Friday, July 13, 2012

This is Why I Ride the Bike

Bikes on top of the van

Preface:  After another memorable bike trip in Italy, I've realized the tour company, Ciclismo Classico, is a big reason for the successful trips.  They've continually exceeded our expectations, with top-notch guides and unique accomodations, as well as their selections of restaurants and entertainment - so a special thanks to all of them for another collection of wonderful memories.

This is Why I Ride the Bike
non-fiction travel
by Greg Larson

“How was your trip to Sicily?” was the question our friends and family asked once we returned home from abroad.  My wife, Gretta, and I have been on many bike trips to Europe, and I always struggle to answer the question adequately.  It’s like going to summer camp, but the food and accommodations are much cushier than the old scouting days.  Unless you actually get on the bike, day after day, and experience the countryside firsthand, I can only share a hint of what it’s like to travel through sun-drenched Sicily during the summer solstice.  Our group of sixteen cyclists and two guides rolled along each day on a kinetic adventure, gobbling up the Sicilian food and scenic landscape.
Typical Sicilian countryside
On the bike, we were able to reach out and touch the countryside, stop in the towns and interact with the people, and learn of their historic past.  Sicily, a cultural melting pot in the Mediterranean, is an island of fascination on all counts.

There is no substitute for touching the wild capers and fennel growing along the highways, or feeling the temperature change when passing a field or riding towards the sea coast.  We passed vineyards, as well as olive, lemon, and carob groves while rolling through a patchwork quilt with a background of grain fields, forests and sea coast.  The blooming cactus, roadside guava and swaying palm trees, as well as my profuse sweat, made me realize just how far south we were in the Mediterranean climate.

Our veteran guides, Paolo and Enrico, cared for us like true shepherds.  One of them rode his bike with us, and the other drove the support van.  They alternated the riding and driving responsibilities from day to day. 

Greg, Enrico, and Gretta
Gretta and Paolo

To me, cycling is similar to skiing, but it is done in warmer weather on public roads.  The tour company provided a quality bike, and we personalized the fit with our own seats, pedals and bike shoes, which clamp onto the pedals like a ski boot system.  The colorful clothing made it easy for motorists to spot us, and the fabric wicked the perspiration to keep the skin cool. 

Our morning ritual began with applying liberal amounts of sunscreen.  The nervous excitement mounted as we pulled on our helmets and gloves after breakfast, and then searched for the water jug to fill our bottles.  Just before we climbed on the bikes, Enrico reviewed the day’s route map and instructions, giving us the good news first, “We will have a few little climbs this morning,” and the bad news second, “There is a big climb in the afternoon, and it will be very hot.”

Paolo is a native Sicilian, and he was a super support guide.  His loud voice penetrated the countryside, sounding like a vendor at an Italian soccer match. “Aqua, vini, Coca-Coli, Fanti!” he jokingly rattled off a list of multiple refreshments, but water was our only choice.  He poured the water into our bike bottles with all the fervor of a drink vendor, and it looked like he’d had plenty of experience. Once the bottles were full he brought around a box of fresh Sicilian peaches, cherry tomatoes, figs, or any other fruit that looked good at the market that day.

Cycling in Italy is not for the faint of heart.  You have to ride safely, but with authority.  One observation I’ve made from cycling in Sicily is that traffic is much more chaotic the further south one travels, especially in the cities.  When riding through the streets of Siracusa at rush hour, my brain kicked to overload mode with multiple decisions while pedaling and bouncing on the ancient pavers, dodging and pointing out potholes and cracks, shifting gears and flowing in the traffic with Vespas, Fiats, tour busses and delivery vans.  Our guides bravely rode into the large roundabouts, stopped and extended their arms into the air to block the traffic, and then yelled for us to proceed to our exit.

The Italians seem to think that traffic laws are mere suggestions. The hair on my neck stood on end while the cars on the side streets nudged out a few inches at a time onto the thoroughfare, essentially playing a game of chicken and ignoring our right-of-way.  The best way to combat these drivers was to growl at them while holding an outstretched palm as if to push them back. 

One hot afternoon I looked up at the curve ahead and saw a small car traveling at about 60 miles an hour, skidding sideways towards us.  Fortunately, his over-steer forced him back to his side of the road, but then he slid into a stone wall, with the car smacking and scraping the stones before skidding to a stop.  He staggered out of the car, took a quick look at the damage, then got back in the car and drove off.

There are no flat areas in Italy.  The climbs were slow and arduous, but the descents were free-falls of excitement bordering on terror.  During the climbs, Gretta began to recite the Gettysburg Address to keep her mind off the steep roads that loomed ahead.  I usually remembered a favorite song, looked at the trees and plants that were different, or cursed the engineer who designed the road.  On the descents, a feeling of sheer freedom overcame me, similar to skiing a big slope.  Every time I crouched down on the accelerating bike and the wind roared in my ears it made me feel like a kid again.  But freedom brings responsibility.  I didn’t want to become a hood ornament for an oncoming tour bus.  I focused on controlling the speed and picked my line around the hairpin turn while hugging the guardrail or stone wall.  On the long descents, I’d pulse the brakes when slowing down, to prevent overheating of the wheel rims.
Gretta climbing a hill into Ragusa
The small town bars were a good place to try the local food and drink.  At one of our stops, a workman on a roof yelled in Italian to get our attention.  Fortunately, Gretta is well-versed in Italian, so she responded and they spoke a few moments.  Then she turned to me, “He wants us to try the Gassosa at the bar.  He said it tastes really good on a hot day.”  We discovered Gassosa is a brand of carbonated water, and at the bar they added a scoop of lemon granita – sort of the Italian’s version of a root beer float.  Most of the bar fare was Italian workingman food, like calzone, stromboli, arancini or pizza.  On a particularly long day, I loaded up with carbs at a local bar and ate a huge slice of pizza with french fries as one of the toppings.
Bikes parked at a local bar
The benefit of riding the bike in Sicily was the anticipation of dinner, which was a major event from 8:00 P.M. to 10:30 P.M. each evening.  After burning thousands of calories on the bike, my taste buds were ready for the savory sauces and multiple flavors of the Sicilian cuisine.  The food seemed to appear and disappear at our table as fast as the Sicilian countryside passed us by on the bike.  Most of the time we had five course meals consisting of appetizers, salad, pasta, main course, and dessert, along with two or three types of local wine to sample.  One of the restaurants opened a double magnum bottle (three liters) of vintage wine, and our group polished it off in quick order.  Seafood appetizers, salads full of mozzarella cheese and Sicilian tomatoes, pasta seasoned with garlic and olive oil; it was all a gastronomic blur across the table.

Seafood appetizers

During one of our evening foodfests, an accordian player filled our restaurant with his voice and instrument as we celebrated the birthday of one of the riders in the group.  On another memorable evening, an entire troupe of folksingers and musicians serenaded our dinner with authentic Sicilian folksongs.  The history of the island came alive before us with colorful costumes, choreography, and singing.

For a change of pace, we spent one day hiking on the slopes of Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe. After a ride on a ski gondola and a special bus that drove us across a huge slope of cinders, we stepped out into the cool, thin air and stood within a kilometer of the four-cone peak.  Two of the cones constantly emitted steam, and one of them built up to a crescendo every few minutes, spitting steam vortices to the wind.  The guides had a geologist accompany our group and explain the complex workings of the volcano.  He showed us which rocks were cinders from explosions, and which were crusts from the lava flows.

Hike day on Mt. Etna (10,922 ft. elevation)
At our closest point to the volcano peak, we noticed a roped barricade.  Just as Enrico announced, “It is forbidden to go any further,” a group of Italian hikers stepped over the rope and continued towards the volcano.

We gave Enrico a puzzled look.  His comment regarding the rogue hikers showed his humor and gave us a peek into the Italian psyche, “You can do what you want.  You can walk into a bank and wave a gun, but it is forbidden.”

“Are they breaking the law?” we asked.

“They won’t get arrested, but if they have to be rescued, they will get a big bill,” Enrico replied. 

Our long climb down the ski slopes included sliding on the cinders of the steepest slopes.  The guides showed us how to grind our heels and lean forward.  It felt like skiing on cinder moguls, and it was fun on the shorter slopes.  After lunch at a lookout point, we began using the boots more often to slide down the slopes.  By the time we hiked to the bottom of the ski runs, my quad muscles were burning. 

The next morning, I rested my screaming quads as we rode a hydrofoil ferry to the Aeolean Island of Lipari, one of seven remote islands with a sleepy, dreamy charm.  Enrico told us that political prisoners were banished to Lipari during the Norman reign of Sicily.  I thought, take me prisoner, I’ll stay as long as necessary.  
Hydrofoil to the Aeolean island of Lipari
On our last two days, we rode the bikes on the islands of Lipari and Salina.  The short lengths of the rides (25 km and 16 km) were deceiving.  Our toughest climb of the trip was a long stretch of 8 km with the beginning 3 km exceeding 10% gradient.  At our rest stop at the top of the steep climb, Gretta gasped for air and then blurted out to the guides, “Assassins,” referencing a 1910 quote by the Tour de France winner who let the organizers know how he felt about the inclusion of the mountains as part of the Tour. 

But with pain comes the joy.  Shortly after the toughest climb, I pedaled along an easier stretch of road and looked out to the sea and the nearby islands.  The luminescent clouds hung on the mountainside, and for a moment it seemed the winding road, the verdant landscape, the sparkling sea and the expansive sky all melded together into a Van Gogh painting. 

So when people ask, “How was your trip to Sicily?” I remember the vista and reply, “This is why I ride the bike.”

This is why I ride the bike
Gretta and Greg at the end of the bike tour