Friday, August 12, 2011

(Tor)Tour of Duty

I've seen the sun rise twice since my head last hit a pillow, I'm wearing a bright orange Tyvek wristband and I am surviving on a potent cocktail of Redbull and adrenaline. No, I'm not in Ibiza anymore. I'm in Switzerland and I am crewing an ultra endurance bicycle race. I'm supporting a six man relay team, racing 1000 kilometres, non-stop, around the country.

This is the Tortour 2011.

My job is to navigate one of the support cars for Saxo Bank Schweiz.
Navigation might seem an unlikely task for a girl who recently got lost while running in Hyde Park and who took numerous wrong turns following a GPS track while cycling America's continental divide, but I like a good challenge. Further, it would be easy to assume, as I did, that the commercialization and proliferation of the GPS would make the role of a human navigator obsolete. In fact, this is not the case.

The logistics associated with coordinating six cyclists and three support cars are complex, especially on a european road network on which certain support cars are not permitted to drive on certain sections of the course. Though an elaborate plan was devised to direct where and when each support car should be at each checkpoint, the dynamics of a six man relay in a race like this have meant numerous on-the-fly changes to 'the plan'. And there is no time to spare, no room for error.

Now, throw in a language barrier.

Driver speaks german; navigator speaks english. This is the part where I would like to say that hilarity ensues, but that's not quite the right word for what has gone down. Fortunately, even the most volatile combinations eventually neutralize, given enough time in a crucible. In this case, that took about ten hours. I now find it rather hilarious when the GPS unit pleads "Please observe the speed limit" (about every five minutes) and the driver, Martin, responds with "Shut up!". When I offer a manual instruction, I could swear that Martin says "No!" just to make me laugh. Martin is awesome.

I am the only one among the team and crew who does not speak German. Still, I have been welcomed so warmly by the crew and team. Those who are able have made a concerted effort to keep the communication in english (or, at least, translate a synopsis) for my benefit. My language deficit has forced me to take a back seat in the organization, which has been difficult for me on a personal level (control freak?), but has made this this a useful learning experience.

The drive itself itself has been absolutely beautiful. Everything about this country seems perfect. The vibrant greens of the forests. The intense blues of the pristine lakes. The mountain villages with immaculately-kept chalets. The breathtaking mountain passes. Oh, the mountains!

And, euro cyclists are a special breed, taking bicycle fashion to a new level. The standard attire is a full pro kit; matching jersey, bibs and socks. It is difficult to tell who is in the race and who is out for a casual ride. And there are many out for a casual ride, in this cyclists paradise. I feel as though I am part of the pro tour. In fact, there are many high-profile ultra-endurance riders here for this event. My Saxo Bank team has held fourth place since early on in the race and seems well positioned to finish in the top 10. This is particularly impressive as the team is comprised of non-pros and is competing against cyclists who have made a living out of events such as this. These guys are made of steel and I have the privilege to be a part of it all.

I could not imagine a better backdrop for this adventure or a better way to discover Switzerland. Canada is home and I love my country. Over the past few years, I have struggled between a desire to be with my family and friends back home and my interest in experiencing other parts of the world. Of all of the places that I have travelled, Switzerland has come the closest to feeling like a home away from home. All of the beauty of home and the allure and charm of old europe. Now, if I could just transport all of the people who I love to this place...


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