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The Travel Desk

The Vegan Love Palace Bike Tour Test

Nobody stands between one cyclist and her cheese on a vegetable-fueled bike tour through Eastern Europe.

Credit: Café Museum by Panoramafotos.net. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons.

The first really big bonk came mid-afternoon day three, south Czech Republic. We were about halfway up one of the endless rolling hills, on the lookout for a scenic snack spot, when the animal arrived. We pulled right over. Dismounted, ripped dense Germanic bread with bike-greased hands, reaching over each other to dunk the hunks in jam. We pounded potato chips like sodium zombies. Hysteria set in. Paige composed an epic rap. I peed, still chewing and laughing, a few feet off in the prickly hay stalks. The sky was vast. Sated, we pedaled onward, sore and elated, descending from dense boreal forest to an undulating breadbasket toward the Austrian border, Slovenia, and the Croatian coast.

When we started in Prague we ate like normal people. We shared glasses of white wine and French fries in a cobblestone courtyard below a centuries-old astrological clock, observing the creepy mechanized pageant upon the hour. The first riding day, wobbling through the suburbs to open country, was civilized. We begged hot water to brew emergency roadside “Nes-crack,” but later learned caffeine still kicks with lukewarm campground tap water. The Czech Republic’s heat bred delightful habits: Each day we wedged our sweaty spandex-ed bodies into village market refrigerators and polished off bags of potato chips beside gas pumps. Around day four the castles started to get stunning. As we climbed and dropped through fairytale landscapes I was visited by recurring fantasies of smashing potassium-laden bananas into my face. Sometimes we would stop at a fortress and, discovering an entrance fee, plop down on our backs and raise our legs instead. While the lactic acid drained and disgusted tourists passed, I would describe the cramped spiral staircases and marvelous Byzantine tapestries I imagined inside to my impoverished comrades. In Vranov, I provided an especially dramatic visualization of the cliff side citadel while we scarfed vast quantities of pathetic imitation Mexican food. We kept miming for more; our bill was a list of entrées, each followed by a score of tally marks.

From protein shakes to backcountry baking, eating is one of the great pleasures and obsessions of athletes and outdoors(wo)men. When we booked flights for three, plus bikes, I was not worried about the mileage or maintenance on the road to Rome. But I was preoccupied by food. I had ridden across the Himalaya, up the East Coast, and 1,000 miles with a dozen kids behind me, but never with vegans.

In the cult of endurance athlete, there is a small sacred space for the vegan hero. See, for example, products by Vega Sport, now prominently featured at a Whole Foods near you, or the character in Born to Run who flies past the competition on benevolent veggie bowls and a handful of nuts. There is intrigue surrounding the art of obtaining adequate plant protein. But the former Yugoslavia was not our environmental grad school. As the most experienced biker and a comparatively moderate flexitarian, I feared what would happen to our pace and friendship without tempeh, seitan, or tofu. A month before departure, over sake and vegetarian sushi, I gave the ultimatum: Pack a Clif bar a day. And never stand between me and my cheese.

 

I know the hunger-animal most intimately through my brother, the wrestler. Wrestling is a family sport, and it suits us, because you don’t have to be naturally big and strong, just tough and stubborn. The ancient Greeks held wrestling competitions, and so did Genghis Khan, and so, one assumes, did every tribe above a certain threshold of testosterone and leisure time. There are no sticks or balls or even teammates; wrestling is pure. But it also engineers starvation. Since athletes are classed by weight, the incentive is to come in as light as possible for each pre-match weigh-in. In college, Greg routinely cut 15 to 20 pounds. Lunch was a packet of tuna; sometimes at dinner he added hot sauce. Between the exposed ribs and routine bruises, he began to resemble an unpopular inmate.

The relief was the post-match dinner. My family and the animal would head out to some restaurant, pre-selected and the object of a week’s worth of delirious fantasy, and order mountains of food. Conversation was sparse until he got about 1,000 calories in. Suddenly his blood sugar would spike, and my brother would animate. We would laugh together. The next day Greg was back to tuna fish Alcatraz.

When I came back to a gluten-free house, it was easy to forget I had been the original nuisance and begin to resent new inconvenience.

Around the same time my brother got good at wrestling, he was diagnosed with celiac disease. Wheat gluten had been killing the villi in his intestines his entire life—until he eliminated the ingredient completely, he would suffer nutrition deficit and stomach pain. Growing up, our meals were mostly Italian. Saturdays we would drive from Boston down to shop in Providence’s Federal Hill, where my mother was born, and pack the cooler with homemade ravioli, imported Parmesan, cold flatbread pizzas, and veal roast. The household to which I returned from college had been purged. We ate mostly lean meat and tried quinoa pasta with mom’s pesto. Those post-match dinners developed a charming opening ritual during which the animal-brother cross-examined our waiters: “I have celiac. Do you know what celiac is?” If the response was stammered, or otherwise deemed insufficient, he would ask to speak to a manager in a famine-hardened growl.

To be fair, I started it. I’m allergic to nuts. In elementary school I saw a psychiatrist because I was having panic attacks any time I forgot to read the ingredient list. My allergist taught me the waiter-interrogation tactics I later passed to Greg. But at some point late high school I decided to forego caution and a life dominated by fear, as one does at that age. I mostly stopped asking at restaurants. Freshman year of college I visited Greece and Turkey and spent the summer in China. With no language skills, my strategy shifted to best-guess. When I came back to a gluten-free house, it was easy to forget that I had been the original nuisance and begin to resent new inconvenience.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan tries out and then rather hastily abandons vegetarianism. I think there are some other reasons, but the one I remember is this: He feels really awkward at dinner parties. There’s a fair quantity of social capital in diving for abalone and hunting wild mushrooms, but routinely inconveniencing friends and family is just not charming. Neither is the flatulence. I stopped cooking meat at home three years ago, a natural step for the vaguely Buddhist concerned with the consequences of factory farming and a student budget. But I reserved the ability to accept steak with grace and, I admit, to roll my eyes at gluten-free, dairy-free diets (and people who wouldn’t poop in the woods). I was an environmentalist, but I didn’t want to be a bad guest.

 

Dear vegans, here is what you missed: generous rounds of smoked oregano cheese on the side of the road in the mountains of Croatia, made by the old woman who let us fill our water by her fresh pails of milk. Fresh calamari on the Adriatic. Rich asparagus risotto cooked for us by friends of friends who had studied in Italy. Cheese samples from the sexy Sicilian at the food expo in Maribor, Slovenia. Flaky European pastries. Salt-and-peppered pre-ride hard-boiled eggs.

Vienna was a tough spot to go meatless. Below the baroque architecture and the suspended chords of dead composers, vendors sell Käsekrainer, sausage stuffed with cheese. Ula, the proprietor of “Mutti’s” (Mom’s) hotel in a village 20 kilometers north of the city, told us these should not be missed. She hovered while we demolished a perfectly set breakfast table of toast, jam, coffee, veggie couscous, optional eggs, and untouched cold cuts. (This beat the previous night’s meal, cooked by camp stove on the hotel balcony). When she was young, Mutti had also travelled the world by bicycle. But you cannot choose whom you love, and she had fallen for a man from this village and come to start this business and grow big-breasted and stolid and impossibly distant from us. She gave her address so we could send her a postcard once we reached Split, Croatia. We followed the power lines into the capital and ate the extra jam and rolls she packed in an island city park, but forgot to write.

Laur mentioned she was vegan. The dairy geneticist replied, “If I was from your country, I’d be vegan, too.”

Betrayal stalks even the best of intentions. When we entered Austria, Lauren’s left knee had started to complain. Even after ice, ibuprofen, and a day at the opera it seemed climbing through the eastern Alps might jeopardize her tour. We rode out together 40 kilometers to the foothills and dropped her at the train station. While Paige and I huffed to an internal Sound of Music soundtrack, Laur chugged up to the pass in a compartment packed with hardcore cyclists. A dairy geneticist helped her hang and strap her bike, and told her they were taking a weekend trip to ride at her family’s farm in the south. Laur whipped out a sacred Clif bar—we had taken to reading the extreme outdoor narratives on the back aloud to each other at this point—and offered a bite. The dairy geneticist partook. Laur mentioned she was, actually, vegan. “Well,” the dairy geneticist replied, “if I was from your country, I’d be vegan, too!”

Veganism won’t fix America’s food system, and talk of antibiotics, dead zones, and soy slavery may mask another problem. When I float my suspicion to a friend who has battled with anorexia, her response is immediate: “Oh, yeah, it was a joke for us. Everyone in treatment was ‘vegan.’” At its worst, veganism is the ultimate ethical eating disorder: When you tell them to get help; they tell you about factory farming. Many of the smartest, most driven men and women I know, have struggled with disordered eating. The patterns are both personal—certain people seek control—and social—everyone on the team is fasting and binging. But they must also be cultural: Having so little connection to our food distorts our relationship to eating.

At its best, veganism is a way to reclaim food. Just as exercise can be a joyless punishment or a joyful invigoration, so too the quality of life and meals of the vegan depend a lot on attitude, intention, and effort. What I missed in my family’s gluten-free home was not just pasta; it was the journeys we took to buy and prepare our meals together. Veganism demands attention, but eating consciously can be a celebration. It isn’t always convenient, but, then again, neither is traveling by bicycle. We could have rented a car.

 

What I love about riding is the way it wears me down, and what remains. Lift, push. In hills and humidity you must succumb to humility. Sweat blurs the lines of the body. My mind whirs over dreams and worries, turning them and turning them. Like glass in the ocean, they become smooth. The bicycle is a system based on tension: equal among the spokes to form a perfect circle; balanced between the cables that pull the derailleur up and down the gear stack; adequate to yank the brakes. Before the trip I disassembled my handlebars for the first time and beheld the numinous brake-lever insides. New bike work simultaneously thrills and terrifies. Routine repairs have a meditative quality. I flip the bike upside down and squat before the front wheel, eyes locked on shape, actual and ideal. To keep the wheel true, each spoke must balance. Dusty lines float to mind: “Stretch or contract me thy poor debtor / This is but tuning of my breast, / To make the music better.” Spin, twist. Temper, tune.

By Slovenia we were beginning to oscillate toward ecstasy. Tough little climbs through dense green forests yielded an adorable capital, Ljubljana, where we ate exquisite chickpea salads as the sun set on Dragon Bridge. Laur and Paige raced to the border with thigh-screaming velocity. Further south, a sprint to the ferry yielded a cliff ascent and nude beach; I pitched camp and scorched popcorn and nipples a few meters from the sea. Later, we met a Nepali cycling home from France with crap dangling from invented hooks at every angle. We understood. I watched the girls abandon self-doubt in Senj as we climbed back up the Croatian mountains to Plitvice, only to suffer off-cycle endorphin withdrawal among magnificent waterfalls. On our penultimate day we rode more than 100 miles, a century. There was a scorching midday stretch of slight uphill and extreme dehydration, but I hardly noticed. That desert scrub was my mantra.

Her dietary beliefs are supported by fastidious logic, supplemented by the leaps of faith and evangelicalism common to many religions.

Paige’s vegan awakening came at UC Berkeley, when she realized the efficiency of eating at the bottom of the trophic food chain. Think of the web or pyramid diagram from middle school science class, with the grass on the bottom and the lions on the top, that shows who eats whom in an ecosystem. With every step up, from plant to herbivore to carnivore, only 10 percent of the calories transfer. Eating at the top represents massive inputs, not just of energy, but also water, land, fertilizer, and labor. Depending on whom you ask, a single hamburger requires 52.8 gallons of water or over 10 times that, and emits 5.18 kg of CO2 equivalent. A Big Mac might seem cheap, but these and other environmental impacts tack on costs that food writer Mark Bittman estimates range from 68 cents to $2.90 per burger. Let’s not start on the root beer float.

Paige decided to become a vegan and an energy economist. Her dietary beliefs are supported by fastidious logic, supplemented by the leaps of faith and evangelicalism common to many religions. One night we debated the merits of the traditional Thanksgiving Presidential turkey pardon until, back against the wall, she cried “intrinsic value!” and called for a turkey freedom fighter brigade. Contrast this with the behavior of another grad school friend, who eats mostly vegan with flexibly defined “local” animal products, a reasonable philosophy that generates constant, Portlandia-style restaurant Q&As. Moderation’s got nothing on zealotry.

But one of the delights of dogma is breaking the rules. In Istria, a peninsula that juts out from northern Croatia, we accidentally discovered the home of a local cycling champion. His father, from a proud family of Istrian shipbuilders, offered us coffee on their porch. The vegans politely dunked and nibbled the butter cookies like mischievous rabbits. Over an illicit pastry a few days later, Lauren described her first transgression: an exquisite almond croissant on a layover in Paris. She immediately felt the urge to confess. When we reached the end of our ride and disembarked from our ferry to Italy, I ordered my childhood favorite, spaghetti carbonara, along with an excusatory declaration on the bacon. The pasta was delicious, but it was the sin that made the meal.

 

One of the best memories I have of the trip was our last night in the Czech Republic. We spent the second half of the day riding west along the Austrian border on an unlikely miracle of a bike path, coasting slightly downhill past green, green fields of wheat and the occasional rollerblader. The place we stayed was magic. It had a courtyard restaurant with lanterns hanging from massive old trees and a big field out back spotted with fruit trees, kids, and goats. Our host, Peter, poured limitless wine while Laur climbed barefoot, picking cherries.

Being veg is easy if you love to cook. Paige does. That night, she disappeared into the kitchen, returning with crisp green lentils and a sauce of tomatoes, peppers, greens, onions, and garlic over a bed of grains. We animals gorged. A white-mustached local ordered us a third liter of wine, then, through our waiter-translator, explained it was for Mexican-Irish Lauren, his first “Afro-Amereecan.”

Paige once said that when people react against her diet, it’s usually because they felt guilty or threatened. That was certainly true for me. But more often than I expect, vegetarianism and veganism are greeted with empathy and understanding, or at least clueless kindness. Vegan restaurants around the world embrace travelers and serve compassionate and tasty food. In South Asia, “Veg or non-veg?” is routine. And closer to home, at an Albanian barbecue in Queens or with my Italian uncle on Federal Hill, this quirky food challenge is met with endless grilled eggplant and cheeseless arugula-fig-balsamic pizzas. These days I call myself a vegetarian, but even after 1,000 miles of vegan propaganda, I do sometimes pull a Pollan and choose food over fuss.

That night I slept outside and apart. I came to my bivy and bag a few minutes late and lay down to savor the vivid moments before oblivion. I was full, feeling the good muscle ache, and the dishes were clean. Shooting stars came bright and close. A little ways off, my friends were already asleep. From their tent, a sonorous chorus of farts.