Cycling in Tuscany
It's a dirty, hard, thankless job. But someone has to do it.
"I don't even know why you're asking. I assume you've already got the entire trip planned in your head."
I took that as permission. If the door is opened a crack, drive a truck through as soon as you can.
I did have the trip planned. Of course I did.
- I am I, Chairman Billy,
- The lord of Torelli.
- My destiny calls and I go.
- And the wild winds of fortune
- Shall carry me onward.
- Onward to glory I go.
Ha! Italy, I'm coming! Fire up the espresso machines, get the pesto ready and cook the spaghetti. I'm on my way.
I'll admit it. I'm rotten to my friends. For the six months before I go on my annual Italian cycling trip, I am so filled with anticipation it's all I can talk about.
Once I come back, because I had so much fun, for the next six months the trip is all I can talk about. I'm a boring guy. But, this is my idea of perfection on earth: 10 days of cycling in Italy, eating the most delicious and healthful food in the world and wandering around in a country that is also the most magnificent art museum in the world.
My original plan for 2002 was to invite Mauro Mondonico, of the famous Mondonico frame building family, to come to California for a Vuelta so that he could enjoy our American wonders. Our schedules made it difficult to securely plan the trip, so we cancelled the California Vuelta until 2003.
Complicating things were a few health problems on my part. But the day after Christmas I was able to start riding again. Once I felt sure that I could continue riding, I made plane and hotel reservations. Mauro was still not sure if he could join me. I am a believer of positive outcomes from positive expectations. I set everything up as if we were all going to travel as we had in years past. And, sure enough, I got an e-mail in February from Mauro that he would be joining us.
Each year, in the first week of April, Mauro Mondonico and I (carefully chaperoned by my wife, Carol: there has to be an adult along on these trips to keep my mother from worrying too much) pick three cities in Italy to use as bases for exploring the countryside on good, long rides. We listen to the birds, look at the fields, say hello to the Mamas going shopping and usually try to crush each other into utter exhaustion as we enjoy the gentle slopes of the Appennines. If I can usually beat Mauro up the hill, he always returns the favor by dropping down the other side like the very devil himself. He leaves me far, far behind if I start the descent with him. We finally decided that he was indeed, the devil. So, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Prince of Darkness, Mauro: it's all the same guy.
But, I digress...
For this trip, we decided to stay entirely in Tuscany. John Mulholland, brother of Owen Mulholland who contributes so much to our website, has a second home in the Mugello Valley, north of Florence. John has been urging me to ride up there for some time. Well, the time had arrived. We picked the little tiny town of Ronta, about 30 kilometers north of Florence. If you have a map, go to Borgo San Lorenzo, then north a bit more. That little dot is Ronta. Three days here should be just the ticket. It will be over Easter weekend, so no business is possible. Just riding and resting and eating.
The next city we picked is one that Americans never visit. Massa Marittima, a walled, medieval town in southwest Tuscany, is just a few kilometers in from the sea, sitting due south of Volterra.
Our last city was to be Cortona. In 2001, on a ride from Montepluciano, we rode through Cortona. It was a stiff, leg-breaking climb, but the city seemed to be perfect. It's small, clean, pretty with lots of history and art.
What bike to take? I've always brought my bike home with me after my cycling vacations. So each trip, I have to bring it back to Italy with me. This, of course causes no end of anxiety and aggravation during the entire transport process. The greatest worry is at the luggage claim area. After the suitcases have arrived, there is always a fifteen minute or longer wait at the bulky luggage pickup place at Malpensa (Milan) airport. Did the bike get on the plane? Did it make the transfer at Zurich? Is it folded in two? Am I going to have a walking vacation?
Discussing this with my father, he brought a simple bit of logic to the process that had eluded me, his dumb Irish son. "Why don't you just leave a bike over there?"
Seems simple. Thinking back now, I'm a bit embarrassed at how much work and worry I caused everyone to go through. On very rare events my father has been able to enlighten me, or somehow improve me. He's patient, and has hope that with more work, I may somehow eventually turn out all right. Others are not so sure.
With that in mind, the bike choice became simple. Of course, it would have to be a steel bike with a steel fork. I want to enjoy the comfortable ride with the snap and jump that only steel can provide. And nothing tracks like a steel fork. I am a sensualist at heart. The entire point of the trip is to delight all the senses. I'm not about to shortchange myself looking for a few grams. The Super Countach Antonio built for me for my 1998 Italian trip was perfect. The 0.5mm wall Neuron tubes were light, yet strong enough for any abuse that might be expected.
32-hole cross-three wheels are the only things I use. Those high-tension, deep rim wheels don't have the resilient feel and comfort a traditional pair of wheels have. And who the hell can fix them on the road?
I kept it 9-speed. 9-speed is everywhere. I have had enough trouble trying to find simple high-end pro parts like a Record or Chorus bottom bracket in Italy, I didn't want to make things even harder. I decided to use a crank that required a 111 spindle. Every shop will (or should) have a cheap Mirage or Veloce bottom bracket somewhere, even if it's on a bike on the showroom floor. I wanted the bike to be as easily repairable as possible. The problem with using both a belt and suspenders is that isn't enough to keep me from worrying about dropping my pants. I take the same approach when I travel. I worry like crazy and try to anticipate as much as possible. Then once I get on the plane, my trip is without care.
My fitness was not as good as I would like, since I had only twelve weeks to train from zero. The 13-23 and 39-53 still seemed like the proper choice.
So, my simple, easily repaired, good riding bike was packed for its last trip home.
Jim Couch, owner of Spoke and Sprocket in Tacoma, a strong rider and all around good-guy agreed to come along with us and fill the empty seat in the van.
Saturday, March 30, 2002
An astonishing thing happened on our flight. We flew Swiss Air. We were scheduled to depart at 3:00 PM. And sonfagun, at three on the button, we not only pushed back, but also taxied out to the runway. Stranger things have happened, but not much stranger than a jumbo jet departing for a transatlantic flight on time. And, there was more. The service on the flight was extraordinary. We were in the cheap seats, not up in the expensive, pointy part of the plane. It's easy to find the time to give good service to those paying top dollar. Giving good service or good, fair product to those who have less to spend is the challenge. Nice job, Swiss guys!
Flying to Milan via Zurich has a huge extra thrill. The connecting flight from Zurich to Milan is about a 35-minute hop in a little commuter plane. The flight over the Swiss Alps, just barely clearing the mountain tops is almost worth the entire ticket. What a spectacular, close-up view of snow-covered mountains and deep valleys with little villages!
At Malpensa (Milan) we picked up our luggage, and after about twenty anxiety-filled minutes, the bike arrived in perfect shape. For the first time in my life, I was stopped at Italian customs and grilled about my bike. The agent didn't want to go to the trouble of opening and inspecting the bike. He did want to question me over and over, making sure that it was a used bike for cycling in Italy, not a new bike made elsewhere being imported. "Why would anyone in his right mind bring a new bike made somewhere else to leave in Italy?" But, that was his job.
Waiting on the other side of the customs barrier was Mauro. Gosh, this makes life easy. Being met at the airport by a man with a van, ready to speed us off to our first stop is about the greatest luxury a traveler could have.
And it gets better. We arrived at the Mondonico house, and who insists upon getting the bikes ready for the trip? No one but master bike builder Antonio Mondonico. While Antonio put his master's touch to the bikes, I asked Gabri, Antonio's wife, for the other work of art that comes from the Mondonico house, her coffee.
There is no coffee like Gabri's. It is simply the best. We had spent a day in a fetid, hollow aluminum tube filled with people, that if you met them in a bus station, you would get up and leave. Now, we're in Mondonico's spotless house being fed cookies and flagons of delicious Gabri Java while Antonio fine-tunes my bike...Well, I'm a lucky dog!
There is a constant stream of visitors at the Mondonicos. I don't know how they get any work done. Fabio comes by in the middle of his ride to see what's going on. Another older gentleman comes by and talks bikes and racing with Antonio while Antonio works on my bike. There is just a constant buzz of busyness about the place.
We loaded the bikes into the van. We have this down to an exact science. We place each bike, without wheels, into a large plastic bag. We have a box of those cheap plastic gloves that they use in sandwich shops, so that no one gets dirty. We use a little zip lock sandwich bag on each freewheel to keep the rear wheel from spreading any grease. This usually isn't a problem on the first day, because the bikes start out immaculate. But after a week, they get a bit "sporco" (dirty). This way, the rented van as well as the occupants remain "pulito" (clean).
We hit the road with Mephistopheles at the wheel. As the number one driver for RCS Sport, the promoter of the Giro, Milano-San Remo and all the other important Italian races, Mauro is far and away the finest driver I know. I just sit back and enjoy the scenery. We headed to Bologna on one of the most ancient roads in the world, the Emilian highway. The route from Milan to the Adriatic coast was used by the Romans thousands of years ago. Today, paved, with all the modern comnviences, it's still called the Emilian Highway.
We turned south at Bologna for the pass that cuts through the Appennines to Florence. Hungry, we stopped for dinner at one of the huge restaurants that are built like giant bridges over the highway. Since we were on a toll road where we cannot exit or enter easily, you would normally expect a terrible, American chain-restaurant type meal. We are captive customers. But, we are in Italy. The very worst food one gets in Italy is OK. I've never yet had a bad meal in Italy. I wish my Italian friends could say the same thing about their visits to the U.S.
I've said this before in other tour diaries, but I still find it amazing. The fruit salad was made from ripe fruit! I really shouldn't find this so surprising. To sell a diner a fruit cup made from unripe fruit half made up of rind is fraud. Yet we Americans all put up with it. No Italian would. The simple pleasures of life are too important to be wasted. I think this particular point, being able to get a good, tasty, well-made meal at a roadside diner owned by a giant corporation sums up what I like about Italy. It's an imperfect place, all places filled with humans are. But one can expect that the most important things in life, food, family, time away from work, be treated with respect.
We arrived at our little hotel, "La Rosa" in Ronta in the early evening. Waiting for us was our good buddy, Valeria Paoletti, who had just finished her doctorate in Geophysics. Her research is on the geophysics of Vesuvius, the volcano that covered Pompeii. We call her Lava Girl. She had ordered a new Mondonico bike and we were bringing it to her for it's first ride in the morning. Once again, I had another friendly face to greet us in a place far from home.
Valeria had brought a very precious cargo in her Fiat Panda. She had 1.5 kilograms of mozzarella di bufala from Campania. She had picked it up fresh from the cheese maker that morning. No American knows how fine this cheese is until he has traveled to Southern Italy and had the special, gently pungent flavor caress is taste buds. The mozzarella cheese we get here tastes, in the words of Antonio Mondonico, like an eraser.
Lava Girl brought more. She had a giant tub of Lemon Gelato made from the special Amalfi lemons. These lemons are almost the size of my head. Cooks in Italy prize them. When I traveled to Pompei with the Mondonicos a few years ago, Gabri made sure that she had a good stash of Amalfi lemons to take home with her. This was a gourmet fest, for sure.
We got settled in our rooms and the kind owner of the hotel, Signor Zoppi, (more about this good guy later) got out dishes for us so that we could have a fine dessert out of Valeria's lemon ice. Oh, that's so good! Now I know I'm really in Italy. It's wonderful to eat food made from food, not made from a chemistry set.
Sunday, March 31, 2002
We four, Valeria, Mauro, Jim, and I met for breakfast. There was a plentiful buffet: breads, yogurt, cheese, meats, cereals. Valeria bit into a piece of bread. "Tuscan bread! No salt," she said. Made without salt, bread in Tuscany has a distinctive bland taste.
The cool morning air of the newly born Spring bit into our fingers and nipped at our cheeks as we descended down the hill from Ronta south to Borgo San Lorenzo. The weather report had promised a partly sunny day in the 60's. This was looking like an unkept promise. The sun, when it did poke out, gave a dusky light through the clouds, but did not warm. We were all a bit underdressed for the weather, so we pressed a bit harder, even if our bodies were still stiff with last night's sleep and too much breakfast.
It is a seven-kilometer descent from little Ronta, north of Florence, to the main east-west road. We eagerly waited for level ground so that we could do some hard work and warm our bodies. Lucifer always seems to handle the cold so much better than anyone. I have a theory about where the heat comes from...
We arrived at Borgo San Lorenzo and turned east, to follow the Sieve River to Dicomano. Valeria looked sharp on her bright, new Mondonico Orange bike.
Our plan was to make a 100-kilometer loop in the San Benedetto Alps, the Appennine Mountains that sit slightly northeast of Florence.
"But why do you always go to Italy to ride?" my friends ask me. "There are so many places to go. You should explore other countries. Besides, you should visit such-and-such-place, my personal favorite."
I think I can explain the allure with a single example. In 1998, I was riding with a friend on the road between Siena and San Galgano in Tuscany. We went over a series of grunt-hard big-ring hills. Our competitive juices were flowing. We were both trying to hammer each other into the ground. Being well matched, it wasn't happening. We both kept trying to dish out more punishment to the other guy. Neither of us would crack. Sweating buckets as we crested one small hill riding side by side, we were ripping the pedals out of the cranks. An Italian mama, perhaps in a black dress, came up to the side of the road. Just as you see in the Giro, she started clapping her hands at us, shouting "Vai, Vai" urging us to go still faster like any race-crazed tifosa. She became part of the sport.
I was moved.
Does anyone in America reading this think that it is even remotely possible that this could happen in the U.S.? If an American Mama did see us, it would be from behind the wheel of some obscenely huge SUV. She would juiced on a 5-gallon latte and be talking on the cell phone, just missing us as she drives her fat little game-boy playing children to school, angry that cyclists would be taking up HER space on the road. Don't get me started. You know how I get.
No, in Italy, a rider on a bike is respected, treated with unimaginable courtesy and given his share of the road. Pull into a bar (coffee shop, actually) in bike clothes and you immediately have several friends interested in your bike, your ride and your hometown. This is the place to be with a bike. Actually, it is the place to be.
Being cold and jet lagged, we had a little trouble getting our pace line organized. But we finally figured out how to ride bikes. After leaving Borgo San Lorenzo, the road became empty of cars and we started to warm up. We had a 4-plus hour ride planned and we were looking forward to it.
Riding along the Sieve River, we passed one of the most important places in art history. There is a little stone bridge, still standing. There Cimabue, the first modern western painter found the boy, Giotto, scratching pictures with a rock. Immediately recognizing the titanic talent the boy's doodles represented, he apprenticed the physically ugly genius who has given us all so much beauty.
There it is again. Another reason why I love Italy. Not just for the art of Giotto and Cimabue. But for the fact that the bridge still stands. In Italy, a country with the most advanced technologies, the very old and the most modern can co-exist side by side. In the U.S., we tear down anything that is a few years old because it cannot yield the maximum return on investment. We aren't the only ones. Besides the Isle de France with Notre Dame Cathedral there is almost nothing of medieval Paris left standing. The beautiful limestone facing of the great pyramid at Giza has been removed and is now part of a mosque. Yes, the Italians have looted a lot of their past, but there is so much that is left standing, protected, giving a sense of history and culture that is unequaled.
Heading up the first gentle climb to Dicomano, we all started feeling good. Then I heard a crash. I looked back. Jim was sliding with his bike across the road!
In a minute or so we had the forks straight enough to ride. The frame looked fine. The rear wheel was a complete pretzel. Jim found a place in a road barrier that could act as a vise and started prying with all his might. In a minute or so, the wheel was almost usable.
With Jim still smarting from the fall and all of us chilled to the bone, we got the bike back together. A few spoke nipples were twisted and what looked like a wreck was now a member of the walking wounded. Nice job, Jim!
Mauro and Valeria set out to finish the ride while Jim and I rode back to the hotel. Jim's bike wobbled and shook. The bent wheels gave him an unwanted massage, but we went back up the hill to Ronta at about the same speed we left.
Seeing that Jim was fine, but sore (and in the hands of my wife, Carol who has nursed me through my share of crashes without complaining) I headed out north, going counter-clockwise to meet Mauro coming the other way on the loop.
It was switchback with 5 to 12 percent climbing all the way from the start at Ronta. As I climbed the hills, I noticed that the trees, bare of leaves from the winter, were just starting to bud. The steep sides of the valley had netting to keep rocks from falling on the road. The deep valley had a river rushing through it. Occasionally a waterfall was right at road level. I couldn't ask for more.
Alone in this little forest road, I was reminded of the first lines from Dante's Divine Comedy:
- In the midway of this our mortal life,
- I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
- Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell,
- It were no easy task, how savage wild
- That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
- Which to remember only, my dismay
- Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
- Yet, to discourse of what good there befell,
- All else will I relate discovere'd there.
- And so I, well past the midway of my life,
- relate what I discovered here.
If the Divine Comedy is too much of a handful, but you want to have the pleasure of reading Dante, a pleasure no literate person should miss, I might suggest his "La Vita Nuova". Penguin has a good English translation. Dante describes important moments in his younger life and the poems they inspired. He also analyzes the poems, explaining why certain passages were written a particular way. After enjoying this slim book, you might get the bug and tackle the last great writer of the Middle Ages and his greatest work.
After about 12 miles of jet-lagged climbing, I noticed that I was just out of gas. I've got seven more days to ride. So, reluctantly, I turned the bike around a little after the summit (1,144 meters.) and headed back to the barn. The long descent was fun, and since I didn't have Il Diavalo Mondonico pushing the pace to insane speeds, I made it back in one piece.
I took a quick shower. I learned that Signor Zoppi, "Mr. Hospitality", had made an ice pack for Jim's wrist. I went outside to bask in the little bit of sun that was out. Then Mauro came steaming down the hill in town, grinning from what was probably a crazed downhill speedfest. Prudenza, Mauro, prudenza!
Now, lunch. This is Easter Sunday in a Catholic country in a small town in the hills. The few restaurants in town were completely booked with family banquets. We had no choice but to get in the van and drive until we found food. Foraging for food took us about an hour, but we found a packed trattoria. They said there would be a wait, but they would work us in.
In all the din of the noisy, packed restaurant, Valeria explained that she had Mozzarella di Bufala fresh from the cheese maker in Amalfi. The restaurant, understanding how special our cargo was, happily provided plates and cutlery for us to enjoy a delicious antipasto even though they weren't selling us the food. Just another friendly bit of Italian hospitality.
Monday, April 1, 2002
This is Pasquetta, the day after Easter, another Italian holiday.
I went out early in the morning for a stroll. The din of the birds singing in the little valley at six in the morning was unbelievable. A million different birdcalls filled the air. The streets were deserted as the sun came up. The trees were just showing the first buds. There was a winter feel to the landscape, but the birds were shouting that the rush of spring was about to begin.
Mauro and I were the only ones riding today. The day was cool again, but clear and beautiful. We planned an out-and-back ride to Borgo San Lorenzo, Dicomano and as far along to Poppi as time would permit.
After Dicomano, the road climbed and climbed. I was starting to get my legs back after the trip. Neither Mauro nor I felt like doing hard work. We just rolled along in the small ring, switching between the 21 and the 23. Since Mauro drives in the important Italian races, he has an endless store of stories. He was fresh from Milano-San Remo and the Sicilian weekend, so he had just been topped off with experiences the rest of us would die to have. All Italy, even those that don't particularly like him, was thrilled with Cipollini's Milan-San Remo win.
After a couple of hours of hard, but not too hard work, we turned the bikes around and headed back. Once we hit the flats around Dicomano, we saw a club riding up to catch us. They caught us just at a rise. These guys were flying up the hill. I dug deep, hanging on for all I was worth. Mauro, feeling frisky, sprinted off ahead. After the hill, the club rested. I rolled off the front of the group to catch Mauro. But these guys weren't slowpokes. They came right back at us.
Holy smoke! These were all old guys. Every head had gray hair and wrinkles. I felt right at home with these tough, old riders. We cooked as we rolled down the road faster than any Italian club I have ridden with.
I made friends with one of the riders, introducing myself as an American and Mauro as a Milanese.
"Ah, è in Toscana! È molto fortunato!. Il vino, la cucina..."
Mauro started to laugh. "Listen to him. The first words out of his mouth are about the food and the wine and how lucky you are to be here."
"Yes, Mephy, but the guy is right."
The bridge where Cimabue found the boy Giotto drawing
Now Jim had never been to Italy and he was just 30 kilometers from Florence. To be this close and not see the great city would be a crime.
We told our friendly hotelier, Signor Zoppi, our plan.
"How are you going to get there?" he asked.
"We're going to take a bus or a train."
"You have a van, don't you?"
"Yes, but the parking in Florence is terrible. We could just a take the bus and end up at Santa Maria Novella, right in the heart of Florence."
Signor Zoppi, ever the good guy, said that on Pasquetta, with the bus and train schedules iffy, we would be much better off driving. His family owns a hotel right next to Santa Maria Novella. We can park the van in the hotel garage for free. He called his cousin in Florence and made the arrangements for us.
We planned a two and a half hour walking tour of Florence, just wandering around with our hands in our pockets. No lines, no galleries. Florence is a fine outdoor museum and there is enough to keep any art lover occupied for days without ever going into the Uffizi or Academia.
The Tour almost set itself up. I planned a walk from the hotel through the Renaissance heart of the old city and up to the Piazzale Michelangelo for a spectacular finish.
Santa Maria Novella, the church hard by the Florence train station, doesn't draw the tourists in volume like the other sites. This is a complete mystery to me. There is a now restored fresco by the revolutionary master Massaccio and a beautiful cycle of frescoes by Ghirlandaio. It is said that the young apprentice Michelangelo ground colors for Ghirlandaio here. This church is almost like a Ginzu knife commercial. You would expect frescoes by Ghilandiao and Massaccio and be happy with that. But wait, there's more! Paintings and sculpture by Giotto, Della Robbia, Orcagna, Brunelleschi and a façade by Alberti are included at no extra charge. I'm sure I've skipped some of the riches of this single building. If memory serves me (and it does on rare occasion) Santa Maria Novella was where the young men and women met on Boccacio's Decameron to plan their escape from the plague.
But, time is passing and we are being very un-Italian by rushing past all this beauty.
On to San Lorenzo, with its rude, raw, unfinished exterior and it's beautiful, perfect, Brunelleschi designed serene interior that is so comforting with its clean, clear, beauty. There are a couple of Donatello masterpieces there just to keep us on our toes. The Medici chapels are also here, but they are closed, and the line to get in usually stretches to Austria.
Then we hoofed to the great Cathedral of Florence with its mighty dome. I never get tired of just walking around this red, white, and green striped monstrosity. It does just what the men of Florence planned it to do centuries ago. It is so big and imposing that one comes away with a respect for the vision and determination of these men to build something truly great. The magnificent, perfectly proportioned dome gives me pleasure every time I see it, even if Da Vinci did call it a "birdcage".
Next door to the cathedral is the ancient baptistry with its three sets of doors, each with a series of priceless, magnificent bronze panels. We take a quick visit to the baptistry to see the famous Ghiberti doors as well as the
Detail of one panel on the Baptirstry door, by Ghiberti
Ah, but we must keep moving.
To the Piazza della Signoria, the town square, passing Orsanmichele, an old granary converted to a church. Inside is an incredibly ornate tabernacle by Orcagna. The ancient city hall with its distinctive tower dominates the Piazza. There is also bad art here. Ammanati's terrible fountain has offended esthetes since the days of Michaelangelo. Here in this square Savanarola was burned and Michelangelo's David was displayed. Cellini's magnificent bronze "Perseus", holding out the head of Medusa stands guard in the Loggia.
Over the Ponte Vecchio, the only remaining old bridge over the Arno in Florence. The crude exterior of the bridge always leads one to be utterly surprised by the really elegant interiors of the jewelry stores that line the bridge.
Ponte Vecchio, Florence
This and the Ponte Vecchio photo above courtesy of Valeria Paoletti, Fresh & Naughty Girl Productions.
Florence, seen from the Piazzale Michelangelo, softened by the late afternoon light.
Tuesday, April 2, 2002
The ever so kind Signor Zoppi had made it clear that we could check out late without any problem since this was the off-season and the workload was low. I think the other reason he didn't mind our checking out late was that he is a good guy and wanted us to enjoy our stay. But we had places to go, things to do, eggs to lay, worms to scratch. We had to be back from our ride by 11:30 in the morning.
We planned to cut directly west over to a parallel north-south road, this one to Firenzuola, by heading through a valley by way of a little farmer's road. As usual, we could not find the little road, so we headed down the hill to Borgo San Lorenzo and then east to catch our north-south road. We found little traffic even though this is the road that feeds from the Autostrada.
Just a few kilometers into our northward journey traffic ceased almost completely. It was just Mauro and I and
Well, Mauro can prove that he was there...
I looked at my watch. Time to go.
I knew Mauro had been thinking about this descent during the entire climb. The road was in good repair, clean, with nicely banked curves.
We set on down the hill. I felt like Tosca, just before she hurls herself from the Castel Sant'Angelo.
"Mephistopheles, Avanti a Deo!" I called to him as I threw myself down the hill. (Mephistopheles, we meet before God!) He couldn't hear me. He was already out of sight.
I got down to the bottom of the hill to meet a refreshed Lucifer. I think he had already had a Coke, a rubdown, and talked to a few girls on his cell-phone by the time I arrived.
We had the bright idea that we could catch the small east-west cross-valley road from this side.
We saw the sign to Grezzano, the first city along the way to our missing little road. Fantastic! We've got it figured.
We passed the famous Mugello Speedway. I don't understand. Here was a modern, huge facility designed to attract tens of thousands of fans. It is fed by a road that is only one lane in places. I'll bet chaos is a gentle term for the traffic when the races are on. Some things in Italy will always remain a mystery to me.
One of the first signs of an inexperienced or intolerant traveler (often one and the same) (Mark Twain wrote that writers that use lots of parenthesis are incompetents who can't organize their thoughts) is a desire to change the way a foreign country does things. Why don't these stupid people do it the way we do it? Whenever I travel, I hear tourists mutter about this or that bit of silliness committed by people in foreign lands. Of course, they have no idea how stupid we look to them. Second, if they were like us, why the heck bother going there in the first place?
This reaction can happen to even the finest minds. Goethe's first reaction upon arriving in Italy was to wonder why the Italians didn't organize their lives in a good German fashion. Over a period of months he came to appreciate the wisdom of a different culture and see that it was this very difference that nurtured and created the beauty that he so loved in Italy.
You can follow the great man's mental and physical journey. Goethe's "Italian Journey" is well worth the time. His Italy is not very different from the Italy of the 21st Century. We have cars and computers, they had horses and quill pens. The people are same. And the people he met: Cagliostro's family, Lady Hamilton (later the mistress of Lord Nelson) among others, turn the diary into living history.
Did I digress?
At Grezzano, feeling a little time pressure, we found ourselves stopped. The road ended. We asked everyone, and they all said that this road went nowhere. We had it on the best authority that the road did indeed go somewhere, waving our copies of TCI maps to no avail. We headed back and found another sign to Ronta. Eureka!
We asked a nice man for confirmation. He said that road did indeed go to Ronta, and that the other road we wanted to take in the first place was a dirt road. OK. We headed down a VERY steep little, tiny road. We crossed an old bridge and jumped out of the saddle to get over the next hill.
As we looked around the corner, the steepest hill I had ever seen stared back. No, glared back. The gear that would get us over the hill hasn't been made.
Mauro...caught him walking...
After that, we were able to stay up on our bikes and ride to Ronta. The road exited into the city, but there was no sign saying that this was the road to Scarperia, which would have been the sign that this would have taken us to Firenzuola. No wonder we couldn't find it!
Only 74 kilometers, but we were gassed! In these mountains, we sure aren't setting any land-speed records.
While we were out riding Valeria had taken Jim into Borgo San Lorenzo to get his bike fixed. Jim got a pair of used Record 10-speed wheels with Marchisio sprockets. Awfully close to what he had. He was in business again.
We loaded up our bikes and paid our respects to Signor Zoppi of the Hotel "La Rosa". I'm coming back here again. This is a beautiful place and no hotelier cares more about his clients than Zoppi. Thanks again for all your help! Arrivaderci!
We also said good-by to Valeria. We put her brilliant orange Mondonico into the Panda and bid her farewell. Valeria discovered that I am more than slightly irritated by having lipstick planted on my face. This was a dangerous piece of knowledge for this fresh woman to have, the consequences of which are quite predictable
Ciao, Lava Girl. You are a fresh and naughty one! But one of the nicest people I know.
The next stop: Parentini Clothing. Gianpaolo Parentini and I have known each other for years. He's given me Parentini shorts to wear to my enormous satisfaction. OK, they are the best shorts I have ever ridden. They wear like iron and I hardly know they are on me. Last year at the Milan show we decided to get serious. We are his agent in the U.S. for custom club clothing, and will steadily increase our offering of his stock shorts, jerseys, cycling underwear, etc.
Not only does Gianpaolo make the finest clothing I've ever used, he is a genuinely nice man. He's charming, affable, friendly, helpful, all that I could ask for in a supplier or a friend.
His factory was on the way to Massa Marittima. Gianpaolo said that it was absolutely obligatory that we stop by to visit him and that he have the privilege of feeding us lunch.
We met him at the door to his factory in the little Arno Valley town of Cappane, near Montopoli. As we drove to the restaurant, he explained in no uncertain terms that I must come here to ride. For such a nice, sweet, gentle man, he does seem to lay down the law an awful lot to me. He pointed out exactly where I should ride and how perfect it would be. I couldn't fault his logic.
We pulled up to the restaurant in the sleepy village. The place was about empty. The owner showed us to the tables. Did we want to eat outside, on the patio? I usually like to eat inside. I chill easily...but...then we walked out to his patio.
My jaw dropped.
We were set on the side of a hill with a panoramic view of rolling hills and valleys that reached far off into the misty air and disappeared.
I looked and Gianpaolo and the owner after they asked me if I wanted to eat here.
"È obbligatorio," I said.
"To not eat in this extraordinary place would be a crime," I told them, "The angels themselves would weep."
And then the food came.
I won't blather on. But as we left, Jim said that was the finest meal of his life. Perhaps mine as well. The very fussy Mauro appeared to be quite satisfied as well.
Then, we headed back to the factory.
We met Mirko who does a lot of the brilliant designs for the custom clothing. I started to tell him how happy everyone was with his work.
"Don't tell him that!' Gianpaolo said. "Now he'll be spoiled."
Gianpaolo showed us the workshop where everything is all carefully hand-sewn. I have been to clothing factories where the workers slam the pieces of clothing through the machines, working as fast and hard as humanly possible. At Parentini clothing, each woman at her machine was working carefully and methodically, completely unhurried. In addition to creating superior clothing, it was also a decent place to work. It matters to me that the companies that supply Torelli are places I would want to work at. Each step of the way, Gianpaolo showed his fanatical attention to detail. Quality is never an accident.
Gianpaolo and I also figured out exactly how to make a super pro bib short for the American market. We're going to use his finest y-shaped chamois and his ultimate materials to make the best possible pair of shorts in the world. They should be here by late May 2002.
We drove on to Massa Marittima, an ancient city in Southwest Tuscany. We checked into the hotel and then went about the final chore of getting Jim on the road. We had to straighten his fork some more.
It took the three of us pulling with all of our might. As we did this, I had a terrible fear, that as we gave one of the blades a real pull, it would keep going and fold on us. We were lucky. We got the fork straight enough so that the bike rode reasonably well.
Unfortunately, the head tube ended up with a bit of a twist, so the bike wasn't perfect. But, an imperfect bike on an Italian holiday beats a perfect bike almost anywhere else.
Wednesday, April 3, 2002
Being in Massa Marittima, close to the sea, we were a lot warmer. After a breakfast of lukewarm coffee (we really should have asked the porter to do a better job of getting the coffee ready), rolls, cheese, and pastries, we were all ready for a fresh assault on the roads of Tuscany. Today, we planned to ride almost due north towards Volterra. In 1999, we had ridden from Volterra on this same road towards Massa Marittima. We liked the ride so much we decided to break Mauro's ironclad rule: never ride the same road twice. Ah, but one forgets things over time. What I forgot was that while this road is pretty, interesting and devoid of traffic, it is cruel to those that think it is a road to be trifled with. The road climbs and descends relentlessly. There isn't a flat or straight 200 yards to be found.
Wearing only windbreakers and arm warmers for extra warmth on a not unpleasantly cool morning we headed out of town. That always means down. Massa Marittima is stuck on a rock 1,200 feet high. This renders the city safe from roving Viking marauders and exhausted cyclists.
Once we reached the Mucini Plain at the bottom of the hill, the first few miles were flat or only very slightly uphill. There was no wind. The farms along the side of the road had well cared for olive trees and an occasional small vineyard. The rest was devoted to growing some type of grass to be harvested later as feed. The fields were freshly planted and the rain had done its work. The earth was covered with a sea of green broken up with the occasional silver and green-leafed olive orchard.
About 10 kilometers into the plain, it stopped being a plain. We weren't greeted with a gentle slop. This was a CLIMB. All three of us dropped to the 39-23 and set about the task of getting over the first obstacle. We must have climbed for a good 5 kilometers before it leveled a bit. From then on, we went back between the 39 and the 53 every couple of minutes.
I had promised myself that I was going to take it easy today. Just a nice easy tour, rolling through the hills of Tuscany. Somewhere, a little evil voice whispered, "See what the other guys are made of." I took off, hammering for all I was worth, forcing my friends to chase. We just flew. Big ring, little ring. Big ring, little ring. We raced down one hill and up another. Then, a high-speed descent. At this point the street sharply narrowed into a little town. When I come to busy little places like this, I just let Mauro go. I know Carol has the insurance paid up. She still encourages me not to die just yet while following Lucifer on a flaming descent. With the cars coming and going, the mamas with their shopping bags, no one is expecting a trio of espresso-crazed cyclists streaking through the village at mach five.
About two-thirds of the way we came to Larderello. It's a city with geothermal works extending for miles and miles. Viewed from afar, it is an infernal look about it. Appropriately, the valley is called Valle di Diavoli.
No time to look. Press on! We arrived at Pomerance, at the top of a hill, of course.
We check our watches. It was time to turn back.
I got off my bike for a minute to stretch after about two hours of all-out effort. I slowly straightened, gently noting to my mates that the ride seemed to have been a bit intense. I wondered out loud about some damn fool who was to blame for this insanity. More than anything, my attempts at attaining some slight resemblance to erect posture was a source of great glee to them. I think they have a very low threshold of amusement. I should find a better class of friends.
We aimed our bikes due south, and headed back over the Metallifere Hills, so named for their rich stores of ore, mined since the middle ages.
The hills were not any flatter for our having ridden over them once. Somehow, they became steeper. "Once more, into the breach," I think Henry IV says. The same with us. Once more, over the hills, through the Valley of the Devils, through the Metal-bearing Hills.
The air had become cooler as we rode away from the coast on the way out. As we approached Massa Marittima, the air warmed. And then, a miracle happened. We got a downhill tailwind. In my life this is pretty rare stuff. I took the opportunity to just back off and roll down the road. This was nice, and with the green pastures and the branches of the olive trees swaying in the wind, I wanted to relish it.
Soon enough, we arrived at the base of the hill. After four hours with the pedal to the metal all I could think of was a shower and spaghetti. Yet, to fulfill that simple but deeply desired goal we had to get up the hill. I may look for a city in a valley next time.
It was just 53 miles, but I think that stretch of highway 439 is just about the most perfect road I know for riding a bike. It took us 4 hours of the hardest effort any of us could remember. Damn, this is good fun!
That afternoon we went to wander around what was a really clean, neat little town. Almost all the tourists were Germans. Massa Marittima made its money in
The Duomo in Massa Marittima
The new town (built after the Sienese captured the city: everything is relative), which required a calf-searing walk up a very steep hill, has a tower and the remains of a fortress the Sienese built. It's the historicity of the city that's so compelling. Our hotel was next door to the 14th century birthplace of Saint Bernardino.
Thursday, April 4, 2002
We planned a loop that would get us back before noon, circling counter-clock-wise from Massa Marittima, with Massa Marittima at the 10:00 position of the loop.
Mauro found the correct road that led us down a very long, narrow descent. The road was just about wide enough for one car. The trees grew over from the edges of the road, almost meeting each other in the center of the road. No cars, just three fools coasting downhill for kilometer after kilometer. We arrived in Capanne. It looked like a regular little town, with a couple of factories, but there was not a soul to be seen. How strange. Was this some Italian version of Brigadoon?
The roads in this area are almost devoid of traffic. There are more stunning places to ride, but few are more pleasant.
After a shower and the usual plate of spaghetti, we loaded the van and drove to Cortona.
Friday, April 5, 2002
Rest day. Carol and I are a sick as dogs. We slept all day in the hotel, venturing out only for meals.
Saturday, April 6, 2002
I can't believe it. I felt a bit human again, already.
I arrived in the hotel's breakfast room a little early to have a cup of coffee and read the paper. As I scanned the paper, indignant over the reports of the day's carefully accumulated and reported tragedies, Paolo Guerciotti strode in. As usual, he looked happy, healthy and Italian movie star handsome. No one fills a room like Paolo does with his good cheer. We've been friends for over twenty years, and I look forward to each meeting. He was already dressed to ride. A quick look at his huge, powerfully muscled legs reminded me that this was a former champion of Italy. If he were fit, this could be a hard ride, indeed. When we talk on the phone, his line is always, "Bill, when we ride again, I will break your legs!" He looked like he could do it.
Since my condition, being barely out of a sickbed, was questionable, we chose a flattish ride. We would ride down to Lake Trasimeno and do a counter-clockwise circle of the lake and then climb back up to the town.
The weather was about perfect; cool enough to require only arm warmers and windbreakers at 8:30 in the morning. We should be able to peel off the warmies after an hour or so and be comfortable.
After the switchbacks down the Cortona hill we ended on a rather dull road with more traffic than I like. After about twenty kilometers we separated from the main road and ended on a little Tuscan country road. Olive trees were everywhere. The grapevines were just starting to bud. As we rode, Paolo gave us a constant commentary, waving to oncoming riders, helloing the pretty girls (of course, he's Italian!), cursing the very rare badly behaved driver, just full of animal good spirits. It's hard to have more fun that having a ride with Paolo Guerciotti.
Paolo, Bill, and Mauro ride near the shore of Lake Trasimen.
We peeled of our outer garments and started to ride a bit harder. It was a good day to be alive. We came off one descent and were on the flats (after Torricella, I think) when I heard a loud "Pow". I looked back. Paolo had a flat. In all my years of cycling, that's the second flat that has occurred in my presence. I've never had one in Italy.
Mauro set to getting Paolo's tubular off the rim. It seemed to be glued on with some high-strength epoxy. It took all Mauro had to get it off. We got a new one on and I started to pump it up with my new Silca frame pump. As the air leaked off the gasket with each stroke, Paolo yelled, "Silca Gasket!" Ah, but Campy doesn't make pump ends any more.
Back on the road, the sky darkened and the air got colder. We were at about the one-o-clock part of the lake. This is the famous place in Roman history where Hannibal destroyed the Roman army.
The drops started to fall. Lightly at first. I thought we might get back with just a bit of drizzle.
Of course, the entire time, Paolo was getting calls on his cell phone. After the 5th call, we told him that we were on vacation. Business was forbidden. We started to climb the steep approach to Cortona. Paolo's phone rang again. "Don't answer it!" I called. Non c'e! (Not here!) Good-natured guy that he is, Paolo let it ring.
We got to the hotel, soggy but warm. 53 fun, but not terribly strenuous miles.
Lunch with Paolo Guerciotti. Paolo has been involved with cycling for a long time, at many levels; pro racer, manufacturer, distributor, sponsor. The wealth of stories and anecdotes just keeps coming. He knows so much and so many people, just the slightest reminder gets the story machine going. Sometimes it's about negotiating the price of a sponsorship or trading Ferraris with a factory owner. His memory is filled with the little details about famous races. One almost forgets the food.
It was with no small regret that we loaded his bike into his car and sent him back off to Milan.
Sunday, April 7, 2002
The fog clung to the ground in the valleys. The air was cool and heavy. We descended the Cortona hill with a bit of care; the roads were still wet from the evening's drizzle. When we got to the bottom, I felt a sensation that I had never known in Italy, the insecure feel of a soft front tire. It had finally happened. After almost twenty years, I got my first flat in Italy. Probably something stuck to the tire from the wet roads. Well, I can take a flat every twenty years. We got me aired up and we were back on the road. We had a big oblong east-west loop planned. We were going to ride over the hill that stood in our way, cross into Umbria and turn north just short of Umbertide. We should have a bit of flat road until a stiff climb to over 800 meters.
We never really got our legs warmed before the wall arrived. It seemed a bit early for its appointment. The hills in Tuscany are made so you can never get a sense of when a hill's summit has arrived. You just keep going around another corner to see the road rise around yet another corner. Jim was sure that we were riding in an Escher landscape. The end of the climb did come and we ended in a pretty farm valley, but we didn't take too much time to enjoy the landscape.
The temperature was about 8C (46F) with very damp air. Like riding near San Francisco, the only defense was to ride hard to stay warm. Even though we were well dressed, slathered with warming embrocatrions and oiled to a fare-thee-well, we were still cold.
Here's a thank-you. Rebecca McCauley of Qoleum sent down a supply of embrocations, Antifriction and Pre-sports oil so that we wouldn't have to burden our luggage. I didn't look forward to explaining a metal bottle of Pre-sports oil that looks a little like a bomb to one of those extremely bright individuals that screen airport luggage. Thanks, Rebecca.
The sun would occasionally peek out and give us hope. Then it would retire behind the clouds. This is sunny Italy? This is a country whose most memorable song is that hymn to the sun, "O Sole Mio."
As we reached the apex of the trip and turned east back to Cortona, the Sunday Club riders started to appear. Gosh, they all looked good. We saluted them. They waved to us.
No one was going our way, though. I would like to think that was because we were going far too fast for any club to catch us. Probably they were too smart to hit the climb to Cortona in the direction we were going. This was going to be a tough twenty-plus kilometers.
The fog burned off a bit. Once were a couple of hundred meters up, the pretty Umbrian and now Tuscan farms with their green fields edged with shrubs and trees reminded me why I love being here. At any level, be it a salad with the tomatoes perfectly placed, a bicycle nobly built or a field planted to fit the contours of the earth; Italy is an artistic masterpiece. But you've heard this from me before.
After an eternity, I saw the cherished goal, the sign "Passo di Gilardi". "Passo" should and usually does mean that the crest of the hill is at hand. Mauro and Jim sprinted for all they were worth.
Ah, but cruel, cruel, Italy...So beautiful, yet so hard.
The road continued to rise for several kilometers more.
Then we whipped on down the hill, and actually had the pleasure of approaching an Italian hill town from above.
For the afternoon, Carol and I did a little tour of Cortona. We were again reminded that every little town has some magnificent art treasures. The Italians spawn these works of genius as a frog does eggs. In Cortona, the little museum
The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico (XV century), Diocesan Museum, Cortona
Look at the steet at the end of this walkway; you can see what I mean by a steep town.
Monday, April 8, 2002
This is the hardest day of the trip. The last ride before going home. We decided to go on the flattest road we could find, which meant an out and back to Frantoia. I had completely underestimated how tired I really was. Good fun is a lot of work. After sending Mauro and Jim off without me, I just sat up and rode through the countryside at about fourteen miles an hour, sans souci. Since we had to get back to the hotel to check out, drive back to Milan, pack Jim's bike and I don't know how many other little chores, I turned back after a little more than an hour. But, at that moment, alone on a Tuscan country road, I felt no urgency. I wanted these last minutes to last forever.
Of course, as we drove back to Milan, Mauro and I discussed our next cycling trip. He says that the Dolomites are still open for riding just before the Milan Eicma cycle show in the fall. Excellent!
Mauro's coming to California in the late winter or early spring next year, for sure, to ride in our California paradise. I told him to come when he can't stand the terrible Milan weather anymore. Whatever weather we have in California, I guarantee that it will be better than the frozen, wet misery that Milan dishes out to its people in winter.
Come on over, Signor Mephistopheles.