter!

Additional note

We added a member to our family since the last post - Kepler the Aussiedor, adopted in August and now 8 months old! Traveling takes more thought/arrangements now, but Zack's parents are house-sitting for these 2 weeks and keeping him entertained and worn out! 
Before he learned how to stand up in the backpack
My work-from-home buddy

Ellen and Stefano instructing Kepler about world news