By Joe Kurmaskie
Everyone rides a bike in Italy; bankers in suits, bombshells in flowery dresses, old men carting baguettes and sausages back home in wire baskets. On the coast whole families pedal to the beach atop rusty clunkers, while in the hills you'll spot toothless Nona's creeping up long windy paths of blacktop, unfazed when packs of racers in tight Lycra blow by them.
It's mountain biking that's the last frontier in Italy. My brother-in-laws have a rich history of abusing me off-road: up inclines and through rock gardens all over Northern California. When a family reunion came together in Northern Italy, I discovered that some of our Tuscan relatives were as nuts about mountain biking as their American counterparts.
I bet there's a gene responsible for this.
Of course, I was recruited for protection. My brother-in-laws always bring along someone they know will be sucking their air, mud and rear wheels. What they didn't count on this time around is that I've clocked some fairly brutal miles in the saddle since we last rode together. Two loaded tours across the continent hauling hundreds of pounds of children and gear. And while it wasn't off road, it was Northern Canada over the spine of The Rockies. These days I would chew my way through the straps of my clipped in feet to do the steepest mountain bike climbs, instead of the packhorse routine pulling my wagon train of children and gear over asphalt.
Can you say rematch?
“Here are your bikes.”
Phil and Rob, my relatives who think every ride is a race, scored the prizes bikes from Gino and Perre Georgio. I was left with a no name soft tail contraption, but it seemed as if it would get the job done. Brad, my Buddhist brother-in-law, had also signed on for the ride. I think his set up might have been a women's bike. As a new father, he wasn't in peak condition; tired and pasty. But Brad has always been the wild card of the family. He flows like a river and lands on his feet.
Before we'd even taken to the saddles, everyone was sweating like businessmen in a hot sauna. Italy in June can be sweltering.
We stopped by Gino's house to make a few adjustments to the rigs. Namely, mine. I'd discovered on the downhill to his farmhouse that the handlebars were so loose that it was only luck, the amount of time I've lived on a bike, a childlike defiance of gravity and finally, grabbing the front stem below the bars that kept me from crashing. While at Gino's, Phil discovered that his sweet rig had some gearing issues and the shocks had seen better days.
We roared down into the valley where the walled city of Lucca lies, but as if following an army in retreat, just as quickly we swung to the right before reaching it's outskirts, then settled in for a breathless climb back into the mountains. Gino explained that these forested peaks allowed many to elude the Germans during WWII. Women and children, comfortable walking the hills daily on their olive harvesting routes, took to the high country before the enemy could catch its breath. As the winding roads became ridiculously steep I pretended I was a peasant women pulling a load of olives behind me.
Our ride took us through little villages sporting gothic churches, shoebox size restaurants and statues of saints hidden amongst the flowering plants and lush canopies.
My bike took me to the ground not once, but twice. Each time the back wheel came out from behind me on some fairly easy gravel downhill. It was over-inflated. I had a few cuts and would probably be sore the next day but I was relatively unscathed. We deflated the problem. I stayed upright the rest of the ride.
The tree cover that shaded the roads and trails was our only salvation. When we'd pull back into the open sun the temperature would jump ten degrees. I was getting razed because I'd brought along maybe two gallons of tea and water to the rest of the crews two water bottles. That and I'd packed about half of the twelve course, catered dinner buffet we'd all enjoyed the previous night.
Let them laugh. My entire load weighed less than my two-year-old.
I snacked at every stop while hydrating AND showering on the move.
Halfway up the mountain we arrived at a king's estate. Not just kingly for its size, but actual royalty. It was something out of a storybook. The scope and detail of the buildings and grounds and historical significance gave the effort of this ride some perspective. It was also the first time my relatives gained some perspective on the amount of calories they'd been burning up the mountain. Phil commented on how good those baguette pizza appetizers had been. This, as I popped another one out of my pack, look directly at him, then swallowed it whole.
Another three miles of brutal climbing as we were rewarded with a spring fed well. As I hoarded another slab of grub, my helmet fell into a stagnant pool of holding water. Served me right.
After that, I asked my brother in laws if they wanted any of my food supplies. They did, pride had left the trail with the spike in temps and angle of elevation.
Waves of fragrances washed over us. The hillsides were raging with flowers in full bloom. It hit me also that ours were the only bike tracks on these trails. As if someone had moved the best single track riding on the west coast of America to a place were the crowds couldn't reach. A magical ride… even in a hundred degree heat.
Gino and Georgio both wore their bike shorts rolled up to expose their thighs. I thought perhaps it was another crazy fashion trend the Italian's are famous for starting. If it were, I prayed it wouldn't come to America any time soon.
“We wear them like this to get as much skin tanned as possible,” Gino explained. “If construction workers could wear speedos in Italy, they would.”
This was not an exaggeration. I've seen Italian highway flaggers wearing a reflective vests but no shirt while waving cars through.
Then we were on top. The view afforded us a glimpse of the ocean, Pisa's tourist mecca and the Italian Alps to the north. As we admired and snapped photos, far below, in one of the small villages we'd pedaled through, a choir of voices could be heard. They were singing ethereal songs in the morning sun, like the people of Dr. Seuss's Whoville.
“They're practicing for the Festival of the Holy Ravioli,” Georgio noted. “It's actually for a saint, but if you've ever tasted the food served at the festival, you'd know exactly what they're singing about.
“Can anyone go?” I asked.
“Anyone who can stay up late. All our summer festivals are held at night.”
All the way down the mountain, I dreamed about a midnight snack of ravioli, in stereo.