Saturday, January 10, 2004

Cycling in Italy-2004-Part B

Italy-The Garden Spot of Cycling-Part B

While Italian drivers drive aggressively in their clown cars (one book said “they are not trying to cut you off—they just see a space in front of you and need to fill it”) they like cyclists and almost always gave me a wide berth when passing at high speeds on the narrow roads with no shoulder. The only thing I had to watch out for were cars coming in the opposite direction--as no one slows down for turns they take the turns wide and frequently swing into oncoming traffic lanes. Violating effective cycling principles I just knew to get to hug the right side of the road on every curve.

Around Siena-- typical small cars

In the hilly inland areas around Orvieto and Siena I would occasionally would see a bicycle tour group go by—or locals on racing bikes (typically Italians don’t wear helmets and their shorts match their jersey.) Also some bikes loaded with panniers, mostly Germans (helmets) and Australians (floppy hats), who would suffer on the climbs. The coast area, which is flat, was full of road cyclists including lots of older seniors. The older Italian cyclists (no helmet) would be friendly and wave, the younger ones were all too serious.

(Below)(1) I'm in the plaza in Siena with great gothic municipal tower (2) Early morning Balloons over Siena--later will be jammed with people (3) Tour of Mr. Rossi's bike shop--in Italian

We took “mass transit” to Pisa and Florence, and though possible I’m glad I didn’t bike into these cities, as heavy traffic—motor scooters coming in from the right flank, tons of traffic circles, and evidence of the need for higher bike security would have dampened these trips. (Early one morning I did ride from one end of Siena to the other on the cobbled streets that would be jammed with people a few hours later.) In these cities there were scores of cyclists riding fendered cruisers--from businessmen to very old seniors to young women in heels.

We finished up the trip driving to northern Italy/ Lake Como where the Church of the Madonna del Ghisallo, the Patron Saint of Cycling is located—it is stuffed full of a strange combination of religious artifacts and cycling memorabilia. True to our whole Italian experience, the gift counter was closed, so we went to town to see if anyone in the other church knew when it would be open. The caretaker of the other church had us follow him to a bar, where the bar owner made a call to “Mario.” Mario drove down, spoke no English, took us back to the Church of the Madonna del Ghisallo, and gave us a tour—complete with showing us the picture of him with Fausto Coppi when he was 12. Unfortunately, we had returned the rental bikes by the time we got to Lake Como as this areas was full of cyclists making the long climb to the church.

We stayed 3-4 days at a location and then loaded up the bikes in a van and drove to another region. That gave me 3-4 directions to explore. First base (1) was Orvieto, which we returned to before heading to Lake Como (not shown-North of Milian on the Swiss border). Loads of rolling rural cycling. Then (2) Castagneto Carducci, with the flattest riding and the best accomodations--Andy Hampsted's group rides out of here with Pisa a train ride away. Then to (3) Trequanda, another farm in the middle of nowhere but near the greatest find on the trip, artsy Montepulciano. Then (4) the great college town of Siena where I finally got off the bike, and was a bus ride to Firenze (aka Florence), and cycling access to the touristy Chianti region. Then back to Orvieto before driving to Lake Como, where the serious climbs (damn, no bikes) and the Madonna del Ghisallo Church of Cycling was.

As I indicated Italy is surprisingly hilly except along the coast. But I thought the towns inland much more interesting, with much less traffic. Flat is to the West of a straight line from CASTAGENTO CARDUCCI to PISA—and the architecture style seems straight out of South Florida. But IMMEDIATELY to the East are rolling hills. My big ride was a clockwise loop from CASTAGNETO CARDUCCI to VOLTERRA featuring roller after roller, and then a big 10km climb to VOLTERA. Going back west I had the wind and the road was nearly flat so I flew back to CECINA and down the coast. (Wind was always coming in from the northeast.)

Favorite place was ORVIETO. Seemed like you could go 5-10 km on rollers, then look up, and up (about ½ as high as the ranger station) would be an ancient cobbled town to explore. One of my favorite rides was uphill into headwind to CITTA DELLA PIEVE—no special towns along the way, just a half dozen good ones.

Knowing what I know now, would definitely stay in SIENA for a few days, as great walking town, bus to FLORENCE (FIERENZE) 1 ½ hours to the north, and CHIANTI region similar to the Napa valley also to the north. I’d also stay in the TREQUANDA area (map #74) but not necessarily in TREQUANDA—look for a place near one of my favorite places—MONTEPULCIANO, the Woodstock of Italy. And would have to stay in ORVIETO (not on some rancid farm nearby), and woulda/ shoulda taken the train to ROME, 1 ½ hours south.

(below)(1) In Fierenze loads of buff naked male statues (eg. David, Neptune)--but this was my favorite (2) Bridge in Fierenze.

Some practical things to consider. Bike shops have very little accessories; our bike rental company didn’t give us a floor pump or a good frame pump—no problem I thought—as Silica pumps are made in Italy, and I’ll buy a frame pump. Hah!-good luck finding one or anything comparable. One bike shop I went into looked like a Salvation Army store after an earthquake, no components but a half dozen high end Colonago frames were laying among the mess. So take a backup set of cleats and anything else you need.

Accommodations-half the time we stayed on fattorias—gourmet farms. While the price was better than little hotels, and their fixed menu dinner was relatively inexpensive, I’d recommend staying at the little hotels closer to town. We got lucky that it didn’t rain until we were at a hotel—otherwise we’d be stuck at a fattoria, with their long gravel road entryway. As I’m not a big fan of eating the road kill of the day, the fixed dinner usually was not to my liking.

Conversely, the dinners at the restaurants were great. While breakfast is usually a quick 3-4 cups of espresso and a sweet roll, and lunch is a good piece of bread with ONE slice of cheese and ONE slice of meat. Dinner goes on and on and on. It starts after 8pm, is served one item at a time, and you can sit at the table all night. I wasn’t that impressed by the meat dishes, and as usually carbo loading for the next days ride, I’d order two different pasta dishes. Pici, chewy pasta, with an olive oil mushroom or truffle sauce. Unbelievable. As an alternative to long dinners, some nights my wife and I opted just for pizza.

I brought some power bars and hammer gel, which was a good move as sometimes food was hard to come by, and many shops are closed on Monday and every day between 1-3. When I properly planned ahead I’d get some fresh bread in the morning and keep some in my jersey pocket for later. Also glad I brought some sportsdrink mix—bottled Gatorade is available but very expensive (2 ½ euro-$3 for a small bottle.)

Talking about drinks, I’ll never again complain about what I am drinking on a ride. Ice is nonexistent in Italy. So after starting off a ride with lukewarm Cytomax, I’d refill from municipal drinking fountains, bottles of Acqua frizzante (carbonated water—very inexpensive) and an expensive Gatorade—and have a strange mix by the end of the day. Luckily I brought some large insulated bottles.

Finally, to get ready for the trip I’d practice climbing as much as possible. At one point I lamented that there are no “rollers” in Italy to power over, as once a climb begins it is usually good for at least 1 km with a 10-15% thrown in somewhere around a sudden U turn or after an entry gate to the walled town.

Mountain bike race around the castle in Montalcino.

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