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Diarist Amber Rais
Photo ©: David Pierce
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The Amber Rais diary 2008

Amber Rais made a name for herself during her second season of racing at the professional level for Webcor Builders in 2007. She heads into 2008 with a new team, Team Tibco, and new goals. A former collegiate swimmer, Rais found her passion in bike racing during graduate school, where she earned a Masters degree in Earth Systems.

Throughout the season, Amber will give an up & comer's perspective on racing, as well as some suggestions for becoming more environmentally conscious with her 'Blue Planet Tips'.

New Year's Eve: Graz, Austria

Two thumbs up!
Photo ©: Amber Rais
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I just celebrated my first New Year's Eve in Europe by joining the utter chaos on the streets of Graz, Austria – my home since September. The celebration here involved more fireworks and madness than anything I have ever seen in the states. There were people everywhere, and everyone seemed to have fireworks (including David and me and our friends Peter and Natalia, who had joined us for a visit over the new year). Rockets and sparks flew through the air in random trajectories, in and out of the streets and cheering crowds. You had to watch your step and keep an eye out for flying rockets and explosions at every turn. We set off a few of our own rockets in the streets, much to the delight of the crowds, and we did our best to avoid the fire crackers being tossed at our feet by mischievous youngsters.

We hiked up to the top of the Schlossberg at the town center, where there was a 360 degree view of the city ablaze in a sea of smoke and fireworks. The 'official' fireworks show got underway at midnight, with an enormous display fired off the top of the Schlossberg, and the celebration didn't end there. Fireworks continued to light the whole city for another hour, and people were dancing in the square to an eclectic mix of Austrian folk music and eighties dance party hits well into the night. The beer flowed as freely as the fireworks, and every corner smelled of roasted chestnuts and mulled wine (Gluhwein). The whole spectacle was astonishing, perhaps my favorite New Year celebration to date.

The Big Move

Amber on the bridge over the Vltava River
Photo ©: David Pierce
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I've been living in Graz, Austria since September. David and I had been talking about living in Europe for a couple of years, so when David was offered a job as an Assistant Professor at the Technical University of Graz (TU Graz), we knew it would be a great fit for both of us.

After my last race in Germany in late August, I took a train to Graz, where I met up with David and his parents. It was the first time I'd set foot in Austria, and I didn't speak a word of German. With a lot of help from David's parents (who did speak German), we got right to work and within nine days had rented an apartment, secured cell phones and bank accounts and purchased a car. It was a lot of work, and even more paperwork, but we couldn't have been happier.

After getting our affairs in order in Graz, I went back to the states briefly for corrective hand surgery to fix a crooked digit mauled in my crash of 2006 and to permanently move out of my place in California. I'm happy to say the hand is now perfect – thank you Dr. Yao! – and after selling most of my belongings and packing up the rest (lot's of fun with one hand in a cast), I flew back to Graz to settle in for the winter.

David and I are taking language classes together, slowly learning German, and I'm happy to report that I can now read all of the street signs and menus in German! It's been a wonderful adventure getting to know the city and making some weekend excursions to see more of Europe.

Ceské Budejovice

Budweiser Brew House
Photo ©: Amber Rais
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For one of our first weekend trips, we drove up to the Czech Republic to tour some world class breweries (after all, it is the off-season) and to watch the Cyclo-cross World Cup in Tabor. Beer and bike racing – not a bad plan for a weekend!

We stayed in Ceské Budejovice (Budweis in German), where we toured the Budweiser Budvar Brewery. If you're thinking of the Anheuser-Busch King of Beers, think again. Named for the location, the original Budweiser style beers have been brewed since 1265 in Budweis. Likewise, the name Pilsner comes from the Czech town Pilsen (Plzen), home to the original pilsner beer, Pilsner Urquell. In fact, the Czech Republic has a long and venerable beer brewing tradition dating back to the 12th century.

Before you picture keg stands and cans being crushed on foreheads, let me make a quick clarification. Brewing beer is as much an art form as wine-making, with as many (if not more) styles and varietals, as long a history and as broad a spectrum of flavors. In the same way a vintner selects varietals in specific combinations for wine, master brewers select certain grains and hops in artful proportions for beer. Likewise, beer tasting involves as much history, knowledge and subtlety as tasting wines.

Founded in Ceské Budejovice in 1895, Budvar is perhaps the largest and most well-known brand of Czech beers, and in particular, the Budvar Premium Lager is truly exceptional. Some beers (many Belgian styles) develop more complex taste in the bottle over time, but this lager is best fresh, which is why touring the brewery was such a treat: we got to taste freshly brewed Budvar Premium Lager straight out of the lagering tank!

Tabor Cyclo-cross World Cup

Jonathon Page warms up
Photo ©: Amber Rais
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The next day, we were up early and on the road to Tabor, where we found the race hotel, enjoyed a lovely breakfast, and ventured out to the race course in the rain. The fall colors were in full effect as fans began filling the expo area. To our delight, Budweiser Budvar had set up a booth next to the sausage grill, so we enjoyed a nice cup of fresh Budvar Lager with warm bread and sausages between races (making the most of the off season). The course was long and had a bit of everything: a sizeable sand pit, lot's of mud, run ups and some challenging uphill barriers, which Zdenek Stybar managed to hop every lap. It would have been difficult to believe without seeing it first hand!

David had raced with Jonathon Page at Nature Valley earlier in the year, so we stopped by his trailer to visit before the race. During the race, we met up with Jonathon's wife Cori and their two little ones, cheering loudly for JP as he fought back from an early crash. The racing was epic, with Sven Nys taking the win. The crowds were amazing given the weather, but Cori and Jonathon assured us that this was nothing compared to the race crowds in Belgium. Perhaps next year…

Ceský Krumlov

View of Ceský Krumlov
Photo ©: Amber Rais
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The day after the race, we hit the road again, this time for Ceský Krumlov, a perfectly preserved medieval city (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in the south of the Czech Republic. The town was built in the late 13th century on a horseshoe of the Vltava River, with the enormous castle overlooking the river and town. Most of the town's structures are in the Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance styles, with narrow cobblestone streets winding through the labyrinth of colorful buildings. More than a few movies have been filmed here, including The Illusionist.

David and I had completely forgotten the time change, so we arrived in the town at 7am, instead of 8am and found it nearly deserted. Walking the empty, quiet streets in the cool air made for a beautiful morning. We walked through the enormous castle, taking time to watch the two bears that live there and to soak in the amazing views from the sheer castle walls. Further up the ridge formed by the integration of the castle walls with a natural stone cliff, we found the palace gardens, which stretched for unimaginable lengths along hedged corridors.

In Krumlov, we toured another world class brewery: Pivovar Eggenberg. Brewing in Cesky Krumlov dates back to 1336, and the brewery is named for the House of Eggenberg, which acquired the brewery in 1522. It has since relocated within the town and changed hands many times. Currently, the brewery is privately owned and offers several different styles of beer. If you ever have the chance to visit this brewery, take the tour, stay for a meal and try the 12-balling beer. It is like no other beer I've tasted, with notes of butterscotch that compliment the hops surprisingly well.

More World Cup Madness: Schladming and Reiteralm

Skiing at Planai in Schladming, Austria.
Photo ©: David Pierce
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A few weeks after our trip to the Czech Republic, I removed the cast from my hand and was able to get back to some real training, starting with some cross-training and work in the gym. Taking advantage of our new location, David and I planned a cross-training weekend in Schladming, a ski destination in the Austrian Alps.

We skied at Planai, home to the famous piste of the Schladming World Cup Night Slalom, in the middle of a raging snowstorm. The snow and wind made for an energizing day to say the least! We also tried a Germknoedl, a dish that might be the ultimate bane of a cyclist's existence: a large ball of dough filled with sweet fruit preserves, served half submerged in a bowl of melted butter and topped with piles of powdered sugar. We agreed that this dish would have to be a once-per-year kind of treat, but it really hit the spot in the warm ski hut as the storm raged outside.

The next day, we stocked a backpack with sandwiches and headed to Reiteralm to watch the first FIS World Cup Slalom of the season. We took the Gondola to the bottom of the race piste, where we began an arduous hike up the mountain in thigh-deep snow. More often than not, I felt like I was swimming more than hiking up the side of the course – excellent cross training in either case! We paused halfway to the top to take in the first run of the slalom, after which we made our way to the start gate, where we ran into Benjamin Reich, one of David's favorite skiers, who was kind enough to sign the Austrian flag we had with us.

We watched the second run from near the start gate, cheering on our favorite Austrian and American skiers and jumping around in the soft deep snow. After the race, we somersaulted most of the way down the hill in the snow, then sat on the empty race piste and slid down to the podium ceremony. There is definitely something about playing in snow that makes you feel like a kid all over again, and it was a real treat to see world-class alpine skiing so close at hand.

We headed home, rejuvenated and ready to get back to work. For me this meant some long cold rides and time at the gym. I've been collecting photos from my rides around here, so I'll be sure to include some in my next entry.

Thanks for reading,


Go Green Tip #13

Here's a tip that's good for your health and the health of the environment: eat seasonally. It is a great way to get the freshest produce, to support local farmers and to vary your diet. To learn more about what produce is in season in your area, check out the Sustainable Table website: .


For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Amber Rais

Images by David Pierce