Chairman Bill's Trip Diary, Italy 2000
Cycling in Italy, Part 3
They Always Return to the Scene of the Crime
It's time to head back to the cyclist's paradise, beautiful Italy. Long hard rides in incomparable countryside, eating delicious, healthy food, boyoboy, I couldn't wait to get on the plane.
Owen Mulholland, who has raced and toured in France extensively (his stories about racing appear elsewhere on our web site) insists that I am missing a lot by constantly returning to Italy to ride and ignoring his Gallic second home. Yet his brother John who has raced and lived in Italy understands my need to return time and again to the magic peninsula. Far greater minds than mine have been transformed by their experiences in Italy.
Goethe, when he was already a world-famous author, ended up completely reassessing his output after having his opinions and artistic inclinations tempered by his visit to Italy. His earlier works (from his "sturm und drang" or storm and stress period), he found to be immature and unbalanced. The classic and renaissance cultures that permeate Italy and seep into a visitor's pores if he will only give them a chance gave his mind a new balance. "Ich also in Arkadien" (I am also in Arcadia) he wrote from Italy. Arcadia is the poet's and artist's imaginative paradise. Think of the little unicorns cavorting around in the movie Fantasia during Beethoven's "Pastoral" symphony. If you get to the rural areas of Umbria in Italy, the comparison isn't far off.
Like Goethe, I too, was in Arcadia.
When I cycle in Italy, I travel with Mauro Mondonico, the son and assistant of the world famous frame builder, Antonio Mondonico. He is a superb rider. I feel very safe riding inches from his wheel at 40 miles an hour. Also, he tolerates all of my weird idiosyncrasies.
Mauro shares my three goals when I go on these cycling trips. We seek good, long, hard rides. Mauro and I like to load our pockets with food, fill the bottles with water, then ride, and ride hard for 4 to 5 hours without any substantial pause. If we croak, maybe a quick sweet roll and a coffee, but then we get back on the bikes immediately.
We also want to eat lots of good Italian food (is there any other kind?). Italy's delicious carbohydrate-based cuisine is perfect for athletic endeavor.
Lastly, we need to drink deeply of the wondrous libation that is Italian art. Every city in Northern Italy has works of genius. Even the littlest town has something beautiful that is worth a journey. The problem is that sometimes I get jaded when I'm in Italy with the overwhelming abundance of fabulous art. I will occasionally fail to appreciate a fine, but lesser-known artist when Tintorettos, Raphaels, and Titians cover the Italian landscape. The beauty is everywhere, around every corner.
My wife, Carol, always comes along to make sure someone is there to post bail. I want a heavenly vacation, and a vacation could not be heaven without Carol. With her, anywhere is paradise.
Each year, I pick three cities to visit. This gives us a chance to spend a few days in each area, exploring the roads, getting a feel for the region, and finding restaurants with good pizza. The cities must be in an area, of course, with good roads for cycling. We want challenging hills and beautiful scenery. The roads should be almost empty of cars. This is an easy prescription to fill in Italy once you leave the big, crowded cities of the North.
We also want to stay in cities that aren't too big, yet are rich in culture. Cities that are too large waste our time while we try to get in and out of town. It is inevitable that in an unfamiliar town one will get lost at least once. If you have only five precious hours to ride each day, you don't want to burn any of it up fighting traffic (even cyclist-friendly Italian traffic) and breathing exhaust fumes.
For this trip, we selected Lucca in Tuscany, Urbino in The Marches, and Gubbio in Umbria.
In 1998, while riding with Mauro Mondonico and Pat Brady, we stopped for 5 minutes while riding through Lucca. I loved the city from the very moment I entered it. It has the feel of an old Tuscan city. But millions of tourists haven't destroyed it as a living city that does more than sell views of it's ancestor's accomplishments. It's what I wish Florence were like. I think D.H. Lawrence said that Venice makes its living by showing people its dead mother in a casket. This is so true of so many tourist cities, but not Lucca.
In 1999, Mondonico and I rode in The Marches (the region of Italy that borders the Adriatic sea just east of Tuscany) staying in Urbino. We gloried in the lonely roads that go on forever, up one hill and down the next. Also, the hotel we stayed at (The Mamiani) was the ultimate cyclist headquarters. A breakfast that would burst the stomach of the most famished rider, outstanding beds for a good night's sleep, and service that let us forget about everything but the road ahead. Mauro Mondonico insisted that we return to the Mamiani. It was easy to make him happy.
In 1998, while we rode in Umbria (the region just south of Tuscany) we cruised through Gubbio. The roads of the region were some of the most beautiful I have ever ridden. Pat Brady, writing in "Bicyclist" of one ride we took in the area, said that one road near Assisi was the ultimate cycling road. If it's not, then whatever beats it is something I have to see.
Setting up the trip always takes a little bit of care. I like to make the reservations well in advance, trying to make sure that all of the logistical considerations have been seen to. The first question we ask the hotel is, do you have a good buffet breakfast? You cannot ride for 5 or more hours without fuel. A couple of rolls and an espresso won't get you out of town, much less up to the Apuan Alps. Late checkout is another requirement. If the breakfast room opens at 8 in the morning and checkout is at 11, you have maybe two or two and a half hours to ride. We need to ride at eight and be able to stay out at least until twelve. Since Italian restaurants close at two in the afternoon, an early rolloff is needed even for days we aren't checking out.
Getting what I wanted was harder this time. I had a particularly difficult time finding hotels that met our needs given the cities we wanted to visit. With some negotiations by fax, we thought we got everything we needed. If you are planning to book a hotel in Italy to do something unusual, state your needs when you book the room. If you show up and want to start breaking the rules, you'll probably lose. Many hotels have important business reasons for their rules. If all the chambermaids must leave by noon to get home to feed their families, they cannot accommodate your request to check out late.
We always buy the last cheap ticket to Italy. For 2000, Alitalia kept their winter pricing until March 31. This was a gift. The weather in Italy changes at the end of March. It's as if Mother Nature flips a light switch and decides it's Spring. Last year, when we left on the 24th, we endured one day of very cold, wet riding, and a couple of days of wet roads and unbelievable winds. Then, as usual, at the end of March, the sun came out and the winds died down. We know it's always a gamble to go on a riding vacation this time of year, but Carol and I can't leave Torelli during the high selling season in the late spring and early summer.
This year it rained in Italy all March. It completely ruined Mauro's training. Between his job of driving the UCI Commissar in races sponsored by La Gazzetta dello Sport (Milan-San Remo, Tirenno-Adriatico, etc.), the terrible cold in Italy in January, and the March rains, he didn't get in the riding he wanted. In California, we had constant rain all February. It rained every weekend, and rained hard. My own training was screwed up. My training took another hit as well. My friend and training partner, Paul Scarpelli moved to Utah to accept a position as president of the Rula Lenska fan club. I miss him, but it's what he always said he wanted to do. But, we were still reasonably fit and healthy, and the road calls.
As we got closer to departure, I kept checking the weather in Italy on the internet. Up until three days before we left, rain was predicted for our first day of riding. Then, the rain prediction was canceled, and all was to be fine.
I'm sure that there isn't a cyclist, dutifully training in the wet and cold with running nose and numb fingers and toes, that hasn't fervently hoped and wished for winter to end. I came across the following words in Haydn's oratorio "The Seasons" This ought to be the winter cyclist's prayer:
- "See How the Winter flees
He passes to the distant pole.
There follow at his call
The raging and unruly storms
With all their fearful noise.
- See how the snow from craggy rocks
Pour down in mighty torrents
See how from the South
Born on gentle breezes,
Spring's messenger appears!
- Come Gentle Spring,
Gift of heavens, come!
From its deathlike sleep!
Gentle Spring approaches,
We feel its healing breath,
Soon all will come to life again."
This trip was going to be another field test of a new Torelli product. During the winter of constant rain, I destroyed two Campagnolo rear hubs with water contamination. In November of '99 Antonio Mondonico had brought me a pair of sealed bearing hubs made in Italy. I had been riding them off and on during the winter. I noticed that while my other hubs were wrecked, these new hubs were perfect. Intrigued, I started to use them whenever I rode, 350 to 400 miles a week, rain or shine. Five hours a day in Italy in the mountains of Umbria and The Marches would be the final test.
What bike to take? I have four, A Super Countach (Neuron-Brain blend), a Spada (Oria Aluminum), an experimental super light Easton Scandium that I was testing, and my Nitro Express (EL-OS). They are all excellent The choice was easy. I took my baby, my favorite bike of all time, my Nitro.
This trip, Len Luke, owner of The Bike Nook in San Francisco, was coming to share the joys of riding in Italy. I'll be honest. I do take a modest pride in my cycling abilities. Yet, in all the years I have ridden with Len, I have never made it to the top of a long, hard climb with him. I keep thinking that at some point he'll get old and weak and I'll be able to drop him. No, it's a pair of moving targets. I'm getting old as fast as he is (perhaps faster). I may have been letting myself (and Mauro) in for some serious misery, but there he was, in the seat next to me on the plane looking very rested and tanned. The die is cast . Note, for the detail minded, Caesar actually said, "let the die be cast" (anerriptho kubos).
The three of us (Carol, Len, and I) arrived at Malpensa airport (Milan) with our bikes, luggage, and jet lag. Waiting for us, just outside customs was Mauro. What a luxury. Having someone with a van at the curb with a smile and a strong back makes any trip better. We headed for the Mondonico house and shop (the Mondonicos build their 600 bike yearly production in a small workshop in the back of their house) to assemble the bikes.
The first thing to do when arriving at the Mondonico house after greeting the family is to politely ask Antonio's wife, Gabriella, for a nice big cup of Italian coffee with hot milk. I've had coffee everywhere, but Gabriella's is the very best. Ah, smack, smack, that's good. Shamelessly, I asked for more. We are here to enjoy the cuisine as well as the art and cycling of Italy, and Gabri's coffee is 3-star in my book.
We unpacked the bikes and Antonio went over both of them with his keen eye, making sure that everything met his approval. Once Antonio was confident that all was right, we loaded up the van. While we were getting ready, Len had Antonio measure him for a new bike out of Columbus' new tubing, 'Foco'. The dog!
Bikes loaded, we headed off to Lucca. In previous years, we had always spent an extra day in Mondonico's town , Concorezzo. The first morning we always rode to Lake Como and Lake Lecco. The riding there is fabulous, but the traffic on the Milan roads getting there and returning, while invariably courteous, is still dreadful. Big trucks with smoky diesel exhaust and endless speeding cars take away the pleasure of the ride. Also, these roads are ones that Mauro rides every day. He should have a change and a vacation like me. So, we put the bikes together and split.
When we got to Lucca, Mauro's brother Giuseppe and a Mondonico friend, Fabio Brambilla, were already there at the hotel. They had ridden that day and were planning to fill out our small pack the following day.
Sunday, April 2
At three in the morning, I heard hard rain. Damn, I thought. The foul weather found me. Then it stopped. I woke up at six to go for a short walk, and the streets were already drying off. We all met at the breakfast room for a threshold-of-pain breakfast. Our tanks were full; bread, muesli, cheese, yogurt, Italian coffee, there was no more room. By the way, bread and other bakery goods are always brought freshly baked each morning to hotels and cafes (the Italians call their small neighborhood cafes 'bars'). An Italian will not put up with stale food. Being able to bite into a brioche still warm from the bakery filled with orange marmalade is a serious luxury every Italian demands.
We aired up the tires (about 105 psi. There is no need to turn a bike into a bouncing, rigid rock that feels like hell from running the tires at 140+. Why do people do this?) and rode the cobbles of Lucca out of town.
The route we had selected for the first ride was actually chosen by John Mulholland. He was intimately familiar with the area, and he picked out roads he knew would be perfect. The plan was to head almost due north out of Lucca, following the road next to the Serchio River up to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. While we would be constantly climbing, it would be very gentle. It would give the first 30 miles (50 kilometers) we rode a reasonably gentle profile. We were right. The five of us kept a steady 18 miles an hour the whole way except for a little patch when Len decided he needed to warm up. We screamed along for at bit at almost 30 (ouch, I wasn't warmed up at all yet), but then things settled down. The manager of our hotel thought the road would have too much traffic to be enjoyable, but on this Sunday morning it was perfect. We climbed, back and forth through swtchbacks, and turned through one little perfect Italian town after another. Fabio and Giuseppe went to the front and took long steady pulls.
About twenty-three miles into the ride, we headed east-southeast. We were now in the Apuan Alps. Tall, craggy, snow covered mountains peeked behind the hills we were on. The climbing got stiffer. Into the little ring but mostly the 17 and 18, heartbeat in the 130's. We were cruising, and the scenery was getting spectacular. As I was getting warmed up, my mental state was changing. My father had a wonderful dog that loved riding in the car. He would woof, bark, and whine with joy the entire ride. That was how I felt. I was with treasured friends, on a carless road, riding in some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen. Woof!
After Castelnouvo we followed the river Secca. The climbing got stiffer; 135 bpm, 140, 150, 160, 170 bpm. The air must have been in the mid 40's but I was sweating. We were in a narrow valley with steep walls carved out by the river. Into the 19. Out of the saddle. We could see the snow line was not far up. Finally, we reached the top. I stopped to put on a windbreaker. Soaked as I was, a cold descent would have been miserable. The roads here were still wet from the morning's rain.
Zoom, we were headed down, but with real caution. On a dry day, It would have been a superb descent, but with the roads wet, I wanted to get back in one piece. On and on we went. This was the longest descent I had ever ridden. We could see a little town far down the valley. We passed it and kept falling. Finally, near Seravezza, only a few miles from the Mediterranean coast, the ground leveled out. Then, Giuseppe and Fabio put it in the big ring and started to really go. I can't describe too much of what went by because it was a blur. One little town after another flew by as we hammered the big gears until we reached Camaiore. Then we settled down again and tooled on into Lucca at about 20 miles an hour on level ground with a mild head wind. Once in town, Giuseppe, with his usual overabundance of energy started a series of attacks and Len answered. Len and I got away (that is, me glued to his wheel), but we had to hold up because we didn't have a clue how to get to the hotel.
We arrived together at the city walls. Lucca has actually paved the top of their walls, which are so thick that a car can drive on them, with room for trees and grass to spare. We did a circumnavigation of the city's ancient defenses and arrived at the hotel, with 80.5 miles on the computer. What a way to start the trip. What a ride.
In the afternoon, we set out to see the city. Lucca isn't a city with museums filled with art. Lucca is a museum. The city's churches are old, very old. Almost all of the churches are Romanesque or early Tuscan Gothic. Almost all of the arches in the old buildings are round, showing that they were built before engineers learned that by making the arch pointed, it would bear greater loads. Just near the crossing of the transept of Lucca's cathedral, there are a pair of pointed arches while the rest of the arches are round. Can you hear the young builders working on the cathedral arguing almost a 1,000 years ago to use the new technology that would make a stronger wall?
Monday, April 3
I heard the rain come down hard at three in the morning. Once again, I had visions of either losing a day of riding, or getting soaked. But, come the dawn, the rain was gone and the streets were almost dry. For today, because yesterday was so hard and the hotel was insisting of our clearing out of the rooms by 12:30 (that was the best I could get in Lucca and that required some serious begging and pleading), we chose an easier (I thought), shorter route.
Even though it wasn't raining, I didn't know what the weather would hold for the rest of the morning. I put Musclor Number 3, the really hot stuff, on my legs. Italian riders all put on various embrocations on their legs when they ride, but it is very rare in the U.S. The hot sauce made my legs tingle warmly. With a full stomach, air in our tires, water in our bottles, and smelly oil on our legs, we were ready to ride.
At a little after 8 in the morning we rode over the cobbles of ancient Lucca, planning to head almost due east, to Montecatini. Probably nothing makes me feel more surely that I'm riding in Italy than the bouncy feel of my tires over cobbles. It's not like you see in Paris-Roubaix with big, lumpy stones sticking up through the dirt. It is a pavement of closely-fitted unmortared stones. You know you are not riding on smooth asphalt and you really know you aren't in Muncie.
While the road from Lucca to Montacatini is a bit busy, the shoulder was plenty wide and we got the usual courteous, careful passing from the Italian drivers, even the big truck drivers. I have never had an Italian driver give me a blast from his horn just as he is right next to me, punishing me for the insidious act of daring to ride a bike on the road. I am sure this happens to every American reader of this story regularly. Instead, the Italian driver, from a fair distance behind, gives his horn a gentle toot, to let us know he is coming and to hold our line. It would be nice if civilization would come to the United States, but I don't hold out much hope.
When we arrived at Montecatini, we headed north to Marliana and Vellano. Suddenly, we were climbing, and climbing hard. I wasn't expecting quite this. We passed olive groves where they grow the world famous olives that make what some consider the finest olive oil in the world (the people of Umbria, to the south, have a different opinion, of course).
As we rode up the ever steepening hill, I put it into my big cog in the back, the 23. Mauro was in the 21. I was out of the saddle, ripping the handlebars out of the stem and he was spinning comfortably, I looked at my back wheel and I was indeed in the big cog. What was going on? Did I completely screw up and put on a 12-21 before I left home? Were my tires that much fatter than his? We were climbing hard, but I didn't know how long I could keep this up. Then I looked at my front rings. Oh.... I was still in the 53. May I blame it on jet-lag? With several more miles of climbing ahead I dropped it into the 39 but the damage was done. My legs were broken from climbing in the huge gear. Even though I was spinning and keeping up, I had no snap.
We made it to the top and started a steep, curving descent into Pescia and ended on the same east-west road we took into Montecatini. We passed Collodi, home of the writer of Pinocchio. By the way, the Italians love the story of the puppet who came to life.
A little before Lucca, we headed north to Marlia to add a few kilometers. This was not a good idea, as it turned out to be the main road feeding into the autostrada (freeway). Once we passed the autostrada, the road was nice again. We put it in the big gears and rode the last few kilometers south into Lucca with only a gentle headwind.
When we arrived at Lucca, we rode up onto the old city walls again. It is the custom of the people of Lucca to ride bikes around the top of their walls. When in Lucca....
We arrived at our hotel with only 50 miles, but that long (12 miles?) climb gave us all the exercise we needed. And the one rider in the group without the sense to get out of the big ring? Well, enough said.
When we arrived at the hotel, there was a message for me. I had been testing lubricants and bike cleaners from a firm in Italy that supplies most of the Italian pro teams (like Mercatone-Uno, Marco Pantani's team). I had sent their agent an e-mail that I was going to be in their town, Lucca. He met us and took us to a restaurant of his choosing, outside the city walls. I knew that this would be good eating, because the restaurant would depend upon the trade of the resident Italians, instead of tourists. Boy was I right. I had Penne'al Arrabiata (pasta with hot peppered tomato sauce) that was just great. Even the very fussy Mauro Mondonico approved.
Arriving at our next city, Urbino, after driving for about three hours, we were greeted by the excellent people of my favorite hotel on the whole planet, the Mamiani. Our bikes were secured and our bags were whisked away. But then, we got another surprise. Teresa, the concierge, had put together maps and an itinerary of important art and history sites in the little towns outside of Urbino. She had added extensive hand-written notes. She knew we had thoroughly explored the city of Urbino last year, so she took it upon herself to make sure that we had this information at our disposal. This was service!!! Boy, what a difference between this superb example of informal, yet serious Italian hospitality, and stuffy, how-can-we-milk-you-for-an-extra-buck-for-a-local-call American hotels. I don't mind paying for services rendered, but I hate the American method of sneaking a hand into my pocket when I am not looking, and, more importantly, not really caring if I have an enjoyable stay. The people at the Mamiani want me happy. I am.
Tuesday, April 4
No rain, but the air was cool and moist. We were now in The Marches (Le Marche). There is not a flat piece of ground to be seen. No matter where we rode, it would be hard work. After a huge breakfast from the Mamiani's sinfully tempting breakfast buffet (riding with a full belly just feels good to me) we headed out to Urbania.
Somehow, after all the riding Mauro and I have done here, we still have trouble leaving this little town without getting lost. We took the wrong road at first, as usual, but finally we were on our way.
The road to Urbania rolls gently (by the standards of the area) and then drops like a stone into Urbania with a steep switchback. We were then going to ride to Lunano, Catuchio and Monte Cerignone and then head back through Macerata, Sassocorvaro and Urbino.
We had better be warmed up by Urbania, because the climb out of town to Peglio was steep enough to need the 39-21 and 23. Ouch! From then on, we were either in the littlest gears or in the 53-13. As we climbed, the extraordinary beauty of the area made itself evident. A writer had once supposed that Italian farmers lay out their fields so that they will look beautiful from afar. The same thought went through my mind as we crested each hill and looked at the valleys below, all green from the season's rains. The patchwork of plowed fields and pastures look so right that the innate Italian esthetic sense must have had some say in how the land is farmed. Note: Carol has a far less romantic explanation. She says that the fields look so beautiful because the farmers follow the contours of the lands when plowing and planting their fields. Form follows function. I don't need this kind of rational cold water in my face.
Mile after mile we rode, out of the saddle using the 21 and 23. After two hours, we had only covered 25 miles. This was tough stuff. Yet, I was not far from that Faustian moment. When that irresistible moment of beauty came, Faust was to tell Mephistopheles to wait just a moment (Verweile doch! du bist so schone- tarry a moment! you are so beautiful) and in so doing, lose his soul. At least we could have that moment without have our eternal souls put into jeopardy. We stopped several times to take pictures, but we were going so slowly (except during those very short interludes of blindingly fast descents whose major consequence is for us to begin the work of climbing anew) that there was no need to stop and look.
Climbing up to the old town of Sassocorvaro, I was a few yards behind Len. A group of old men standing near the top outside a bar yelled at me to catch him. Easy for them to say.
Heading south-east from Sassocorvaro, the unrelenting climbs were making our legs scream. The countryside showed us no mercy. And, just when we think there will be a bit of rest, we go around a corner to see another switchback.
Descending into (Monte Cerignone?) we came to a 15% hill on the narrowest, most beat-up road I have ever seen. Did Garibaldi's troops break up the road when they marched on it in the 1870's and no one has repaired it since? Since you never know when a giant Scania farm truck with huge bales of hay will be around the next corner, riding these little tiny roads requires a little caution. You can't stray from your lane.
About 10 miles from Urbino we felt some drops. It would have been nice to put it in the big ring and blast home at 27 miles an hour. That was not an option. Home was uphill. We kept climbing and dropping without any worsening of the weather and began the final climb to Urbino. We had been out over 4 1/2 hours and only ridden 56 miles, but it was truly riding at its best. There is (in my experience) no riding like riding here. Comparatively speaking, there are almost no cars. The roads are challenging, but not demoralizing. The beautiful countryside has few peers. Tarry a moment, you are so beautiful.
At lunch, before we went touring, we put on a serious feedbag. When the food is this good, you lose your inhibitions. Mauro and I started with a big plate of pasta each. Then, we each got a pizza, followed by salad (in Italy, salad comes after the main courses), and then dessert. Len made some questioning comment about our carbohydrate intake.
"We have excellent suction." I explained, paraphrasing Dickens (Pickwick Papers or David Copperfield?).
Eating a salad around Mauro means preparing it under his watchful and demanding care.
First, he hands you the salt. He sprinkles the salt into his own hand when preparing his own salad to correctly gauge how much salt is coming out of the shaker. Precision, precision, precision.
Then, the vinegar is drizzled over the salad.
Then, olive oil (used more generously if it smells or looks like the good stuff)
Then, the salad is tossed. This order must be followed or withering contempt from Mauro will follow. Never let him see you put the oil on the salad before the vinegar.
Wednesday, April 5
We decided to head south from Urbino today. We would ride to Cagli, then turn northeast to Piobbico, up to Urbania, then back to the barn for some spaghetti.
For once, the cloud cover wasn't complete. There were specks of blue sky. The air felt like it was in the high 40's. As we prepared to ride, the gentle breeze got a little stronger. A promise of what was to come?
We had our usual unconscionable gluttony fest at the breakfast buffet. Mauro ordered a cappuccino and gave it his usual meticulous inspection. The foam must be just so. When a spoonful of sugar is dropped on to the foam, the foam must hold the sugar for a bit before the sugar slowly falls through to the coffee below. If the foam holds the sugar, it means that the preparer has taken his time and made a fine, firm foam that will then yield a creamy topping to the cappuccino when stirred. Little things done well yield great pleasure. Mauro pronounced the cappuccino excellent, so we could proceed with breakfast knowing that our food-zen-master was content.
The road we had chosen out of town was a tiny, little used road. Given that finding major roads out of Urbino is an inexplicable difficulty, finding this little road (and a little road in Italy is really little) would be a challenge. Every hundred meters as we rode through town we asked for directions. We went through the ancient city center and descended over the cobbles and out of town. We found it. We pedaled gently along, thinking that this would be a nice way to warm up and then...sonofagun! Where did that wall come from? It was a real 12 -15% climb. Ouch. We got over that with our sleepy, sore legs and then rolled along a country road that barely had room for a Fiat and a bike.
South of Fermignano we had a 10% climb, but now we were a bit warmed up. The wind was getting stronger.
We rode through Cagli and passed some interesting buildings, clearly hundreds of years old. There is so much here to see, and we have only three score and ten (maybe a little more if all goes well) years on this earth. How can I fit it all in? At Cagli we turned northeast and got the full force of the wind in our faces. This was work, but with three riders, it wasn't too bad.
At Secchiano, we were supposed to take a right turn. We missed it and kept riding into the wind for a couple of miles before we fully realized that we had better turn back and find the correct road. In little Secchiano we had to ask for our road. A nice lady pointed to a glorified goat path that headed up to the heavens. Gulp! Into the 21 immediately. I did not know that the 12 miles from Secchiano to Piobbico was one of the most beautiful roads I have ever ridden. I know I keep saying this, but I keep getting astonished at what this world has to offer.
We climbed for about 6 miles, always in the 21 or the 23. A lot of the time I was at 165 bpm and only going 8 or 9 miles an hour. The scenery was fantastic. The fruit trees were just putting out their first blooms and the trees were just budding. Nature was beginning her annual springtime renewal of the world.
We kept climbing through a stunning valley. We felt like Shelly's Skylark:
- "Higher and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The deep blue thou wingest,
And singing still dost thou soar, and soaring ever singest."
I was asked not to sing anymore.
At the top, we could see for miles and the road skirted the side of the steep valley. The wind was blowing hard, so we had to be cautious (Mauro's mother had admonished us to behave with "prudenza". We were good boys). We got a short bit of tailwind after descending into Piobbico. We had another stiff 10+% long climb before Urbania. Now we were gassed, but then we had to climb the long switchback out of Urbania that was so much fun to descend the day before.
The wind did make the air brilliantly clear. The pastures glowed a brilliant emerald green as it had rained all March in Italy. I passed a goat in a field with a big mouthful of the new, soft, tender grass. He looked so content and happy with his gourmet breakfast. I almost thought about getting a mouthful myself. Farther up the hill, a traffic jam. Sheep under the watchful eyes of vigilant sheepdogs were being driven up the hill. A couple of lambs were trying to sneak some lunch from their mothers, but the lunchroom had to keep moving.
Finally, the top and a gentle run into town. We did only about 55 miles, but our average speed was only 14.4 mph! No land speed records here, but if the wind had not been there (and it was only a minor annoyance), I would have to rate it one of the best rides I have had.
Thursday, April 6
Our last day in Urbino. I wanted a ride with fewer hills, feeling quite sore from our last two days in the hills, but we were in The Marches. There are no flat roads. You are either climbing or descending. The roads we had chosen so far were tough, mean roads that challenged us to our very limits. They were so mean and steep that if they were people, they would be in jail.
For today's ride, we chose a direction and an area we had ignored both during last year's trip, and so far this year. We decided to head southeast to Fossombrone, continue on to Sorbolongo then north up to Apsella and head south back to Urbino on a little hill road.
Once again, the clouds looked threatening, but the roads were dry. Leaving town, we descended for over 6 miles, almost never having to power the bikes. This free gift would have to be repaid later.
We were on Highway 73bis. It was wide and comfortable to ride, giving us an easy start. This is one of the most ancient roads in the western world, the Via Flaminia of ancient Rome. Everywhere I go in Italy, I feel the power of the history each spot has. Men with oxcarts, slaves being driven to market, Roman soldiers headed to the coast all once used this road. Perhaps Gothic soldiers headed to meet Justinian's army marched on this road. You can spin possibilities forever with over 3,000 years of human endeavor here.
By the way, most histories credit the barbarian invasions from the north for most of the destruction of the ancient world. Invading and pillaging Vandals, Huns, Goths, Lombards, etc. are blamed for the loss of the buildings, art and literature. This is not exactly true. By the 4th century, a large amount of the literature of Ancient Greece and early Rome was already lost, as the Romans failed to save all but the most important pieces. The greatest destruction probably occurred during the Gothic Wars. Justinian, the Roman Emperor in Constantinople set out to reconquer Italy for the Roman Empire with his brilliant general Belasarius. The war between the Goths and Belasarius was long lasting, terrible, and profoundly destructive. The final insult to the ancient world was medieval man's use of Roman and Greek buildings as easy quarries. The easiest and most available cut blocks of marble were there in the ancient city forums and theaters. The walls of the Cathedral of Pisa have bits of Roman writing on them, making their provenance clear. Once in a while, an even more heartbreaking use of the marble would be committed. The stones would be burnt to make lime. In the intensely religious middle ages, there was no need to conserve and save the remains of the pagan past. Even Raphael, who worked to save and preserve Roman monuments was guilty of mining Roman buildings for materials.
What will our grandchildren say about us as we consume the natural recouces of the world? Will they hold us in the same contempt that we do of our ancestors of the dark ages who used up the irreplaceble with no thought of the future?
Out of Fossombrone, asking lots of questions along the way we found our way to the little road we needed to head north. I don't ever remember shifting so much in all my life as during this year's trip in The Marches. Every level meter has a different elevation and inclination. I looked and my rear cogs and they all seemed to have almost equal use (OK, the 21 and 23 were getting the most chain time).
Heading north, I stopped and got off my bike to inspect a vineyard next to the road. The vines here, in the sun that just broke loose from the stubborn clouds, were not only budding, they were starting to form their first leaves. They were almost growing before my very eyes. In an olive orchard nearby, an old man was busy trimming the trees in his grove. Life, everywhere was being reborn to the beautiful notes of songbirds everywhere we rode.
Italy and Eastern Europe have an interesting crow. Their back and belly are grey while the rest of their feathers are black. Two-tone jobs, like a 53 Buick.
After Passo, the climbing got serious, even by the standards of The Marches. Back into the 39-23. We had several kilometers of 10%+ of climbing. The speedometer read 8-9 miles an hour, but the heart monitor said 165. Each time we rounded a corner, I thought we had hit the top, but then the road kept rising. Ah, at last the top the top. I felt like Xenophon's troops when they finally saw the sea in "The Anabasis". The top, the top!
We let Mauro take the point. I have taken to calling him "La Pietra de Concorezzo" (the Stone of Concorezzo) because of his unearthly ability to descend. Mauro has put in a request that his nickname be changed to Il Diavolo (the devil), but since we've used a Faustian metaphor in this story, I told him that we can't scramble the eggs and confuse this entire epic. Besides, I've already said the Faustian words (Tarry a moment..) and if he were the devil.....
Each time we head down a switchback I think that this time, I will stay with him. Then I loose my nerve and have to let him go. As we headed down, the road was lined with bright yellow flowers reaching for the sun. It was a brilliant path through the countryside. Here the sun beat upon the new, fresh flowers and grass, the fragrance of Spring made us feel alive.
We had picked a small road through Cobordolo to take us back to Urbino, but we got the wrong directions and ended up on a bigger, more trafficked road. It was still an excellent road, but we would have preferred the road less traveled.
The final 5% climb back to Urbino was just as long as the pleasant descent we had in the morning. No one had rearranged the world so that we could descend into the town.
Arriving back in Urbino, we had 57 tough miles that made our legs quiver at the hotel. Whenever I tell Carol how good some piece of riding was, that it had left me a shredded, exhausted pieced of meat, smiling and reaching for the nearest food that I do not have to kill, she shakes her head in wonder.
Friday, April 7
We are in Gubbio in Umbria, about 40 miles south of Urbino. In Roman times, Gubbio was called Ikuvium. By the middle ages, it was Eugubium, and eventually it was corrupted to Gubbio. The old Roman city was at the base of the hill, but during the middle ages, settlement crept up the hill, probably as a defense from the various armies that criss-crossed Italy. The Goths sacked Gubbio several times. I don't know about Vandals, Lombards, Huns, etc.
The drive from Urbino was in pouring rain. Once again, we had missed the bad weather while riding. Is this what they mean by the luck of the Irish? Maybe I'm just a little lucky leprechaun.
We had originally made reservations at the Hotel Bosone Palace in Gubbio. Because I worry about everything, a week before I depart, I always send reconfirmation faxes. The Bosone replied that they were closed for renovations, but since they also owned the Relais Ducale, they would put us up in this 4-star hotel for the same price. This seemed like a good deal at the time. Arriving at the hotel, we began what has become known to historians as "The War of the Bicycles".
Now, I had written ahead making it very clear that we were cyclists, and that we had special needs. The original confirmation fax from them made it clear that they would accommodate us. When we arrived and mentioned the bikes we were told that there was no place to put the bikes in the hotel. They told us that they would store the bikes in their garage almost a kilometer away, and that in the morning, we could walk down and get the bikes.
"There is not even the remotest possibility that we can walk a kilometer in cycling clothes and shoes to get out bikes. And furthermore, we should not have to".
Finally, they told us to leave the bikes disassembled in the van, and they would bring the van to us in the morning. We would then assemble the bikes and then ride. This was not a good start.
Then, we got to the rooms and Mauro and Len had a little double bed. Back to the reception lady. "All the rooms have double beds in this hotel", Mauro was told.
Mauro got firm, really firm. The lady called the owner, and then a miracle occurred. The room next door had two single beds. Where did this come from? We moved all the bags ourselves to the new room. This is a four star hotel?
Now in the morning they did all they promised. We asked for an early breakfast, and there was a sumptuous banquet laid out for us. The van was outside the hotel. We assembled out bikes, got greasy chain guck on our hands, washed up and rode out the door, having lost about 20 minutes.
For today's ride, we had the option of picking a more gentle ride with fewer climbs. We chose a counter-clockwise route to Umbertide, almost due south to Bosco, up to Gualdo Tadino, and back to Gubbio.
The weather report forecast a strong possibility of rain, so I bundled up, put hot sauce (number 3) on my legs, and packed a rain jacket. The clouds looked mildly threatening, but not truly scary. We were able to ride along the flats at 23 mph. It felt good to stretch out a bit and roll along the road.
I cannot tell you what it is that I sensed, but after traveling only a few miles, I knew I was someplace different from The Marches or Tuscany. The contours of the land were definitely softer. The newly plowed soil had the famous brown umber color, and the houses looked a little different. I asked Mauro if what I was sensing was real, and he said that it was very true, Umbria has a distinct character.
Skimming past Umbertide we rode south with a gentle tailwind. This was nice. Are there any free lunches in the world? Of course, but I never get them. We knew this tailwind was a debt that would have to be repaid. As we rode the wind got stiffer, but not too bad. Out of Valfabbrica we had our only real climb and it was under 7%. We rode into Gualdo Tadino, which had suffered a terrible earthquake in 1998, just days after we rode through it last time. I hope they didn't remember us? Were we bad luck?
Just entering the town, we saw a big group of touring cyclists with panniers at a little market buying food and water. Farther up the road we saw a pair of riders from this group. Catching them, we found that they were part of the "Oddesey 2000", cyclists riding around the world. They were headed to Urbino and The Mamiani hotel. What a small world. This group was responsible for our changing our originally planned itinerary because the Mamiani was fully booked by these cyclists on the days we had originally chosen to be there. We had planned to finish our stay in Urbino, rather than make it the middle stay. I told them that they were at fault for wrecking our trip, and that they had ruined everything (tongue was firmly planted in cheek). They thought me a bit daft.
We headed into Gualdo Tadino to get directions for the final leg of the trip back to Gubbio. We ended up wandering all over town (as nice a town as there ever was to wander in) and finally found our way to Gubbio. Up ahead were the slow, plodding tourists who knew the exact road to take. I felt a little bit like the mountain climbers in the old cartoon that find boy scouts camped at the top of an impossible mountain top.
The final northwest leg on highway 219 is almost flat, but a headwind had come up with a vengeance. Mauro absolutely hates the wind. It isn't a matter of strength or power. It's just that he finds riding in the wind damn awful. I'm just a dumb Irishman, so to me it's almost all the same. I just gear down and ride. So, Len and I took the point, trying to keep Mauro from being too miserable.
Arriving at Gubbio we plotted revolution. This game of assembling the bikes and storing them was stupid and wasteful. The peasants grabbed their pitchforks and scythes and stormed the Bastille. Freedom! We just shouldered the bikes and took them up to the rooms. We passed the owner of the hotel and she gave us a "Buon Giorno".
After showering, we were greeted by the Bike Hating Lady. She got after us for bringing the bikes up to the room.
"Signora, These bikes are worth thousands of dollars. They are works of art. We treat them as if they were the precious objects that they are. We are not barbarians or slobs. Your rooms will not be damaged. We have traveled everywhere with our bikes and never have any problems (except here)".
The Bike Hating Lady then pointed to the open patio and suggested they be stored there.
We had 77 miles under our belts, and even with the final wind and the Bike Hating Lady at the Hotel Ducale, another perfect day in paradise.
We were less than an hour from Assisi. In 1998, we had spent three days there, but we were unable to visit many of the churches because of earthquake damage. We knew that the upper church of San Francesco was now open. Let's see how the repairs came out.
In 1998, with only the lower church open, the town was almost a ghost town. This time, the city was a beehive of activity with tourists and pilgrims filling the ancient streets.
In the upper church, the damage was very apparent. The roof at the transept crossing had completely collapsed. None of the frescos there could be saved. Yet, overall, the church remained an impressive storehouse of early renaissance art with a cycle of paintings by Giotto of the life of St. Francis. It's a moving and impressive place to be.
I am a fan of Cimabue, the teacher of Giotto and one of the first painters of the modern world to give figures a realistic appearance (I consider him vastly more talented than his more famous pupil, Giotto). There was a crucifixion panted by Cimabue in the upper church. Sadly, the years have taken their toll and it did not carry the original power of what was obviously a work of genius. The St. Francis by Cimabue in the lower church is in good shape. It too is extraordinary.
We walked over to Santa Chiara, but it was still closed. Men were working hard, but this was a terrible earthquake. There was a lot to repair.
Saturday, April 8
There was a possibility of rain tomorrow (Sunday). We wanted to go on a good, long ride that would be truly memorable. I had never been up in Northeast Umbria. The towns are small, and the roads all tiny. My kind of cycling territory
I carried my bike down stairs and was stopped by the Bike Hating Lady. "You cannot take the bike that way. The breakfast room is filled with people and you will disturb them walking past them with your bike."
Was I on another planet? Disturb a busy room in bike-mad Italy by walking by them with a bike? She sent me out a side door, and I ended up out on the piazza with Mauro. He was waiting for me. I told him what had happened.
"I just walked out", Mauro said, "and I passed the lady. There was only one person on the breakfast room and he jumped up to help me with my bike. I do not know where she got that story."
She was, after all, the Bike Hating Lady, and had a job to do.
We gave ourselves a flat warm-up with a tailwind riding out the same road to Gualdo Tadino that we came in on the day before and then turned east towards Fabriano, but then headed almost due north to Sassoferrato. The roads were gentle with a couple of 5% climbs. The old town of Sassoferrato was perched up on a hill. We rode through the town, easily finding the road to our next goal, Pergola.
The Umbrian mountains rose up all around us. I wish there were some way I could convey how beautiful this area is. One can look down steep gorges and see the still bare trees. The paintings the renaissance artists portraying St. Frances in these deep woods immediately come to mind.
Just outside Pergola we turned southwest to ride the more challenging road back to Gubbio. Now we were working. We had to climb over Mount Cuccio to get back home. There were no cars now. OK, a little Fiat Punto every 15 or 20 minutes, but it was almost our own private road.
Out of the saddle, into the small ring, and into the 21 and 23. I started to feel like that man in the movie "Alien". My heart was beating so hard I felt like some beast was going to explode out of my chest. Then, we came to the road we never expected. Carved out of the side of a very narrow, steep gorge, this lonely road was spectacular. As I write this, I am hoping that if no other pictures but these come out, I might be happy. The side of the road dropped off almost straight down for at least a couple hundred feet, and the sides around us rose straight up. I know each ride sounds better than the last one when I write these stories, but each time it seems that Italy just keeps giving me something better to see and do each trip.
Up the final climb and then a beautiful gentle descent into Gubbio that let me ride without the usual white-fingered, brake-grabbing caution.
While I wanted to do the final climb like Ferdinand the Bull, stopping to smell the flowers, Len and Mauro took of like crazed fiends. I got the report later. Len flew up the hill, dropping Mauro. At the crest of the hill Mauro put it in the 53-12 determined to catch Len before the stop light at the city gate in Gubbio. He says he descended with all the force, fury, will, and determination that he could summon. Speeding like a demon he chased and chased, but just off a little bit in the distance, he saw Len pull up to the light. Sometimes even La Pietra de Concorezzo can't make up all the lost time on the way down.
We arrived with 68 miles under our belts. We were completely toasted. But once again, we were completely and totally satisfied with the days work (work?).
Freud says we seek pleasure and avoid pain. I think this shows a very superficial understanding of the human character. He leaves out what we truly seek, which is joy. A defender of Freud can parse words and say that the result of some titanic effort that yields a satisfying result is pleasure seeking, but that's reaching and completely unsatisfactory. The great Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz (writer of "On Aggression") once noted that Freud never once, in all his volumes of work, used the word "Joy" despite the fact that in German, Joy is "Freude". Well, it was joy we sought and joy we found.
After a delicious lunch of Cannelloni and a Lemon Gelato, we went back to the hotel. There, I could not help myself. I just couldn't. I found the owner of the Hotel Ducale (and the writer of the fax sending us to this hotel from the Bosone). I asked her what would have happened if I had not sent the reconfirmation fax and had just trusted them. What would have happened if we would have all just shown up with our bikes and luggage in the pouring rain at the doors of the closed Bosone?
The conversation went around the question a couple of times, avoiding the hard answer, but I was persistent. Then she finally said:
"Then, you would have had a problem."
If I had failed to show up at one of their hotels after making a reservation and giving them my credit card number, they would have rightfully dinged me for at least one night's stay. They had the obligation to do the decent thing and warn people who have made plans, who have dream vacations, to at least send them a warning fax or make a phone call to tell them that the hotel is closed. But, no, they did nothing. This is inexcusable in even the cheapest hotel, but in 3 and 4 star hotels? The owners of the Hotel Relais Ducale, the Bosone, and others, the Mencarelli group, say that they embody "the art of hospitality".
Sure they do.
Sunday, April 9
We are shredded, absolutely exhausted. After seven days of hard riding we are joyfully but absolutely devoid of any energy. Since we had a long drive back to Milan from Gubbio, we decided to ride for just two hours and hope we could make it back. We rode out to Umbertide. This being Sunday, the cycling clubs were all out in their full regalia. A peloton of 30 or more Italian cyclists all kitted out in their club colors coming the other way up the road is a fine sight. Always we say, "Ciao", or "Salve" to each other in passing. Upon arrival at Umbertide we had a kind man take our picture in front of the castle in the city center. Then, with more than a tinge of regret, we headed back to Gubbio for the final leg of the final day.
As I climbed up the final ascent in Gubbio in the 39-23 over the old cobbles, an old man yelled out, "Forza!" (strength) to me. I shook my head at him, laughing. He understood and laughed with me.
At the piazza in front of the hotel I decided to use up my last picture. An accommodating lady agreed to take the picture. As we were getting ready for the picture, a nice old man walked up to me and started asking me about my bike. I started to talk to him and then remembered the lady waiting to take our picture. I tried to grab the nice old man and include him in the picture, but he refused and quickly stepped away.
Snap, the picture was taken and he was back.
Pointing to my bike, "Valore?"
"Sei millione lire" ($3,000)
"Ah, bella." He lovingly ran his fingers over the tubes of our bikes, appreciating their beauty. In every Italian, there is the heart and soul of an artist.
We were done riding for this trip. Time to clean up, shower and drive to Milan.
I went down to the reception room to pay my bill.
Oh no! The Bike Hating Lady!
I could hear the theme from Psycho in my ears. Scree, scree, scree.
She immediately lit into me, chewing me out for trying to have breakfast too early. She accused me of trying to eat at 6:10 in the morning.
I denied it through gritted teeth and told her we sat down for breakfast a little before seven.
Incredibly, she accused me in so many words of lying.
As we loaded up the bikes, Mauro told one of the porters about the lousy treatment we had received. The owner of the hotel then showed up and apologized to us and offered us a free cup of coffee, blaming everything on the one employee.
Not good enough. Talk is cheap, and she proved it. After acknowledging the lousy service and taking our $600, she made no concrete move to mitigate our displeasure beyond a cheap cup of coffee. There was no offer to reduce the bill, and I did not ask.
As we drove back to Milan, Mauro kept calling his friends for updates on the Grand Prix of San Marino and the Paris Roubaix bike race. The van did not have a radio, and immediate intelligence was necessary.
Cell phones are ubiquitous in Italy now. When an Italian sits down at a restaurant, he removes his jacket. If he is a smoker, he places his cigarettes and lighter on the table and then takes out his cell phone and lays it carefully on the table. In restaurants, the ringing of cell phones and "Pronto" yelled is an unpleasant addition to Italian life, but they love their phones.
Monday, April 10
A full day visiting factories that supply Torelli. We had a long talk with Celestino Vercelli, owner of Vittoria shoes. It is posted on our site; click here to read it. He's had a fascinating life, riding as a pro in some of the most powerful teams in cycling history and I thought it would be interesting to share this with my fellow cycling enthusiasts
A few thoughts.
Once again, I did not even get a cut tire after over 500 miles of riding. When you add in the miles of Mauro, Giuseppe, Fabio, and Len to my mileage on the trip, it's over 1,650 miles over all sorts of terrain. We rode in city centers and lonely country roads and not one single flat tire. To date, in all my cycling in Italy, I have never had a flat tire. This shows the beauty of a culture that recycles and does not consider everything used once to be trash. Instead, their debris is a precious resource that is to be reused. This little effort makes a cleaner, healthier, friendlier world that yields countless benefits for all. Safer roads are only one of them.
I tested what I had planned to be the new Torelli hubs and sprockets. After running them through atrocious weather in the winter and bouncing them over tough little Italian farm roads, I was, as they say in Victorian novels, well pleased. Everything was like new. Everything worked flawlessly. More later on our website on this. By the time this is posted, our first shipment should have arrived.
Once again, the Hotel Mamiani exemplified hospitality. Every person at that hotel takes perfect joy in seeing that we are comfortable, well fed, and happy. We can just relax, get fat, and think about the next ride. They are still the best hotel I have ever stayed in my entire life. I have received no special deals, or price reductions from the Mamiani. I pay full price when I stay there, and consider it a bargain.
We had a final dinner with the Mondonicos and then the trip was done. Time to go home.
Of course, one of the last things I did was ask Mauro, "Are we riding next April in Italy?"
"Yes, of course."
I'll see you then, Signor Diavolo, in 2001.
L'anno prossimo in Italia.