Cycling, Italy, Travel

Ride Like an Italian

tuscany

There was no fucking way I was riding in Italy. It had seemed like a good idea at some stage because we’d set our plans in motion, booked flights and made commitments. But as I lay stewing in an undignified cocktail of rage and shock, paramedics fussing around me, I made up my mind. I was not riding in Italy. Or any other place I thought I’d be left bleeding by the roadside by a reckless motorist again. If this happened in my own lawful country, I couldn’t imagine what lay in store for me in a place where even the queue for the toilets was a battle for survival of the fittest.

It had been eight years since our first visit to the country of chaos and the memory was lasting. I couldn’t even get served in cafes for all the pushing and shoving. I’d lost count of the bruises on my body from being hip and shouldered in crowds. And the roads were terrifying. Even inside the safety of my own tin box.

The year that followed my rash, emotion-fuelled decision became a tug-o-war between my crippling fear of the bike and the plans we’d made. I listened sceptically to tales of Italians, hanging from their balconies, cheering any cyclist who passed. Cars hanging back for kilometres in the mountains, their drivers shouting only words of encouragement when finally getting the chance to pass. And strangers, hugging riders who made it to the top of bucket-list mountains. It was world away from the inevitable showers of abuse (and rotten fruit) I’d come to expect from a Sunday ride in Perth . . . and a long way from the Italy I’d known!

Still, with watered-down expectations and tempered nerves, we arrived back on the crazy streets of Italy . . . this time with bikes in tow. Our first ride through the Tuscan hills, saw my palms slide around on my drops despite my gloves. And still to shed my anxiety entirely, my heart thumped just as hard on the descents as it did on the long steep climbs. I held a narrow line, hugging the edge of the pavement, torn between losing my front wheel in an abyss of decayed asphalt or being side swiped by a passing truck. I dared not glance up at the pretty checkerboard of olive groves and vineyards painted across the rolling hills.

And in nine years, nothing about the madness of Italian roads had changed.

“Holy fuck!” Colby yelled through the radio, as a battered Fiat flew past within millimetres of an oncoming truck.

But the escape route he’d hastily identified was redundant and my heart held a steady rhythm as cars continued to fly past. Only occasionally a shocked honk would ring out from an oncoming driver whose bumper had narrowly avoided a smash. But it was never directed at us. Somehow we were never in the line of fire, no matter what was at stake. Buses swung wide on blind switchbacks, cars teetering on the opposite shoulder to avoid them. And each time I’d shake my head to the rhythm of my spinning legs and wonder how this was even possible on such a narrow road. I felt safer on the bike than I had in years.

It was through a local friend of a friend however, that we received our true taste of Italian cycling. We stood in the cobbled piazza of Greve in Chianti, straddling our bikes and watching as a handful of riders rolled up to registration for the Chianti Classico. Our new friend rolled into the square, immediately recognisable from his Strava profile as he unzipped his jersey and presented us with a tray of Budino di riso. Never mind energy bars and gels, in the country of real food, the traditional rice cakes were the perfect mix of carbs and sugar for a long ride.

Having forgotten to undertake the medicals required to enter Gran Fondos before leaving home, I was quietly thankful to be relegated to a position outside the main group. And as I tucked in behind my new friend and settled into a rhythm for the long slow climb out of town, riding suddenly became something more. Vineyards stretched out in every direction, like neat green claw marks in the hillside. The breeze tussled the neck of my gilet. It wasn’t hard to be in the moment. There was no need to chase Strava segments or strive for PBs. Being surrounded by the stunning views was enough.

Just out of Panzano, diehard fans in campervans lined the road, ready for the following day’s race, the village name scawled with pride into the hillside beyond. “Forza Nibili!” My friend pumped the air with his fist and the fans erupted into a cheer for the Italian Giro d’Italia favorite. The atmosphere buzzed and I breathed it in.

Hunting out a vantage point for stage 10 of the race, my friend led us into the medieval city of Pistoia where the pace changed completely. After a pleasant cruise through the hills and market gardens on the outskirts I was convinced the throbbing arteries of traffic in the inner city would make for a long and frustrating journey out to the stage. But as we approached the first, fast-flowing roundabout my friend barely touched his brake levers before flying out into the oncoming cars.

There was no time to hesitate as he was devoured by the line of vehicles ahead, so without considering the consequences I slid out behind him. I glanced around, wide-eyed and hoping to God these Italians were everything I’d been told they were. I was met only by nods and smiles as the vehicles parted and I coasted safely to my exit. A shocked smile erupted across my face and something inside me buzzed. I felt not the slightest hint of anxiety as I continued on through the narrow gap between parked cars and the lines of traffic. I was overcome by an exhilarating freedom. Suddenly I really did own the road!

I’ve come a long way from the quivering bundle of nerves who struggled to make it out my own front door and onto the streets of Perth. But it was on the streets of chaotic Italy I felt completely safe. It was here that my bike made me invincible. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to hang my helmet from my handlebars and shave my head in tribute to the great Italian cycling legend, Marco Pantani . . . but I’m not sure how we’ll ever go back to Saturday morning river loops either.