ExperiencePlus! Blog

Emilia Romagna at 19 Km Per Hour

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.

First, I dug my bike out of the garage and had the bike shop tune it up.  I got more serious about my gym workouts, and after several months, I started the suggested 12-week training plan one week late.  I stuck with the plan for about a month, but then wandered back to my swimming and elliptical trainer routine.  I knew I needed saddle time, but only made two road rides at the suggested 2 ½ to 3 ½ hours.  During the last two weeks of training, I made myself do my gym time on the bike, so I was pedaling for at least an hour, three times a week.  For my travel partner, the ride over the Apennines was a tour highlight.  While she was diligently riding and telling me about good hill workouts, I wouldn’t go out. Instead, I used the hill program on the machine.  When I worried about how the machine program would compare to the actual Apennines, I consoled myself by thinking, “There’s always the van.
Under-trained and insecure, I reported to the bike fitting with butterflies in my stomach.  The guides were very friendly and non-judging.  Our group seemed evenly split between casual and serious riders.  The bicycle was just what I had asked for: upright and no skinny tires.  These bikes are even specially-geared for the mountain climbing portion of the trip.
The ride started on the Lido and took us through the Po Delta; flat and easy.  We had a “facing tail-wind” though, and I wondered after day two if I would be able to do the whole ride.  That day was 54 miles, my longest career bike-ride.  By the third day, I fell into a rhythm, thoroughly enjoying the wetlands and the farmlands, and thinking a 34-mile ride is short.  Before lunch at the agriturismo, my partner and I were overtaken by a peloton of 300 German riders on a Munich to Rome tour.  I felt out of place as the mob began to pass.  Then I got caught up in the “Hello’s” and almost didn’t notice that the riders were pulling me along much faster than my tired legs had managed alone.  Once they all passed, my pace fell back to my steady 19 kilometers and I went back to enjoying the scenery.  I wasn’t on this ride to set a time record or to generate bragging rights.  I came to see this country up close, smell the smells, and taste the tastes. 
Our guides gave us Daysheets with notes on cultural and historical highlights of the ride.  At breakfast, we marked our maps so we could see the route for ourselves.  Our guides also marked the streets with chalk arrows so we could ride at our own pace, free from the group.  They added arrows for good stops for coffee in the morning, lunch breaks, gelato, and drinking water.  Other arrows (or chalk pictures) pointed out interesting views like the pig farm, the kiwi trees, and the guide’s family home on the ridge.  During climbs, the chalk marks gave encouragement and counted down the kilometers to the top.  At the top, an arrow pointed out a little trail to a scenic vista.  On the downhill glide, chalk warnings highlighted tight curves and potholes.

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.

Chris Wesely
Eugene, Oregon
June 30, 2007