Since coming home last month (May 2007) from the Venice to Pisa ride with ExperiencePlus!, I’ve been telling all my friends it was the best vacation I have ever had. Their reaction is usually undisguised surprise. I am not known as an athlete to my friends, and riding 30 miles a day for 10 days doesn’t sound like something I would do, no matter how much wine is promised at dinner. Suddenly, I’m a cycle-touring convert.
I am a fair weather cyclist. Occasionally, I ride the 3 miles to the river, pedal the bike path for an hour, then go home to eat my ice-cream while congratulating myself on my big achievement. In the past these rides were never over 12 miles, even when I had the urge to go one bridge further before turning back. I don’t own a cycle computer or shoes that attach themselves to pedals. White sneakers, hiking shorts, and cotton t-shirts are fine for these sunny day sightseeing rides. But last year, a friend came back from Italy raving about her great adventure, promising even I would love it: the biking is beautiful, the food unforgettable, and the tour company takes care of you like no other tour company could.
I’ve always wanted to go to Europe; not alone, but not in a country-a-day tour group either. So I looked up my friend’s suggestion at www.experienceplus.com. The “Venice to Pisa” tour is rated one level up from beginner (201), and, with its day off in Florence, it covers the two cities in Italy I most wanted to see: Venice and Florence. Many years ago, I rode a flat 25-mile event in Palm Springs, with no training at all. I wouldn’t have been able to sit on a bike saddle the next day. Still, I thought I could have ridden all day if I chose a mellow pace. The website for the Italy tour suggested a training plan, which looked like a natural extension of my 3 to 5 days a week on the elliptical trainer or at the pool. I decided if I actually trained for the ride, I would have energy left over for sightseeing at the daily destinations. I decided to go and started getting ready.
In a downhill section on our 5th riding day, I felt a tug on my right foot and looked down to see the shoelace wrapping itself around the pedal. I was startled, but simply pedaled backward for several strokes to free myself. I stopped at the next wide spot to tuck my laces inside my sneaker, amused at myself for being so calm in the face of imminent disaster. As I stood up, a colorful blur whizzed by: no helmet, body tucked and balanced, legs stroking steadily as he tossed a friendly ‘Giorno over his shoulder. I giorno-ed back then listened to bird song for a moment. The air was scented by the rose bushes climbing the fence on the other side of road. I checked my bike computer. Lunch was my next stop, but I decided to enjoy this shady spot for a moment before resuming my casual spin.
That moment of Zen was made possible by our professional and supportive guides, and the level of detail to which this company plans its tours. If I had been in real trouble, the van would have been by to pick me up or fix my bike if needed. I trusted the Daysheet to be accurate about the route, so I used my bike computer to estimate when I would get to the next highlight, based on my pace. When I reached the hotel, I knew my luggage would be waiting for me, and I’d have a clean and comfortable room for a nap or a hot shower. Riding makes all food guilt-free. If it was a group dinner, the food would be fantastic and there would be plenty of great local wine. If it was a free night, I could select a recommended dinner spot and knew I would be happy with the choice. I could also follow suggestions for finding the interesting sights around town, unless I just wanted to explore on my own. I had found the mythical worry-free vacation.
What about those Apennines? Our 5th day of riding was described in the Daysheet by showing the elevation gain (about 850 meters over 58 kilometers) on a graph. It looked gradual, with a real steep part to the crest, then a long downhill drop. I had to decide whether to pedal it or take the train. I admit I had no idea what the chart was telling me. I had no point of comparison. I tried to calculate the climb, but my pain management plan – wine mostly – impaired my ability to make the metric conversion. Kidding aside, by this time in the ride, I was committed to making the whole route under my own power. That day turned out to be the most painful athletic adventure I have tried since the half-marathon I didn’t train for. Still, I’m very proud I did it, and that challenge made the rest of the riding seem simple.
The glide into Florence was exhilarating, but I was really looking forward to our day off there. I wasn’t eager to bike three more days to Vinci, Lucca, and Pisa. I walked around town, drank more wine, and my biking muscles recovered just enough to get back in the saddle again. I was rewarded by some of the most beautiful rides of the tour, including the view of Puccini’s lake. Overall, the route seemed to be designed on its own training theory: there was a warm-up (day one was a flat 34 miles), then a harder day with more mileage, followed by a lower mileage easy day, two days of hard riding, one day of rest, three days at a sustained effort in rolling hills, then done. I was amazed I rode as far as I did, and my riding improved as the tour progressed. If I had actually trained for this trip, I would have enjoyed those last three days much more.
If I had seen only the crowds of Venice, Florence and Pisa and the freeways in between, I would never have appreciated the history and beauty of Italy and its people. By cycle touring, we were able to take time with our new friends to absorb un-trampled jewels like Chioggia, the estuaries of the Po Delta, an agriturismo, the 8th Century Abbey of Pomposa, Comacchio and its two thousand year old cargo ship, olive oil tasting at Brisighella, the ancient mosaics of Ravenna, the ceramics of Faenza, bike paths and city parks and country roads and farms and sleepy villages. Best of all, we met so many people along the way who were happy to have visitors. As I pedaled through a cluster of homes clinging to the side of Mount Albano on the way to Vinci, I noticed an elderly woman hanging laundry on her balcony. She was practically at street level because the slope was so steep. I was struggling, but refusing to get off the bike. We made eye contact and she smiled, so I said, “Buon Giorno.” She reacted with an even bigger smile, gave me a happy wave and said several encouraging things in Italian, the kind I imagined the crowds were yelling at the Giro d’Italia riders in another town. Whatever she said, her enthusiasm boosted me to the crest and into the glide to Vinci. Only a cycle tour could generate this and so many other priceless experiences.
June 30, 2007