Events

Lorenzo in Italia2001       Picasa Photo Album

The Big Picture

Let me get rid of the boring stuff first. We were there two weeks. We flew into Munich, then drove 10 hours to our apartment in a restored two-story farmhouse on a working vineyard high (578m) in the Monte dei Chianti (yes, that Chianti) near Castellina in Chianti in Tuscany. Technically we drove 8 hours, stopped and ate for 30 minutes (pasta and baby squid - yum) and spent 90 minutes on the Brenner Pass parking lot (aka Autostrada.) You could also argue that the majority of the time on the Autobahn and Autostrada was more like low altitude flying than driving, but that would require an explanation of what all the vehicles that were passing me were doing so we'll just stay away from that for now.

Where we stayed - Sampson's top right, Ramsay's bottom centre

The next 12 days were filled with normal boring tourist stuff that Gonzi (words that end in "o" in Italian are pluralized by changing the "o" to an "i" - but that's not important now) are not typically interested in, so I'll stay away from that, other than to say we went to Florenze (or as the Italians say - Firenze), saw the Duomo, the Ufizzi, Santa Croce, Palazzo Vecchio, Ponte Vecchio climbed the 500+ stairs to the top of Brunelleschi's dome,

Firenze from Piazza Michelangelo including the Duomo Dome (soon to host WWF)

We shopped and the kids ate gelato. Monday we drove to San Gimignano saw the Duomo, climbed the 300+ stairs of the Torre Grosse, shopped and the kids ate gelato. The following day we drove to Siena, saw the Duomo, the Piazza del Campo (where the Palio is run), tried to get tickets to climb stairs to the top of the Campanile in the Pallazzo Publico but couldn't, shopped and the kids ate Gelato.

You're probably starting to see a pattern develop here, so substitute Pisa, Lucca, Castello Brolio, Venice (3 hours up by train - including tunnels 7 and 19 km long, water taxi up the Canal to Piazza San Marco, 4 hours there and 3 hours back by train) and you'll get the general idea.

Pisa

The hours when we weren't Duomo'ing etc. or getting to or from the afore-mentioned locations (we actually made 4 trips into Firenze (Florence) and 3 to Siena) were spent doing more Gonzo-esque type activities like sleeping, eating, running and riding bikes, and talking about sleeping, eating, running and riding.

Piazza del Campo - Sienna

Santa Croce - Firenze (Galileo's and Michelangelo's Tombs included at no extra charge)

Gelato Anyone?

Duomo - Siena

Attention you in the speedboat, this is the police. We have you surrounded.

Eating

The apartment we had was equipped with a full kitchen, as was the one the floor below that my brother-in-law (Dennis Ramsay) and his family were in, so the majority of the meals we cooked ourselves (or to be more precise - Dennis cooked for us.)

Breakfast, which followed a run or ride, usually consisted of fresh fruit, yogurt and caffe-latte (hard to get used to drinking US coffee now that we're back) outside on the terrace looking down at the Tuscan countryside.

The view from the terrace

We could see the Duomo's and Palazzo Publico campaniles (bell towers) in Siena about 30 km's to our left. Across the valley and on the hip of the mountains on the other side we could make out the towers (there are only 8 remaining, but at one point there were 70+ in 1/8 of a square mile) of San Gimignano. It's hard to describe the whole sensation, but sitting out-side, after a run or ride under an intensely blue sky and looking down at the Tuscan countryside made each morning a highlight.

We'd typically grab a slab of something (pizza, panini, fruit) for lunch in whatever town we were in, or would have Tuscan Salami, cheese (Pecorino - made from sheep's milk - phenomenal) and prosciutto on the terrace if we were at home. Supper most nights we prepared back at the villa and was a salad (amazing what salads taste like when vegetables have flavour), bread (not an Italian long suit - they like the crust very thick so most loaves of bread would make a reasonable substitute for paving stones) pasta (surprise!) or risotto, and lots of beer (Italian beer is only adequate) and wine (Italian wine is more than adequate;-).

I have to say the frutto e vedura (fruit and vegetables) were amazing. Over here they're grown to look nice and travel well, over there they're grown to taste good. At one point Laurel and I ate an entire basket of cherry tomatoes - they were like eating candy. You'd take one and pop it into your mouth whole, then bite down and your taste buds would have an orgasm as they got overwhelmed with flavour.

Market Day in Castellina

We ate out (other than lunches) may-be thrice - all three times in Siena, where we had a friend of Dennis's who works at the University in Siena and who has done research at Dal, as a guide. Italian meals typical have three courses, Antipasti (Bruschetta, Salami, Proscuitto), Primi (pasta or risotto) and Secondi (chicken, rabbit, beef or fish). This part of Italy is not big on dessert, although it's very common to have Vin Santo (high powered wine) and Biscotti (hard almond biscuits), which are dipped in the Vin Santo. The cuts of meat are generally not the best, but what you can scrape off the bones is very tasty! We ate in Osteria's for the most part, which are very small restaurants where the cook is often the owner, and found prices quite reasonable. For example, 6 adults and three near adults had antipasti, primi, secondi, two bottles of wine, riscorelli (Almond cookies) vin santo and grappa (Italian moon-shine) for 350,000 lira (roughly 160 US), tip and taxes included.

Driving

Driving is not normally considered a Gonzo activity, but the driving "over there" is different enough that I think we should consider it for inclusion as an official Gonzo sub-group. Driving the Autobahn (Germany and Austria) and Autostrada (Italy) differs from North America in three major ways: 1) the road surface is generally in incredibly good shape; 2) the traffic is moving much, much faster; and C)"thou shall keep right except to pass", which is as much for your own safety and peace of mind as anything else. I've never used my mirrors so much in my life. Now and then I'd forget where I was and spend more time than I should in the left lane and 5 seconds later this car would appear two inches from my bumper. I was "cruising" at 140-145kph and cars would regularly blast by doing 70-100kph more than me. Remarkably even the fastest of the fast will pull to the right once they've gone by you. It wasn't unusual to see two or three high-powered vehicles charging along at 200+kph and drafting each other as if it was a Nascar race.

...and the bikes would go ?

If drivers on the autostrada had a few simply rules that they all adhered to strictly, driving in the cities was the same, expect the one rule they all observed was "there are no rules." Drivers do whatever they thing they need to, including cutting across three lanes of traffic and then back to get around one slow moving vehicle and driving "the wrong way" for short stretches. Amazingly enough there seem to be relatively few accidents, likely because everyone is expecting that idiot beside/infront/coming towards them to act like one! It's no wonder most European cars sold in North America have vestigial coffee cup holders, driving in Europe is a full time occupation for the driver!

The other interesting feature about city driving in Italy is that while the two lane roads are marked up the middle with a solid white line, much as they are here, apparently that line is a third lane reserved motor-scooters;-) Rush hour traffic is absolutely insane as motor scooters weave in and out between cars, cutting in front and behind cars and making liberal use of their "reserved lane".

Running and Riding

We did manage five short runs over the two weeks. The country roads are very twisty and have no shoulder at all. This combined with the speed at which traffic takes the corners, most of which are blind, means that you need to be flexible with the rule of "run facing on-coming traffic." Normally it was safer to cross the road and make sure you were running on the outside of corners, as any driver clipping the apex of the turn would in all likely-hood take you out as well. Having said that, drivers were very respectful of runners when they could see you. We did have a light rain one morning and opted to run rather than ride. IT was a good thing we did, as the combination of a smooth surface, lots of diesel dust and the wet created a film (North American release in 2002) on the surface of the road that was slippery enough that at times you noticed it running. We'd have been down at the first corner on the bikes.

As you might have guessed, one of the highlights of the trip for me were the rides. Dennis and I had rented road bikes from a shop in Firenze. Both were Italian made (Bianchi and Scapin) - mine in steel and his aluminum - with decent rims (Campy Montreal), tires (Vittoria Super Corsa slicks), components (Campy Mirage/Veloce mix with ergo) and carbon forks. Gearing was 53/39 with a 13-26 9 speed in the back.

We did a total of 5 rides, each in the 40 to 55km range. Most of which were in the area in the map below. Shoulders are non-existent, road-surface generally was excellent (amazing what a lack of frost and big transports can do for a highway) and drivers exceptionally courteous to bikers. On more than one occasion we had trucks sit behind us for 1-2km until an appropriate place to pass presented it-self and we had nary a word from them. Other than encouragement.

Map

Our first ride was June 12th, from Castellina to Radda in Chianti and return, about 40km in total. Other than the 1st 500m from the Villa to the main road, which was something in the order of 20%, most of the ups and downs to Radda were in the 5-7% range and fairly easily managed despite my mid-west flatlander legs. The one factor though, was there were no flats, you were either climbing or descending the entire time. I struggled a bit more on the ups than Dennis did, but felt most out of touch on the descents. I've gone around corners before, as well as descended at high speed, but I've previously never had to deal with this consistent a quantity of sharp turns and high speed. Proper descending technique was not an option!

The Road to Radda

We made it to Radda in one piece. The roads were remarkably smooth as well as crack, bump and pothole free. While there were no shoulders, what traffic there was patiently waited until they had a chance to go around us and gave us a wide berth when they did. I didn't need anything bigger than the 23 to manage the hills so far. We decided to take a short detour and locate a winery Dennis knew about in behind Radda. The sign at the top of the road said "15% for the next 1.5km" and over the crest and down the road we went. There were a couple of twisty bits and some bumpy ones, but we arrived at the bottom of the climb up to Alboa (the vineyard) with no problems. The next sign said "15% for the next 3km." Having just come down a 15% grade we figured we knew what to expect and started up.

I'm here to tell you that not all 15% grades are created equal. If the downhill we had just come down was 15, then this was 20-25%. I've never been in so much pain on a bike in my life. I rode 10 minutes, then stopped and coughed a lung up. Rode another 5 and coughed up my remaining lung. The 26 was no where's near enough. Dennis was faring better than I, but l've seen him look more comfortable. The road was switching back and forth up the hill and every time you hit a turn, it would steepen for a few meters, then (relatively) level out. The "level" sections looked about 15%. I made it to the top, but needed to stop 3 or 4 times.

15% for the next 1.5km - note the wide shoulders. This would qualify as a long straight.

To say the descent was scary would be an understatement. Most of the time my brakes were at or near full lock and I was still moving faster than I wanted to, but any more brake and an endo was a distinct possibility. Dennis locked up on one turn and was heading off the edge of the road until he managed to get the bike stopped with a couple of feet to spare. We did get to the bottom without incident and got some smiles from the Carabinieri as they drove by in their Land Rover. We started up the other "15%" and found it a walk in the park. The 26 wasn't even necessary.

The ride back to Catellina was uneventful, me being content to sit on Dennis's wheel the entire way back. My legs, which had been doing 40, 50 and 60 milers in Minnesota to get ready for the trip felt as if they'd done a century, but other than being tired there were no problems. I thought I'd drive back in the car later to find my lungs;-)

Wednesday we were ready for another ride. This time we planned to do a loop and approach Radda from the back, 46 or 47 km in total. The first 10k was all downhill and non stop 90 and 180 degree turns. What a rush! You'd come out of a corner accelerating, have a short straight to set-up for the turn, grab the brakes to get your speed down to where you thought you could get around and stay on the bike, then dive into the turn and it was time to do it again. It was tough to find the right rhythm, as we couldn't predict how sharp the corner was going into it and often had to scrub speed part way in when it turned out to be sharper than we thought. Dennis was clearly a better and braver descender than I, as the gap between us grew throughout the descent, but we hit the bottom pumped in a major way.

Home is which way?

We had a short climb before the intersection that would take us in behind Radda. After a short downhill there was a long false flat (10km) that took us into Radda and we returned by the same road we had the last ride.

Friday and we were on the bikes again. The plan this time was to bomb straight (well not really straight, just fewer turns than some routes) past Lilliano and down to Poggibonsi, then through the town and up (up being the operative word) to Castellina. The map said Castellina was at 598 m. Poggibonsi was at 16. Yum!

As they all did, the ride started up our favorite 500m/20% climb to the main road. It still wasn't getting any easier, but as an added element, my left crank started backing out 2/3rds of the way up. We had lots of allen wrenches with us, but none that big, so I one-legged it 1km into the gas station in town to try and bum a wrench the right size.

Now my Italian is non-existent, as it appeared his English was, but it didn't take much to figure out the gas station attendant had absolutely no interest in helping me out. We went into town and asked around and finally tracked down a Fiat dealership (at the foot of a short, but ridiculously steep hill) where a mechanic was kind enough to set things to right. After grunting our way back up to the main road, we started our descent into Poggibonsi. Five minutes later we had gone 6.7 km's - hardly record threatening, but pretty quick none-the-less.

The road somewhat leveled out after that, although we were still going down hill. We rolled into Poggibonsi, which was 32kms from the start, in 32 minutes. Not bad. The next hour and 18km's was spent going up. It typically didn't get any steeper than 5-6 %, but it never flattened out either. It's a lot like the climb to Kancamangus from the Lincoln side. It's not so much the steepness that tires you out, but the fact that it just goes on and on. I needed the 26 from time to time, but most of the climb was done in the saddle and using the 23. Dennis typically needed a gear less than I did. We hit the top in just under an hour.

Nearing the top of the climb from Poggibonsi

Ride four on Sunday was a repeat of the back door into Radda, with a 4km climb into Volpaia thrown in for good measure. The descent was more fun than the previous ride, as I was starting to get the hang of the technique. What I found worked best for me was counter-steering. Approaching a corner I would get the pedal that would be to the outside of the turn positioned at 6 o'clock and then put all my weight on it. The inside knee, which is at 12 o'clock, I pointed into the turn. I would then almost straighten my opposite arm by pushing down on the side of the handlebar that would be on the inside of the turn, which is the opposite of what I normally did and very counter-intuitive. This did two things, it caused the bike to lean into the turn (which also made it turn) and it put my weight over the center of the bike - which seemed to have the effect of compressing the bike into the road as we went around the corner.

The result of all this was startling. The bike took a very tight line around the corner, which I could control based on how much I leaned it, but it felt rock solid -as if it were cornering on rails. Previously I had been anxious about drifting to the outside of the turn, now the issue was ensuring I didn't cut it too sharply. The bike felt much better balanced and I was clearly cornering faster than I had been. Possibly more importantly, my male ego was somewhat mollified as I was now at least keeping up to Dennis in the twisty bits.

The ride to the Volpaia turn-off was noteworthy from the perspective that we did it all in the big ring - last time through it was all little ring, so we're obviously benefiting from the hills. The climb to Volpaia was another one of these relatively short (4Km), relatively steep (7-10%) climbs like the one into Alboa, just not as bad. I needed a couple of stops to catch my breath but was not at risk of needing another lung retrieval mission. Dennis managed the climb without apparent difficulty (at least he didn't let on that he had any;-) It certainly did not have the leg-searing effect of Mr. 15% for the next 3km.

At the main square in Volpaia, one of the locals suggested that our "gumas' (tires) would not be up to the rest of the loop due to the road surface becoming gravel shortly (all this in Italian by the way), so we'd be better off to go back down the way we came.

The descent was tricky because the road surface was quite chewed up and our line through the hairpins was crucial. Dennis did manage to lock it up again at one point, but got the bike under control before he did himself any damage. I tended not to have that problem because a) I'm heavier and it takes more force to lock things up, and b) I'm more of a whuss and wouldn't let my-self get moving that fast! It was at the bottom of the descent that I noticed my left crank was backing out again. Fortunately I'd anticipated this and bought an 8mm allen wrench in town after the last episode and could effect "repairs in the field."

Looking at Volpaia (top left) from Radda

We rode the usual, loop back to Castellina through Radda, with the "normal" 15% climb. The good news was I had enough in my legs to try and surprise Dennis with a couple of jumps, the bad news was he had more than enough to catch me;-) On the last climb into Castellina we could see a couple of riders ahead of us and were very impressed at how fast we were catching them, until we actually did catch them and found out they were at least 80 years old.

Castellina from the top of the last climb

Wednesday, and our last day of riding, was a repeat of the 50Km Poggibonsi loop. We got up the 20% stretch at the end of the driveway seated for the first time, although I still needed the 26 to do so, and did our normal hack and wheeze routine as we rode the1 km into town and the turn for the downhill to Lillianio. Things started out well, until we got rolling and then caught and got held up by a car on the steep part of the descent, so no world speed records this time. Despite his cold Dennis hammered the rest of the way down in the big ring and the 13, so I just sat on and enjoyed the tow. It was garbage day in Staggio, so we had a few more trucks than usual to avoid, and I let my-self be intimidated by a dump-truck in a rotary just as we entered Poggibonsi, but due to Dennis's inspired ride we hit the base of the climb in about the same time as our last time through.

It was obvious that even with his cold, we were both feeling much stronger than the first time as soon as we started to climb. The first couple of km's is one of the steeper sections and one that I bailed into the 26 pretty early on last time. This time up I never saw the 23, let alone the 26 and most of the rest of the climbing was done in the 17-19 range. We hit Castellina 55 minutes after the start of the climb, at least 5 minutes faster than previous. Not bad for a couple of fat old guys.

Captain Canada after 562m of climbing - note the pear shape for improved descending

Dennis (and an ass of an Italian) proving yet again he's too much man for just one bike.

Through-out the week we saw other riders. Lot's of roadies, more than a few mountain bikers and the occasional touring tourist. The weather was consistently clear and in the mid-seventies and we had no rain to speak of. We found a bike shop just south of Siena where we bought some clothing. Prices were more than reasonable, probably due to the owners insistence that we pay in cash, which went straight into his wallet! We'd finish a ride and sit on the terrace under the sun and look out at the Tuscan countryside while drinking "real" coffee and eating breakfast. Life is indeed sweet.

In Conclusion

While it may sound as if all we did was ride, the trip was great from all perspectives. We saw some great architecture

Santa Croce - Firenze

art and more architecture and neat places

and we had a good time! I'd go back in a heart-beat.

Duomo San Marco - Venice

Laurel single-handedly corrects 500 years of poor Italian Engineering!