How Bike Across Italy Began in 1972
To celebrate Paola’s graduation from the University of Pisa in July 1971, we pedaled our clunker three-speed bikes from Pisa to Florence and then over the Apennine Mountains to Forlì, Paola’s home. We said good-bye to family and friends, then headed to the U.S.– as I still had to complete my degree at the University of Oregon. We had no idea when we would return to Italy or what the future held for us. We were resigned to not return to Italy for at least two years.
Six months later, we missed Italy so much we lay awake at night brainstorming how we might get back. I was scheduled to graduate in June of ’72 and we were faced with the question of what to do with the rest of our lives. But, rather than address that question, the need to go back to Italy took precedence.
To paraphrase a line from Steinbeck in his wonderful book, Travels with Charley, it was February, and it was Oregon, and it was raining. I don’t know how the thought process actually went, but I do remember the small classified ads in the backs of Atlantic Monthly, Saturday Review, and Harper’s. There were ads for villa rentals in the Caribbean and Tuscany for rare books and for charter vessels. At some point, I imagined ads for bicycling across Italy, just as we had done from Pisa to Forlì.
It didn’t take long to swing into action, to place ads in all three of those publications and in twenty-five daily college newspapers up and down the Pacific coast. By June we had booked twenty-three people on four different tours “Bicycling Across Italy.” The trip cost $245. We provided tents, bicycles, a support vehicle to carry luggage, and all meals. Our customers supplied sleeping bags and pedaled, that was it.
Once we knew the tours would run, we ordered bicycles via Paola’s father in Italy, and we arranged to arrive two weeks in advance of the first tour to scout out camping spots and one restaurant per day for our lunches. Breakfast and dinner were to be taken in our campsites. One meal I still remember at a small trattoria in the Apennine Mountains, cost us exactly one dollar for a pasta dish, meat dish with salad, wine, and dessert.
Our planning proceeded on schedule except when the van that Paola’s uncle had promised us didn’t materialize. At the last minute we found a mechanic with a 1952 Fiat flat-bed truck for sale. He wanted $85 for it and guaranteed it would run forever. We went to his brother’s farm to see it. After we got the rabbits and the straw out of the cab, it started right up. We agreed that the owner would tune it up and we’d pick it up in two days.
The bikes were ready to go when we arrived in Italy. There were ten bikes with four- speeds each and plastic saddles as hard as a countertop. They cost us $50 apiece. We didn’t have a clue about bicycle maintenance, although I could change a tire. The mechanic who sold them to us assured us he would tune them after each tour.
We picked up two more customers handing out flyers in front of the American Express office in Florence, but we lost three young women customers the first day of one tour. They arrived and immediately asked about the possibility of refunds. It seems they had met a couple of Italian men on the airplane who had promised to show them a good time in Italy and they didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity. So, we reached a compromise on a refund and off they went.
The first tour was exhilarating. It was a real adventure, indeed, an expedition! We can’t say that it didn’t go without a hitch, but we had a huge amount of fun. We camped in farmer’s fields, on the edges of villages, in a campsite at the top of the Apennines, and in the city campground in Florence. I still remember one evening when a farmer brought out two, two-liter bottles of Sangiovese wine for our group to share around our campfire. On the final evening, we ended the tour in grand style at the youth hostel in Pisa with drinks under the leaning tower.
Another incident I recall from that first season was when we scheduled a “rest day” and a hike at the top of the Apennine Mountains. We were to hike to the Monastery of Camaldoli along the ridgeline of the mountains. By my estimate (no, we had not scouted this one in advance!) it was about twenty-five kilometers round trip. A long hike, yes, but it turned out to be more like forty! We also assumed the monks would sell us lunch. They initially refused, until they learned we had hiked so far to get there and had to hike back the same day! Indeed, it was a memorable meal. One young woman refused to hike back and insisted she would hitchhike back to camp. I felt uncomfortable allowing her to do that alone, so I accompanied her on the 100-kilometer trip.
One group had only two people. They were great company and it was like a vacation for us. By the fourth group, and after six weeks cycling and camping, we were tired of the same route. We suggested to the five women in the last group that we do a tour of Romagna. It was flatter we argued, and the food was great. They agreed, rationalizing that they would go see Florence and Pisa after the tour. So, we went from Forlì to Ravenna, on to Ferrara, and wound up near Bologna.
The season ended with only one incident. Our sag wagon stalled once on the freeway, making us fairly nervous, as its papers were not entirely in order. It seems that the frame we had built on the back to carry luggage and bikes was illegal. We had received a warning from a police officer at the beginning of the last tour, so when we saw other police on the road, we sent some of our five customers ahead to divert their attention while the truck passed. The ruse worked perfectly and we were not stopped again.
We retired the truck at the end of the season, hung the bikes for winter, and went off to travel Europe, having landed a job with a Study Abroad Program for part of the year.
Selling “Bike Across Italy” the second year, in 1973, was a problem as we were in Europe all that winter. We sent my brother and his wife instructions and a check for $300 so they could handle the publicity from their home in Boulder, Colorado. They were to place the ads, answer the phone and mail out brochures. It seemed simple enough, yet only two people signed up that year. We cancelled all our tours and returned to Oregon to begin graduate school. It would be 1985 before we put a new spin on our bicycle adventures and began again.