A Visit to Italy, Keeper of Cycling's Soul
by Chairman Bill
For many years, I have dreamed of riding in Italy. Not just short little jaunts, but instead, long steady, hard miles in the mornings, day after day. In the afternoons, I wanted to spend time in a few chosen cities looking at beautiful art. And last, but not necessarily least, I wanted to indulge my taste for Italian food, the most delicious, healthful cuisine in the western world. What follows are my impressions and memories of a beautiful week in the most magical, charming country in the world, with my dear wife and two good friends.
Mauro Mondonico, the older son of Antonio Mondonico, the famous frame builder, had spoken of "racing" cycle tours he had taken. He had organized hard-riding pacelines of friends doing a stage tour, going from city to city with a sag wagon following with luggage. His descriptions of unloaded racing bikes covering speeding kilometer after kilometer of the European countryside fired my imagination.
In the Fall of 1997, I asked Mauro if he would like to help me put together such a ride going from his home town of Concorezzo, just outside of Milan, to Assisi. He agreed to help and come along, at one point even volunteering to drive the van. As I started to plan the trip, however, the complexity a trip with a different city each day presented more logistical problems and responsibility than I wanted.
We came up with what I think is the perfect compromise. We chose three cities to ride from for two or three days each. Each morning we would do either a loop, or an out-and-back trip. This would give us a little chance to get comfortable and settled and to look at the art and architecture of the cities. In Italy, every city is a museum. Around each corner is a Signorelli or Raphael or Lorenzetti waiting for the lucky tourist. This is what would set the trip apart. After each ride, we planned to make a careful inspection of the art of the city we were lucky enough to be in.
We settled on three cities: Pisa on the Tuscan coast, Assisi in the hills of Umbria, and Siena, back again in Tuscany. All three cities shared a common cultural denominator. In the 14th century, all three were headed towards the renaissance, with superb Romanesque and Gothic art, supported by strong economies. Yet for various economic and cultural reasons, their progress stopped. They stayed in the middle ages. This would give us a chance to spend time with man on the edge of the modern.
My wife, Carol, volunteered to come along. Although she has toured California by bike extensively, she no longer rides. She does, however, do a superb job of keeping trips organized and keeps all of the chickens from running amok.
I asked Pat Brady, editor of Bicyclist if he would like to join me. I knew Pat appreciates a long, good ride. He likes to load the pockets with food, fill the bottles with water and go for hours at a time. He is also a charming, well-read man with an entirely different take on the world than mine. Having a different set of opinions along held by a gentleman that can discuss them without imposing them made the trip richer. I was able to learn far more than I would have without him.
Pat's story of our trip is scheduled to be in the October, 1998 issue of Bicyclist. It should be on the newsstands sometime in August.
Mauro agreed to come on our holiday as well. He has been everywhere in Italy and is a superb cyclist. I always enjoy time spent with Mauro (or any of the Mondonico family for that matter).
In planning the trip, Mauro saved me from a sure disaster. I tried to find a car to rent in Italy from the U.S. I thought that perhaps a large station wagon would do. Mauro put his foot down and insisted that we get a van, and a large one at that. I whimpered a bit at the cost, but assumed that he knew far more about this than I did. With three bikes and luggage for four, we were barely able to get everything in the large Fiat Ullyse van we ended up renting. He found an excellent deal for the van that reduced the cost by several hundred dollars from what it would have cost by making the arrangements from the U.S. The special promotion we were able to take advantage of was just not made available to the American agents of the rental company. If the reader ever plans renting a car in Italy, and has friends in Italy, I would suggest a little phone shopping from that end to see if a better deal is available.
Saturday, March 28
After a flight filled with the delays that so often happen with international travel, we ended up in our hotel just outside Concorezzo around midnight. A good night's sleep and a large buffet breakfast with delicious Italian coffee washed away the exhaustion. We called up Mauro Mondonico whose shop is just a few miles away and were almost immediately whisked off to the Mondonico shop. Awaiting both Pat and me were custom made bikes. Antonio had taken Pat's measurements at the Anaheim show a few months before (he has had mine for years), so the frame, stem, cranks, bars were all ordered to our measurements.
My bike: For the Torelli frame line, I have been searching for a frame that would retail for about $1,000. There is a huge gap in the price of Columbus' Brain and Neuron tubes (Torelli Countach OS and Express OS respectively). A lot of our customers have requested frames a bit superior to Brain, but have been reluctant to pay for Neuron. The solution I wanted to test was a frame made of Neuron with a Brain rear triangle. On paper, it looked like it should perform very close to a full Neuron tubeset . My frame was built to test this hypothesis. Mondonico had my Torelli "Super Countach" painted white with red and green trim. It looked beautifully Italian and went well with my Torelli red, white and green team clothing. Very snazzy.
I had it fitted with a 1998 Campagnolo Athena 9-speed group. Knowing the country were were going to ride in, Mauro and Antonio had recommended 13-23 rear cogs with a 39-53 172.5 crankset. As of this writing, two days later, this gearing seems perfect for both the hills of the Lakes region of Lombardy as well as Tuscany. A Torelli Roller headset was subbed, of course. The bars and stem were Modolo Q-Even. By mistake, Serena Modolo sent 8-bend bars instead of the Compact 6-bend I had requested. This threw off the stem calculation because the 8-bend bars have a longer reach on the drops. I took the bike as it was for the first day's ride.
The wheels were built with Torelli Triumph rims and our new Torelli PGV tires. Our French factory had sent the tires ahead for us. I brought my own seat and post with the insertion point marked. Since Antonio builds all of my frames, the new frame measurements were identical to my Torelli Nitro Express at home.
Pat's bike: Pat ordered a Torelli Nitro Express. The Mondonicos built it with identical equipment to mine. I brought along a Titanium Rolls saddle in my luggage for Pat. With the long miles ahead, no one wanted to try a new saddle and Pat knew a Rolls saddle worked for him.
For some time, Antonio had been encouraging Pat to ride a 60 cm frame, a bit bigger than he had been riding. This was an excellent chance to see how Pat would do on a completely custom fitted bike whose criteria are based on Italian sizing theory. Italians ride slightly bigger bikes than Americans. You rarely see an Italian riding a road bike with a super-long mountain bike seat post. The conservative Italian approach to fitting puts the bars at a point that allows the rider to ride comfortably, without being cramped or reaching too far down. Italians do not like to have a large height difference in the bars and the saddle which is the result of riding a frame that is too small. This also keeps the rider's weight well distributed. After riding long miles, even on terrible roads, (the exception for us in Italy, but they are out there) one's back is not hammered.
Antonio fussed and tinkered to make sure that Pat's seat height, stem insertion, etc. were correct. Antonio wanted to put Pat's seat a little lower than he was used to. Pat took the suggestion, to start.
An additional treat for the first day's ride was the addition of Giuseppe Mondonico, Mauro's younger brother. While he was not planning on coming on the whole trip, he was came with us for the day. I had never ridden with Giuseppe. I only knew him as a nice man that studied piano at a conservatory. I didn't have a clue that he was the excellent rider he turned out to be. Both Mauro and Giuseppe had Mondonico EL-OS Monostay bikes, Mauro's is built with Shimano Dura-Ace, and Giuseppe's with Campagnolo Record.
A quick fill-up of all the water bottles and a final click to tighten the shoes, and we were off. Mauro usually takes me almost due north to the Madonna di Ghisallo with the famous church dedicated to cycling. I asked for something different that still included a trip to one of the lakes north of Milan. He settled on Bellagio, a city at the most northern tip of the land that fits between lakes Como and Lecco. The warm weather allowed us to ride without tights or leg-warmers, adding just arm warmers and a nylon shell for the morning coolness. Just a week earlier, a freak snowstorm had hit the area, courtesy of El Niño. Now, all was warm and serene.
As we rolled out of Concorezzo (situated on the northeast edge of Milan next to Monza), we headed in the direction of Lecco. The traffic was heavy, but what a difference between American and Italian drivers. Italian drivers are unfailingly courteous to cyclists. Even on the narrowest of roads one feels safe. Cars go far enough around to give one a feeling of security. They is almost never do what I call, "threading the needle". This is the move in which opposing drivers and a cyclist come together simultaneously and the driver going in the cyclist's direction feels the absolute, cosmic-force-driven-necessity to go through the small hole between the rider and the car coming in the other direction without slowing down. Losing a fraction of a second would be unthinkable. It happens to American cyclists all the time. In Italy, the driver slows and waits until there is room. If a horn honks from behind, it is not a belligerent, "get off the road" blast. It is a warning toot that a car or truck is behind and will be passing. The smaller, nimbler Italian cars make maneuvering in heavy traffic easier, but Italian truck drivers are careful as well.
Along the way, there are several small climbs. It became obvious that Giuseppe was a rider to be reckoned with. Both he and his brother have the smooth, perfect pedal stroke that can make a rider look so elegant. He attacked the first switchback climb with effortless gusto after pulling for miles at a time. I jumped after him, but backed off on the longer climbs, knowing that we had scheduled almost 700 miles of riding. The legs would get heavy soon enough. My jet-lagged body seemed weak and heavy for the first couple of hours of the ride.
Just past the city of Lecco, at the southern tip of Lake Lecco, we entered a series of very long, dark, smoky tunnels. When we emerged from the last tunnel, we were on a very narrow road that ran the length of the lake. There was just a bit of mist hanging over parts of the lake, but the opposite shore could be seen clearly. There was very little traffic as we wound our way to Bellagio, always with the lake at our side. The pleasure of riding with three strong friends in such a beautiful setting is hard to describe.
At Bellagio, before turning around, we stopped to take some pictures. The man we asked to do the photographic honors immediately started to ask knowledgeable questions about our bikes (8 speed or the new 9 speed? Why are you wearing the red, white, and green of the Italian champion?). We headed back the same roads we came in on. It was every bit as perfect on the way back.
With about 40 kilometers to go, Pat and I started to feel the weight of the jet lag melt away, so we started to pound. We hammer-dogged it on home arriving at the Mondonico shop with 110 hilly kilometers under our belt.
The shakedown showed that I needed either a shorter stem or to replace the 8-bend bars. Antonio had a set of 3T Forma SL in just the right width, so while we were getting everything else ready, he changed the bars. Pat, Giuseppe, and Mauro had found the "Criterium International" on the TV. Imagine, after a beautiful, hard ride in the hills on a custom made bike by one of the world's few remaining master builders, we got to watch a fantastic pro bike race finish right there in the master's home. We were happy.
As we loaded the van, with just the slightest difficulty in squeezing everything in, I thanked Mauro for is foresight. With four people, three bikes and all the luggage, the van was completely filled. The cycle clothing seems to add an exponent to the amount of luggage we needed. A few good-byes and arrivaderci's and we were off to Pisa.
After a drive of about three and a half hours, we stopped just inside the Pisa city limits for dinner. The walls of the restaurant had pictures of racing cyclists, so of course we asked about them. We learned that the cook was an ex-pro. Curious to learn about the local roads, we quizzed him after dinner. He tried to be as courteous as possible, but he had far too much food to cook to indulge us. We thanked him and made our way to the Hotel Kinzica, almost next to the famous Leaning Tower and Cathedral.
Sunday, March 29
Another perfect day, starting in the high 50's and ending in the mid 60's. The perfect temperature for riding. Cool enough to keep you sharp and from sweating gallons of water, yet warm enough to allow bare-legged riding. I personally find tights and leg-warmers odious. After seeing Pat on his bike, I told him that I thought Antonio had missed his slightly toe-down pointed style of riding that I thought necessitated a slight seat rise. He ended up putting it just between his old height and where he was yesterday. Goldilocks found this jussst riiighhht.
We planned to ride north to the ancient city of Lucca then east to Montecatini, then south to Fucecchio, then west to Pisa in a big loop. Just out of Pisa near San Giuliano, there is a gentle switchback climb. Halfway up the climb, ten miles out of Pisa we had to stop. The view was breathtaking. The Cathedral and the Leaning Tower showed through the morning fog down in the valley of the Arno River. The Sunday roads had few drivers at eight in the morning, so the ride to Lucca was very fine. No matter how nice the drivers are, cycling is always better without cars. At Lucca we rolled into the city center to see the 13th century cathedral. Like the Pisa Cathedral, the Lucca Cathedral has a facade of superimposed galleries of columns, typical of Tuscan Gothic.
My very impression upon entering the old walled part of Lucca was that it has a feel identical to Florence, but without the "touristic" feel caused by millions of tourists swarming over the city for centuries. I'm sure I was seeing the similarities of old Tuscan cities, same building styles, etc., but the similarities were surprising to me.
After an eyeful in Lucca, we headed east for Montecatini, the famous spa. We weren't planning on a mud pack, or taking the waters, but it did seem like a good place to turn south. Riding through Montecatini we met a cycling club of about fifteen men. We joined them, sitting on the back of the pack. They rode very fast through the crowded city streets, weaving in and out of cars as if the fifteen riders were one. I wondered that if they sped through a crowded city this fast, what kind of speed would we be going when we hit the country? When we got out of town, I found that my fears were groundless. We went about the same speed out of town as we did in town. After a few miles, we parted company. They had given us some nice words of advice on how to get where we were going.
Since the ride was going so fast and easy, we decided on a little detour to Vinci, the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci. Before the turnoff near Puntoni, we met another club, all looking sharp and well turned out as Italian cycling clubs always do. These were all riders of at least fifty years old. They were not going much slower than the last club we rode with the younger cyclists. Once again, they were very helpful in getting us on our way to our goal, suggesting roads with little traffic that might be pleasant and beautiful to ride on. One rider made a long detour to make sure we made it to a special road he knew we would like.
On the back roads to Vinci we got our first taste of rolling countryside with no cars. Only olive groves, vineyards and pastures and an occasional farmhouse. Perfect.
Vinci works very hard selling Leonardo, even though Leonardo left town a young boy. Everywhere you look is a reproduction of some drawing of his. This is a small complaint. Vinci is perfectly placed in a little valley surrounded by farms. Much should be forgiven of a city that is this pretty.
From Vinci, we headed through Fucecchio, back to Pisa. Since we were either wandering around little roads or getting into larger cities and needing directions, we were constantly asking for help. Asking and getting directions in Italy opens a window to the Italian soul.
"Excuse me Signor, but which of these roads leads to Fucecchio?" (asked in Italian, usually by Mauro.)
"Where are you coming from?"
"We have just come from Vinci."
"Oh, that is a long way. Where did you start from?".
"We started from Pisa this morning and have been to Lucca and Montecatini.".
"Oh Lucca, a very nice town. Where are you going after Fucecchio?"
"We are going back to our hotel in Pisa, where we started from., but we need to find the way to Fucecchio. We don't know the area at all"
"Now to go to Fucecchio, go straight and turn left at the fork in the road. Are those bikes eight speed, or the new nine speed?".
"They are the new nine speed Campagnolo. Thank you very much for your help. You have been extremely kind.".
"Don't mention it. Have a good ride."
This is a severely abridged rendition. Notice that this is not an anonymous encounter, with a few short words, and then everyone goes his way. The kind gentleman wants to know us, talk to us, and learn about us. Sometimes it will take a few minutes to get directions. Not because the way is difficult or complex, but because of the courtesies required of both sides by Italian etiquette.
The last thirty kilometers were against a headwind, but it was quite flat because we were running right along the valley of the Arno as it heads from Florence and out to the sea. Total distance, 132.7 kilometers.
That afternoon, after tasty plates of pasta we toured the piazza that holds the famous leaning tower, cathedral and baptistery . The Pisans have been working for hundreds of years to find a way to keep the tower from leaning any more. Built on soft ground, it started to lean while it was being built. If you look at the top story, you will see that it inclines away from the direction of lean. This was done to no avail. Lately, it has been tilting at about one minute per decade. Now, counter weights have been put on the base of the tower to stop the tilting. Carol says that this solution, unattractive to look at, has succeeded. The entire tower is fenced off while the work is continuing. I had brought an angle gauge to personally measure the tilt, but that will have to be for another day.
The cathedral has the same style of facade as in Lucca. Galleries of columns, one on top of the other, in the Tuscan style. The whole cathedral is sheathed in marble, some of it from Roman buildings quarried in less sensitive times, when there was little or no respect for antiquities. One can read pieces with Roman inscriptions here and there. This is one reason so many ancient buildings are in ruins. They make a perfect source of building materials.
It appears that both the baptistery and Cathedral suffer from being built in the same soft ground as the tower. I don't think there is a straight line anywhere in the cathedral, and to my eye, the Baptistery also leans a bit.
I'm told that the baptistery is actually taller than the tower, but my eye won't believe it. Made of white marble, the bottom is in Romanesque, and the upper stories are in Gothic. Pat said that if he tried to submit such a design in architecture class, he would be given the boot. Yet, the effect is very pleasing to the eye. Altogether, on a big grassy square, the three buildings make as perfect a sight as I've seen anywhere in my life. In most European cities, the church buildings are crowded in the city center with houses crowded right up next to the giant edifices. The city planners of old Pisa made a brilliant move by placing the Cathedral at the edge of town next to the city wall, where there was room to spread out.
A warning. If you can avoid it, don't go to Pisa to see the sights on Sunday. The crowds are unbelievable. Like Venice, it is the perfect day trip, and it looks like the entire peninsula of Italy gets the same idea at the same time on Sunday morning.
That evening, we asked the hotel if it would be possible to stretch the check-out time a little past noon. We were told no. With that in mind, instead of planning a trip around a loop or to and from a particular point, we just decided to head out to Volterra and turn back after two hours.
Monday, March 30
As is often the problem when exiting an unfamiliar big city, finding the road out was difficult. After several wrong turns, we ended up on the 206 highway out of Pisa, headed south, towards Rome. The traffic was moderate to heavy until the turnoff to Livorno when most of the cars and trucks exited. Livorno, known to the English speaking world as "Leghorn" is a major seaport. We turned off the big road at Toretta and headed inland. What an immediate difference. Quiet farmland laced with little roads beckoned us onwards. We were deeply sorry that we only had a little time to ride here. At Casciana Terme, we headed north until 9:30. Then, with a slight bit of regret, we headed back to the barn the same way we came. Twenty kilometers from Pisa, we caught a strong solo rider. As we passed him, being on the back of our group, I waved for him to join us. In a second, he was on my wheel and we had some more horsepower. Pat and I started to pick up the pace and our new friend responded with gusto, skillfully pulling through at exactly the same speed. Just inside the city, as I bounced over some railroad tracks, a little disaster struck. The bar binder bolt snapped, actually striking me on the cheek. My bars were loose in the stem. I could safely maneuver the bike, if I rode carefully. We passed a road pro shop, but of course, it was closed on Monday. I limped home with Pat and Mauro. While they showered, I tried to find a road shop.
The hotel desk clerk sent me to a nearby shop on the bank of the Arno, just a kilometer away. The shop owner looked everywhere in his store, but had nothing for me, being (yes, in Italy!) a mountain bike shop. He did give me the name of the local road bike specialist. I returned to the hotel to call and ask if this shop ("Centro 2 Route"- Two-Wheel Center, if you are ever in Pisa) had the means to fix my bike. He did, but alas, like almost all Italian retailers, he was closed until 3:30. After a lunch of pasta at a restaurant serving tourists with good food with appallingly bad service, we decided to take a drive on the route we took by bike to show Carol how pretty the countryside was.
As we traveled, a new realization came to me. It is absolutely impossible to properly appreciate the true beauty of a place, a road, or view, by car. I think the speed, the inhibited view, and maybe the glass and the noise of the car all interfere with esthetic sense as it tries to take in the surroundings. We all have some appreciation for this. When there is a view, we stop the car and get out. This is but a start. To really see the world, one must travel by foot or bike. The impact of the beautiful road we had cycled on that morning was negligible when we returned by car. It was just another nice road.
We lose so much, sitting in our little steel boxes filled with amniotic stereo and air conditioning with cupholders to hold our stimulant drugs, zooming around oblivious to the world. Also, in our cars we generally behave rudely to our fellow humans, doing to them what we would never dream of doing if we were to meet them face to face.
We arrived at Centro 2 Route early, wanting to get the fastest possible start to the repair. The owner came twenty minutes early, waved us in, and immediately started to work. Generally, when a stem is to be changed, the mechanic will undo the tape on one side, remove one lever, slide off the stem, put on a new one, and reassemble the bike, often reusing the old tape. This gentleman took off all the tape and removed both levers. Both Pat and I were surprised. But pleased to be getting the job done, we said nothing. As he worked, it became clear why he was working this way. He was a careful, meticulous workman.
After the bars were removed, he cleaned the glue from the old tape with solvent. It was obvious that there was grease in the steering tube from the last stem. Not good enough. He regreased it. The stem bolt was thoroughly greased. Bolts to everything were greased and securely tightened. He taped the brake and gear cables against the bars with an ancient roll of orange Tressorex. He said it was over twenty years old. Waste not, want not.
When he put the cork tape on my bars he did not use the finishing tapes. Instead, he used Super Glue. I was surprised. He asked me if I wanted to have the two finishing tapes put on. I asked him if he thought that they were necessary. He called them garbage and made a motion towards the trash can with them. I told him he was the boss and so they were tossed. I have been riding the bike now, at the time of this writing for several days, and will never go back to using the trim tapes. When the weather is warm, the trim tape glue gets a little soft and the tapes slide a bit inward. The sharp edge of the stiff trim tape is just a bit irritating to me. There is no hint that the super-glued tape wants to come loose. One is never too old to learn.
[For more photos in and around Pisa, click here. Please note: this page is full of photos, and will probably take a while to load. There will be a place on the photo site to click to come back to this point in the story.]
We loaded the bikes back in the van and headed to Assisi. The Hotel Fontebella is inside the city walls, and like almost all of Assisi, was undergoing repairs from the earthquakes. Everyone at the hotel was full of kindness. While I think they had an obligation to let us know in advance that there were extensive renovation works going on, I don't think I have met a nicer staff, more willing to help in any of my travels. This wasn't the big city expensive "grease my palm and I'll do things for you that you don't need" officious type of service with five or six open palms as you make your way to your room. This was a sincere, human, and very Italian desire to make our stay pleasant. While we were checking in, our bags were taken to our rooms. No bellhop, no open palms. We asked for an early breakfast so that we could get on the road. It was done. We wanted to leave a little late on the last day so that we could ride longer, and no begging was needed. "But of course". I wanted to send a fax. They were miserable and abjectly apologetic that their fax machine was broken. They would take it to a friend in the morning to send it. And sent it was. I look forward to returning to the Hotel Fontebella.
Tuesday, March 31
A perfect, slightly cool spring morning greeted us. We decided to ride north to the ancient town of Gubbio and back south through Gualdo Tadino. Leaving Assisi is a straight down affair, since it is, like so many little Italian towns, built on a hill top. Bouncing off the rough stone pavement, we exited the city gate and rode on the flats for a few miles. As we got away from town, and the already light traffic thinned, we were greeted by the nicest riding any of us had ever had. Ever. The Umbrian countryside is indescribably beautiful. If one stays off the roads between major cities, the traffic is almost nonexistent. There is almost no level ground. The undulating countryside gives the rider a new picture-perfect postcard view with each cresting of each new hill. The occasional switchback keeps it interesting. We were packing 39-23's, but only once did we need them on the whole trip. Almost all the climbs were done in the 19 or 21. More on the only exception later. After climbing a hill on a lonely road in Umbria, the thrill of a descent at speed combined with the realization that we were in this exotic place filled us with joy. That's the word, joy. The descents were generally engineered so that only a light touch of the brakes are needed. Sometimes one can pedal in the big gear downhill for miles.
From miles away, we could see Gubbio up on a hill with its palaces and city walls announcing its medieval presence. A large outdoor market crowded the entrance to the city with crowds of people looking over the fresh produce the farmers brought in. We wandered up and down the little tight lanes of the city on our bikes, taking a little extra time to see the Umbrian countryside from the Consul's Palace. A switch to the big ring and we were out of town and riding to Gualdo Tadino. This stretch is pretty, and if we hadn't been spoiled by the roads leading to Gubbio, we might have been impressed. But then Umbria had saved the best for last. The run from Gualdo Tadino to Assisi was stunning. Not a flat road in sight. We had one climb of about ten kilometers. We took it in the 21, but if we had been racing (and didn't have the accumulated mileage of the week in our legs), a nineteen would have sufficed. At the top of the hill, we rolled along the ridgeline, stopping every kilometer to take another picture. Then, another fast descent. The final approach to Assisi is through a valley in Mount Subasio Park. The hills were green, and we could see the profile of the castle of Assisi sitting on top of the hill, silhouetted in the distance. Unforgettable. Pat thought it the best leg of riding in his life. Who am I to argue? Distance, on Mauro's cycle computer: 106.7 perfect kilometers.
At lunch, we asked for extra large plates of pasta because we had been riding all morning. In Italy, the pasta is generally only the first course, served in a smallish dish, to be preceded by antipasto, followed by meat, vegetables, salad, etc. It is my general preference to have pasta, with a vegetable of the season if available, and a dessert of fresh fruit. So far, the request for big plates of pasta had fallen on deaf ears in the restaurants we visited to date. But here, jackpot! Mauro, Pat, and I were brought huge steaming plates of delicious pasta. We were in heaven. But, the owner of the restaurant, finding out we were serious cyclists sat down at the table next to ours and started to talk to Mauro. The man was passionately in love with bicycles. We were pleased to meet a fellow enthusiast, but then the "baby" pictures came out. Pictures of his bike, pictures of his friends on bikes, pictures of his friend's bikes. Then he wanted to know where we had ridden, in what gear, where we were going. It would have been nice, but poor Mauro wanted to eat and talk to us. The man spoke no English, so Mauro was his target. I was reminded of the old barbershop joke.
"How do you want your hair cut?"
Mauro was a perfect picture of courtesy, but believe it or not, he was glad to get out from the bike-mad restaurant. The rest of us had a perfectly fine meal that was up to the usual high standards of Italian cooking.
Another little note about Italian food. In American restaurants, fruit salads are often cut from fruit that is not quite ripe. Pieces of melon have a generous share of the bitter rind on them, rendering the whole bowl of fruit a tasteless disappointment. In the U.S., I occasionally ask the waiter or waitress if the fruit in the fruit salad is ripe. The usual reply, "of course," is from a waiter that doesn't care, and really would rather any question about the quality or nature of the food served go unasked. Now in Italy, every piece of cut fruit I have had over the years is ripe, and cut up in such a way as to be pleasing to the palate, served as I would have it in my own home. In Italy, one never has to ask if the food is fit to eat. That would be a gross insult, and a needless waste of time.
I once asked an Italian waiter what was good tonight. He looked hurt. "Tutto é bene" (Everything is good). That sort of sums it up.
We took a tour of the sights of Assisi, first going to the very famous Basilica of Saint Francis. It is built on two levels. The upper church with some of the most famous art is closed for repairs. The lower church was enough to make one quite happy, with paintings by Cimabue, Simone Martini, and frescoes designed by Giotto. I was most interested in the Cimabue "Madonna with Four Angels and St. Francis". I had seen reproductions of Cimabue in art books and never understood why he was so famous. The panel painting by him in the Uffizi seemed as stiff and primitive as any of the other Gothic icons. This fresco was a surprise. It was excellent. It was fine. I think it superior to anything that preceded Giotto that I have seen. It had more 3-dimensional depth, more sense that this was a picture of real people than any other painting of that era. This is all my personal feeling, and it completely contradicts the opinions of most critics. The Martini's and Lorenzetti's are fine, but that one square of little fresco was the best.
We wandered up and down the streets of Assisi on sore legs to see the other sights. All the other important churches were closed for repairs. Disappointing yes, but the narrow, twisting, labyrinthine streets of Assisi feel almost like a time machine. The ancient stone houses and churches transport one back hundreds of years. This, despite hundreds of years and millions of pilgrims coming to this little city on the hill. The sense of being in a bygone age is particularly strong in the early evening when the shops filled with kitsch (and most of them are) have closed.
Wednesday, April 1
We needed a heroic ride. A ride to sing songs around the campfire for years to come. A ride for troubadours and wandering poets. A ride that would be the stuff of epics. It was time to be Achilles, Ajax and Ulysses. We planned to ride south this time, down to Todi , then up to Montefalco, Bevagna and back to Assisi.
Breakfasts in Italian hotels come two ways. Typically, a couple of rolls and jam with coffee. If a rider is lucky, it will be a buffet with cereals, breads, cheeses, etc. If the reader is contemplating a cycle tour of Italy, I would encourage him to ask the hotel what kind of breakfast it serves. One cannot do hard physical labor with no gas in the tank. The first morning in our Pisa hotel, we managed to get extra rolls. The second day, with a far sterner woman running the breakfast room, we were allowed very little extra food. Rolling out for four or five hours of hard riding with a slightly overstuffed belly is a necessity
The road out of Assisi is a very steep descent on a bumpy pavement until the floor of the valley is reached. The cool morning brought just a bit of discomfort to our fingers, but that quickly went away with the warming sun. Once we were about twenty kilometers out, the first climbs were reached. Nothing steep, but we were forced to work hard because of the relentless succession of hills. Hour after hour we rode, climbing switchbacks with almost no traffic, then dropping down fast descents. Both Pat and I noticed that Italian road engineers are kind to riders descending on unfamiliar roads. Declining radius turns are almost nonexistent. I almost never had to correct my course in a turn because it became sharper halfway through. I still descended with far more caution here than I do at home, but I did feel far more secure.
As we crested the hill out of Duesanti, we could see the city of Todi off in the haze on top of a tall hill. We dropped to the valley floor following the signs to Todi. Around a couple of almost blind corners we were faced with the steepest, straightest hill I had ever seen. As I looked higher up the hill, it curved away so that I could not see the top. We knew there actually was a top because we had seen the city from a distance, but I was daunted. I looked at the gear I was in that got me this far, a 39-19, and wondered if I could actually get up there. We all gritted our teeth and began the climb. In the 23, I was out of the saddle with legs softened from the hours of morning riding. But, it was not my legs that were dying. My arms and shoulders were screaming from pulling on the bars. I swore I would not switch back and forth, that I would go straight up. After a kilometer, my resolve faded. I could not go straight up and with the ancient city gate in just in sight, I started to switch back and forth. I think Pat got the same idea at the same time. We got to the top with arms that wanted to fall out of their sockets. This was the only time that the 23 was inadequate. I would not have given up the closer gearing of the 13-23 in order to have a 25 or 26 to make this one climb, however. This was but a few minutes out of an eight day trip.
A few moments, Mauro came up, straight up, looking as elegant on the bike here, even in his agony, as ever.
"I have been disqualified," he said.
"I got off my bike for a few seconds to rest and a man drove up in his car and said to me, 'you are disqualified.' He was serious for a minute, then he started to laugh and drove off."
We were glad that we were not caught switching back. Who knows, maybe we would have been suspended, or had our mythical numbers removed.
After a good laugh, we rode to the city center. Another beautifully preserved medieval city, postcard perfect. We asked a group of old men how to get on the road to Collevalenza, the next point on our route. One old man, winking, grabbed my brake lever and asked me if my brakes were good (i freni? bene?) We left by a different road, and the first two hundred meters were an exciting drop. We rode the brakes bouncing of the old pavement. Then, we just rode along the ridgeline for a while with a nice slow descent, allowing us to get good use out of the hard-earned potential energy we saved climbing up to Todi. Then, more relentless climbs and descents. For some insane reason, Pat and I started to push the pace a bit. As we talked to Mauro, we learned that he was not kidding about having ridden only 250 kilometers this year before tackling this week of riding. Pat and I were dumbfounded. For him to be riding like this on so little mileage was humbling.
If it is at all possible, as we got closer to Montefalco, the countryside got even prettier.
At Montefalco, we reloaded on water and bought some rolls. Even with jerseys packed with chow and full bellies when we left, we had ran out of supplies. We were now starting to get toasted, but an epic ride must have an epic ending. When we hit the valley floor on the approach to Assisi, we put it in the 14 and started to cook. Mauro (the only rider with a cyclocomputer) said we spent the next forty minutes at 40 kph (about 25 mph). With Assisi in sight, and desperate for a shower and a plate of Ravioli (I fantasize about pasta when I'm tired and hungry and about to bonk) the road took a nasty turn AWAY from Assisi. I know, we were here for the ride, but we were done. Finished. We had seen the beautiful city on the hill for a long time and we wanted to be there, and be there now! But no, the road turned away and kept going away for a few kilometers. Finally, we turned and headed back. We flew up the hill that seemed to go on forever. When we reached the Hotel Fontebella, Pat checked his watch. Six and a half hours and we were still standing. Total distance, 150.5 miles of relentless and unbelievably beautiful hills. I should probably get out the Thesaurus and look up some synonyms for beautiful, pretty, gorgeous, because the reader will probably tire of this same old words used to describe this extraordinary land.
Italian restaurants generally close down for the afternoon. We thought that maybe in a tourist town like Assisi, we might get lucky (we meaning all of us except Mauro who knew that we would not find an open restaurant). We found a sandwich shop in the city square and started to get the chow going. "Ancora! Ancora!" we said as the sandwiches, rolls, and everything else they had was ordered. Finally sated, we felt like those lions in National Geographic specials that, having finished off the wildebeest, lie down under a tree, lick the blood off their paws and go to sleep. We staggered off, with no intention to seek any mental improvement by looking at timeless and beautiful art. It was after 3:30 in the afternoon, and we were done, except to think about dinner.
Since I had neither brains nor sense, I left my fellow travelers at the hotel and hiked to the castle at the top of the hill. It was a fine old castle with crenulations and steep, unassailable walls. The original castle on the site had been the home of Barbarossa in the 12th century. The present structure had been built in the 14th century. The view of the city from the hill and the surrounding valley made the climb worthwhile.
Thursday, April 2
Our toasted legs told us that this would be a day to take it easy. We decided to keep it down to four hours. With that in mind, we decided to ride to Monte Buono at the shore of Lake Trasimeno (Lake Trasimeno is famous in history as the site of a terrible defeat of the Romans by Hannibal in the second Punic War). We thought this would entail less climbing. It involved less climbing only because there were fewer kilometers. With the exception of the easy first twenty kilometers out of Assisi on the valley floor, the roads had as much up and down as before and was as much of the perfect Umbrian cyclists' paradise as we have some to expect. After almost a week of riding in this country, we still kept pointing out perfect vistas and beautiful views as if they were the first ones we had ever seen. Sometimes, someone would say, "Oh no, not this again." with a fake ennui. We never ended in glorying in our surroundings.
Another surprise. No flat tires. Between the three of us, we accumulated thousands of kilometers of riding, in busy big-city streets, on lonely country roads, on highways loaded with trucks and cars. No flats, not even a single tire cut. Some of the roads were in bad repair, and I worried that I might lose my pump or a porcelain crown, but the tires were unblemished. There is no broken glass on the roads of Northern Italy. The Europeans, being vastly more advanced than we are in America, do not have a throw-away society. The mountains of trash, with broken bottles everywhere are an American shame. When Mauro found that I had packed 15 tubes and six extra tires, he laughed and wondered why I would bring so many spares. I told him that in the U.S. I had been on rides in which I had run out of tubes and tires (I always carry a spare folding tire when training) and had to call Carol to pick me up. For Mauro, even riding in the outskirts of Milan, a flat is a rare occurrence. Before I left for this trip, my local club had been unable to get out of Camarillo two weeks in a row without stopping to fix a flat. I hope someday we will become as civilized and advanced as our Italian friends.
There is a demerit that must also be given out to Italy. Diesel fumes cause a smog that hangs over Northern Italy. Horrendous black clouds of it are spewed out. For the cyclist, this and the distasteful smell of two-stroke exhaust is constant irritant.
Out of the pulpit and back on the road. At Monte Buono, we turned back and rode the same way we came. It's been said many times that a road has a fresh look when ridden in the opposite direction. Very true. Also, we wanted to avoid the big city traffic of nearby Perugia. This time we came back on the road that gives the classic view of Assisi with the St. Francis Basilica's unique arcade of arches that underlie the church and makes it look like a Franciscan version of temple at Lhasa in Tibet. We were compelled to stop several times to take pictures.
That was it for Assisi. The day's ride, 95.5 kilometers.
[For more photos in and around Assisi, click here. Please note: this page is full of photos, and will probably take a while to load. There will be a place on that site to click to come back to this point in the story.]
We folded up our tents, climbed up on the camels and took out little caravansary to Siena, another city that time forgot. After its heyday in the 1300's, Siena let the world speed on to the renaissance and beyond without it. The great Sienese painters, with the exception of the painter descriptively named "Il Sodoma" were great before the renaissance and without the advances of the renaissance. Siena, like Pisa, was right there as much of Italy started to leave the middle ages behind, but they just didn't make the leap.
We arrived in Siena in time to visit the Cathedral. Its magnificent facade ornate with statuary, Gothic detail and gold leaf is food for a long look. Inside, the dark interior with its alternating bands of dark and white marble gives a cool rest from the bright outdoors, even with the relentless horde of tourists. The nave is pure Romanesque, while the clerestory is Gothic. We took a trip through a side door of one of the aisles to a room called the Piccololomini library. There, the, brightest frescoes I have ever seen greeted us. Painted by Pinturicchio in 1509, their bright vibrant colors make them look like they were painted yesterday. I found them particularly noteworthy in light of the recent discussions regarding the restoration of the Michealangelo frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Some scholars have argued that the bright colors that were revealed in the cleaning were artificial, and that this vivacity of color was foreign to the spirit of the renaissance. It was argued that the renaissance masters had purposely darkened their work with a brown transparent coat.
First of all, anyone who had seen the Michealangelo "Tondo" in Florence's Uffizi knows that Michelangelo painted in bright colors. A look at other paintings (including the painter Michealangelo most admired, Titian) shows an abundance of color. Then, to walk into the Piccolomini library and see this virtual assault of color is to know for certain that the geniuses who restored the Sistine chapel were absolutely right in what they did.
A trip to the Cathedral museum was next. There, according to most critics, was the greatest painting before Giotto, Duccio's Maesta. Whatever magic this painting has does not cast its spell on me. The painting is in a special room with chairs for people to sit and admire it. It looks to me like an advanced Sienese icon, better than the Byzantine versions of the 1200's, but I do not see this as the epochal masterpiece that so many claim it to be. I realize that the figures have more depth, and the Mary's robe is modeled with greater realism, but I remain unsold. For me, Cimabue stands well above him.
Friday, April 3
At breakfast, Mauro announced that he had a bit of pain in his knees. Common sense dictated that he not ride with us today. Pat and I set off to San Gimignano. Just out of town, Pat announced that he couldn't get his chain into the big ring. We stopped and looked at his bike. His fixed cup was coming loose. We rode back to the hotel. I suggested that we just find a 15 mm wrench somewhere and change pedals on Mauro's bike since they both ride 60 cm frames. Pat thought he would be better off resting. It would also give him an opportunity to get his bike fixed without interfering with visiting the art sites in the afternoon. Also, for his story for "Bicyclist", he wanted to climb up a tall tower to get a bird's eye view of Siena.
For the first time, I was on my own. Riding out of Siena and towards Rosia involved some little climbs, some in the big ring, and a cool, pleasant trip through a narrow valley. When Route 541 to Colle Val d'Elsa turned off, I was faced with a strong tailwind that pushed me through a series of valleys. The wind at my back was nice to have, but we all know the price to be paid later.
I can't put my finger on it, but cycling in Umbria was nicer than anywhere else. I don't know if the countryside had a gentler, quieter aspect. Even on the loneliest, prettiest road in Tuscany, I found myself comparing it to Umbria and thinking that Umbria was nicer. I don't know exactly why. The next day, when riding with Pat, I asked his opinion. He felt the same way, He affirmed in no uncertain way that Umbria was the cyclist's paradise. It's not that there was something unsatisfactory in Tuscany. Umbria was just perfect.
With the late start, I had to watch my time. The hotel didn't serve breakfast until 7:30, and Pat and I had made it clear out of town before turning back, so time was short. Knowing that they would wait for me, I didn't want to be responsible for keeping everyone from lunch, so I had to turn back a few kilometers before San Gimignano. A few years ago, I had visited this town of the beautiful towers, so I didn't feel compelled visit it again, pleasant though that would have been.
Turning back, the strong wind that had driven me to this point announced that I wasn't getting back to Siena without paying for my big-gear run. I didn't realize how many valleys I had passed through until I went back in the 53-19. Then each and every valley was long, and seemingly one of thousands that had to be traversed. Reaching Highway 73 headed north back to Siena, I got a tailwind again. Big-ring heaven as I descended through the hills and valleys. Not having Mauro's cyclometer, I estimated the journey from the maps at about 100 kilometers.
That afternoon was reserved for more beauty. We made the short walk to the City Hall, an imposing 13th century building that overlooks and dominates the giant, "D" shaped city square called the "Piazza del Campo" The Campo is big. Big enough that twice a year the Sienese hold a famous horse race called the "Palio" in the square.
Inside the Town hall were a couple of masterpieces, each worth a journey to the city. Most notable were Lorenzetti's "Effects of Good and Bad Government" allegorical paintings. Much is made of their artistic qualities, and this should not be ignored. But more interesting are the Scenes from the "Good Government" painting. It showed 14th century Sienese men and women going about their daily lives, farming, working, buying and selling as painted from a contemporary eye. While the perspective was primitive, and the figure modeling poor by modern standards, Lorenzetti put enough of the life he saw about him (like Brueghel, perhaps), that I could imagine myself working in those same fields he pictured. What more could be asked of an artist?
We then went to the Pinacoteca or art museum of Siena. It is the largest storehouse of pre-renaissance paintings I have ever seen. Room after room of crucifixions and Madonnas-with-child done in almost Byzantine style. My taste does not run to such things, but it is valuable as a window on the changes that happened as the art of painting advanced in Siena. In this museum, it is easy to see the technical advances stop. Sienese paintings contemporary to works of the Florentine high Renaissance were still locked in the 1300's style.
A short trip to the Baptistery was next. It is attached to the Cathedral, in the back. The Cathedral is built on a hill and the baptistery sits quite a bit lower than the floor of the big church. For me, the big attraction is the font with brass bas-relief's by Ghiberti, Donatello, della Quercia, and others Viewed side by side, the mastery of this art form by Ghiberti is obvious, even next to the work of a genius like Donatello. The three-dimensionality as well as the superior artistic composition of the Ghiberti panels was plain. The panels on the Baptistery doors in Florence are chained off so that middle-aged art-lovers like me with middling eyesight cannot really come close to the "Doors to Paradise". The Siena Baptistery allows for some nice up close scrutiny of Ghiberti's work as well as the chance to compare him to other renaissance geniuses.
Saturday, April 4
The last day to ride. We were having so much fun and the realization that this was the last day of the party was a bit sobering. We decided to ride out of Siena the same way I headed to San Gimignano, but to go to Massa Marittima. The Hotel imposed an 11:00 check-out that with a bit of begging was stretched to noon. A few mile before reaching our goal, we passed the old Abbey of San Galgano. I have a love of romantic, half-ruined buildings, and at San Galgano, we found the perfect ruin. We were there early enough in the morning so that we were alone, with only the sound of the birds. The roof was completely gone, as was some of the masonry. I wondered what caused the abandonment of what must have been a beautiful, working abbey.
A look at our watches made us realize that we would not have time to go the extra distance to Massa Marittima, so we headed back. The grim realization dawned on me that Pat was indeed well-trained and now well-rested. He went to the front and pulled up and down hills, getting out of the saddle in the big ring over the top each time. I gritted my teeth, feeling the difference between my hours of riding and Pat's rest each time he surged over a hill. He had said that he wanted to really wring out his Nitro today, wanting to thrash it as hard as he could. I don't know about how hard the bike felt pushed, but I was digging deeper and deeper with every kilometer. When we reached the outskirts of Siena, Pat pushed the climb ever harder. Finally, with the city gates in sight, he jumped and opened up a gap between us. Damn.
[For more photos in and around Siena, click here. Please note: this page is full of photos, and will probably take a while to load. There will be a place on that site to click to come back to this point in the story.]
With a heavy heart, we loaded the bikes into the van and headed back to Concorezzo. We had one more surprise left. Upon reaching Mondonico's house we could hear piano playing. Giuseppe Mondonico has spent years studying at a piano conservatory in Verona, but he never let me hear him play, no matter how much I begged. We had talked music many times (we both shared a deep admiration of the late Glenn Gould). I had even sent him cassettes of recordings that were of mutual interest. I never got to hear him play. As we walked up to the house, Mauro put his finger to his lips to keep us silent. We walked in the room and surprised our prey. Caught in the act, we were then treated to Beethoven's Moonlight and Pathetique sonatas, Chopin's Heroic Polonaise, some Schubert, and other assorted treats, all with seats two feet from the piano. What a beautiful end to a magnificent trip.
We did our good-bye's and headed off to the hotel to pack for an early morning flight.
We learned a few things on this trip that will make the next trip better. The first was that breakfast is not generally available until 7:00 in the morning. I hadn't taken this into consideration because usually when I travel, I sleep a bit late. But for cycling, given that it takes a while to eat enough to go ride for four to six hours, we didn't hit the road until 8, instead of 6:30. This meant that we had to watch the clock if we wanted to eat in a restaurant when we got back.
Perhaps more important, is that anyone that comes along without riding, like my wife Carol, doesn't have much of a trip. She says it was pleasant enough, but with so many hours riding, eating and showering, there wasn't a lot of time for sight-seeing or other adventures. Also, half of the afternoons are transfer days, in which after cycling and eating, we load the van and head off to the next city. Carol, who is always ready for the next adventure, said that the pleasures of the trip for a non-riding member were not worth the discomfort of transatlantic travel. If I go again, she may not come along.
City size. There is an optimum size of city. If it is too large, one spends far too much time getting in and out of town, sharing roads with lots of traffic until one reaches the smaller country roads. Assisi was perfect. Walk out of the Hotel in the little city, drop down to the roads leading in and out of town and everything was perfect. Siena with about 50,000 was on the outside edge of the ideal size. The city must be large enough to have a few hotels and restaurants, and perhaps some other services. Pisa was too big.
Region. I think there are just too many people living in Lombardy, so the roads are crowded. While I do not fear Italian traffic, a lonely road with and occasional car is far more pleasant.
The cost of such a trip is modest. We took advantage of off-season fares. If the cost of a van is shared, the 10 days come out to about 1,500 dollars including airfare at 1,800 Lire to the dollar. I challenge anyone to find a more rewarding way to spend both time and money.
Equipment. The Super Countach was everything I had hoped it would be. It was bit more resilient than my Countach at home, yet it retained the solid feel that characterizes the Countach. It had that bit extra I ws looking for. It isn't hugely different from the Countach /Brain, just a bit better. I was also very, very happy with then 1998 Athena 9-speed group. Everything worked with precision, requiring only a light touch. I think a group that works this well for such a low price gives the rider a chance to get a better frame than he might have oitherwise considered. I think there is no problem putting this group on any high-end frame. I would not have made this recommendation two years ago. The other item that left me well-pleased was the PGV (Pneu Grande Vitesse) tire set. This was the first of our second-generation version of the PGV, and the total absence of flats and cuts coupled with a superb ride left me smiling.
I think my week in Tuscany and Umbria might well be the finest week of my life. Hard physical work, delicious food, beautiful art with a dollop of music. The perfect week. I can't wait to go back.
Pat Brady is working on his story of our trip (with color pictures) for Bicyclist magazine. Look for it in the October, 1998 issue. It should be on the newsstands sometime in August.