Friday, January 9, 2004

Cycling In Italy-2004-Part A


Note: In October 2009 Yahoo Geocities--their free web page service for dummies, shut down. Luckily I started using (the better) Google Blogger a little over a year ago. I recreated (web pages have been lost) of the writeup about cycling in Italy as, a) it was one of the strangest things I ever, as I went there in the last minute with no preperation, b) after cycling in such a different place (eg. language barrier, no clue where I was going on the daily metric or full century) it really laid the mental groundwork for doing Doubles, and c) a couple of people who have since cycled in Italy have told me the writeup is spot on and helped them prepare.

Italy-The Garden Spot of Cycling (Part A)

Orvieto, on top of the rocky wall was one hill over from the crappy farm we were staying at. I was lucky it was so prominent so I could spot it when I had no idea where I was.

I spent 3 weeks on a mostly cycling vacation around Central Italy. Looking at a map this mostly rural area encompasses approximately 200 km south of Florence to the Mediterranean. Included in this area are the popular the Tuscany and Chianti region, and the less crowded Umbria region which I enjoyed the most.

First day out, had no clue where I was going, and I just took off. On the road I was stopped by Americans in a car speaking broken Italian to ask ME directions (ha!) Soon will be sundown and now on the opposite side of Orvieto from the farm we were staying at, and only way I can get back is to retrace the route from the drive this morning--if I can find the road.

I intended to do long self supported rides, but numerous things were to my disadvantage. I don’t speak any Italian, and despite what anyone tells you the whole world doesn’t speak English, especially in rural Italy. Thinking the trip would fall through I did no trip preparation until 3 weeks to go before the trip started(**1**), and this just entailed looking at a road atlas for viable circular routes that would keep me off the autostrata (superhighway) while hitting as many towns as possible. (My wife and her friend had picked the lodging and arranged the bike rental.) The countryside and road system were totally alien to me, and I have a propensity for taking unintended detours on organized century rides. Italian drivers have a reputation for being maniacs. Armed with just a map and compass this was going to be a challenge.

The cycling came off great. A typical ride was 70-100 km, while going into a half dozen fortress towns or cities.
Another great shot of Orvieto on the hills in the distance. Maybe because this is where the adventure began, but with few people (none who spoke English), and few tourists this was my favorite place.

It wasn’t the physical beauty of the landscape that blew me away, as I’ve seen tons of grapes growing before. It was the unique experience of riding along the base of rural hills (except for the coast, Italy is real hilly, and no suburbs to speak of) and about every 10 km seeing a medieval fortress town up on top. It was like continually riding “the Bears” and then seeing a tower and surrounding ancient wall from ½ up to the top of Tilden Park. Every town I passed I’d have to go up to, and once reaching the walled gateway I knew to throw the bike into a real easy gear as through the arched gate there would inevitably be a 10-15% section of cobbled streets (we’d call them alleys) going to the town center.

The town centers typically had a church, common area filled with older people, a bar/coffee/ gelato cafe, a grocery store, and a spigoted water fountain readily available for bottle refills. If it was a larger town/ small city, and had interesting stores I’d lock up the bike (with a minimum security lock) and walk around. (Mixed blessing--in one crafts town I picked up a hand made copper frying pan, and then had to cycle 70 km with it in my Camelback.)

In every town I hoped that there was a real flush toilet in the cafe in lieu of a popular fixture which is just a hole in the ground with feet placement indicators. I’d then get a cafe decaffinato duppo (double shot decaf) with a sweet roll, ride around the cobbles, take photos, and go back to the road towards the next town.
(1) Water fountain in the center of town with my Coppi rental bike, in a town near Orvieto on my way back from Todi--old guy who didn't speak English grabbed the bottle from me in one town and had me run the water full blast and wait a few minutes so that I'd have cold water. (2) On trip back from Todi I passed Donna and her friends first going out. Roads weren't marked well but loads of signs pointing to the next town--so if you knew where you were supposed to go it was like playing connect the dots.

The other unbelievable thing that took me by surprise are the people—they are incredibly nice and friendly. To anyone walking on the street (there are no sidewalks) you had to exchange a hearty “buongiorno,” which always brought out a smile. Storekeepers would put up with my gesturing and pointing and my attempts at mispronounced Italian, and just smile. People would readily come over and start talking, and it didn’t matter that I don’t speak Italian. In one bike shop the owner-the Siena champion from 1939, grabbed my arm and showed me all of the catacombs of his shop where he had his old press clippings, and a few handmade bikes he had put together. In one hour I had no clue what he had said, but I knew everything he was trying to say.

The road system is not nearly as neatly marked as on the map—though the roads supposedly have numbers, good luck trying to use them as direction guides as we do here. Roads never have shoulders, are narrow, and many times don’t have center striping. Additionally, some roads on the map suddenly go from pavement to gravel. All the "great rides" my wife was supposed to do with her friends fell through--and on the last day in Orvieto (we had started in Orvieto and moved to 3 different locations around the Central part of Italy, now returning to Orvieto to give back the rental bikes.) I guarenteed to get her a metric century. Having not gone South previously we rode to the industrial town of Viterbo, which still had many interesting parts including a large ancient walled in section--and police who couldn't speak English wanting to help us as we looked lost. Lago de Bolsena in the background from an overlook in Bolsena which we climbed up to (Complete circle--my first day trip had me ride to the town down by the lake.)

Despite this, finding the way around was no problem as every intersection and traffic circle is marked with arrows delineating the towns in each direction, and when paved the undulating roads were in better condition than what we see on secondary roads here.

(1) Vacant--unroofed San Galgano cathedral creates a haunted view. (2) The find of the trip, Montepulciano filled with local crafts. Luckily I explored every hilltop town I passed.

(**1**) Background-the Rest of the Story

Not germane to the tips to cycling in Italy, but offering in the way of background how enjoyable it was due to the Italian relaxed/ friendly attitude—2004 was a terrible year. I saw two people die—one at the hospital on New Years Eve and a few month later my dad. I usually visit my folks in the winter but didn’t go in 2003-04 as broke my collarbone—and instead of listening for a week how I shouldn’t ride a bike I planned a visit to early Summer—which was too late to see my dad alive. Meanwhile I couldn’t understand why my two Pumpkincyle riding buddies—who we had planned to do a whole schedule of Century rides together “disappeared,” and never talked to me. We were supposed to plan a trip to Italy with one of my disappearing riding buddies and my wife—ironically she became good friends with my wife and they started planning the trip together.

After my dad’s funeral I found out why we stopped riding or hanging out together—the 2003 riding--things like the self supported Death Ride--was a screen for “extracurricular activity. I was being used as a diversion—and when my two "riding buddies" broke up that winter I was no longer needed to be around as a 'suspicion diversion.' Incensed, I wanted to have nothing to do with going to Italy, but my wife had invested energy in the trip and was going to go with or without me. I talked it over with my friend John, the smartest guy I knew who knew everyone involved. He didn’t know what to tell me except “if you go keep a diary—one day you’ll look back at it and laugh.” John also told me everyone in the world speaks English—which is NOT true for rural Italy. Thinking EVERYONE spoke English made it easier to commit to solo riding--NO ONE speaking English made it more surreal, but still doable.

So, with 3 weeks before the trip I decided to go, and vowed that I’d be cordial on the trip-- But I would NOT go on any rides with my former riding buddy, though my wife kept telling me that Jo-Jo planned some great rides. F that. So with 3 weeks to go I bought a digital camera, an Italian Atlas, finally found out where we were all staying, and even though I know no Italian and am my bike club’s leader in getting lost, said what the F, whatever happens happens (2004 PR after Museeuw flats with 5km to go-Paul Sherwin “He’s a hard man I tell you.”) I was going to be a hard man and couldn’t care less what laid ahead, and figurd I'd just ride solo in a different direction each day. As it turns out I did more riding and enjoyed myself more than anyone in the group.

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