Cycling in the Italian Alps. Wow. Sounds exciting and exotic. What bragging rights we could have! Best of all, I see the bike tour will end on the very day my sister and her family leave Rome. We can spend time with them in Florence and Venice.
First, I must convince my husband. “Yes, of course we can do it. It’s Road Scholar so everyone will be old. We’ll have to get in shape though.” We snag the last two spots on the tour and start training––upping our rides to twice a week, twenty-five to forty miles at a time. The brochure makes it clear: If we don’t pass the riding test on the arrival day, we will be sent home.
Day One––Test Day. We’re here now and I’m not worried; we’re ready. Our guide Enrico divides our group of twenty-four into three sets of eight. Irv and I are in Group 2, which will meet at 4:00. Everyone looks young. Participants banter about how many biking tours they have taken––fifteen or twenty for some––and how many miles they ride every week. Lots of bragging going on. I start to feel uneasy. A little before 4:00, Irv and I don our cotton T-shirts and shorts and join the rest of our group, decked out in their spandex tights and bright-colored biking jerseys.
We are told to stay together in the garage area; we will go up to a higher street all together for the test. Pino, our capable driver, helps fit the bikes, raising and lowering seats. He won’t say much the whole trip, but he knows more about the region than either of the guides, both of whom live in Milan. He looks to be in his mid-fifties, but later, when I challenge him saying I know I am older, we find out that he is 76, the same age as my husband Irv and another guy, the two oldest on the trip.
Then Enrico notices that one person is missing. It’s Bill. Bill’s wife says he rode up to the test area. Not allowed. Guido, a second guide who is mentoring Enrico, takes off to retrieve him. Bill will turn out to be pretty mellow and just a couple years younger than Irv. Maybe he was nervous too.
We walk the bikes up the hill and Enrico explains the gears. The bikes are nice hybrids, but the gears are unmarked levers, not rotating handles with numbers that display what gear you are in, like I am used to. Enrico tells us “use your toe” to move the lever on the left to go from first to second to third. He repeats the statement a couple times to eight blank stares. Finally, because he is moving his thumb back and forth, I say, “You mean thumb?” Enrico laughs the loudest, acknowledging that his English is a bit rusty.
One at a time, we are to ride in front of the guides. First, starting and stopping––I can do that. A former teacher, who claims to ride twice a week, forty to fifty miles each time back in Illinois, doesn’t start with a pedal up to get momentum. Just before she takes off, she wobbles like she is going to fall over. I will notice that after a week of riding, she still has shaky starts. Right now, her wobbles make me happier than all the bragging about distance.
Next, riding with one hand while looking back to the left and then riding with one hand while looking to the right. Then riding uphill as a group to practice down-shifting. Later using the levers will become automatic, but during the test, I’m thankful Enrico overlooks my failure to downshift early enough. I don’t make it up the hill. Maybe he sees it after all though, because he makes the whole group do it again. The second time, I concentrate on the gear levers and then fail to keep my hands on the brakes when coming back downhill. I’m going too fast and scared, but I manage to stay in control. That evening at dinner they hand out T-shirts because we all passed.
This Italian ski area isn’t far from the Austrian border. Small deer head skeletons mounted on wooden plaques decorate the stairwells and dining room. Deer heads everywhere, even in our rooms. The food here is as German as Italian: pork and gravy with pasta and vegetables, cooked cream with raspberry sauce for dessert. We might be in Bavaria.
The first riding day, I put on black silk leggings under cotton shorts. We expect mountain temps in the 40s, but I’m mostly thinking that the base layer might pass as long Spandex if people don’t look closely. By the time I finish my granola and yogurt, I’m sweating. I take off the silk undies and put them in the suitcase. We stick to cotton and won’t wear any cold-weather gear, nor rain pants, the entire trip.
The ride is heavenly, an easy twenty-four miles alongside the Adige River. Sharp mountain peaks surround us. We hear the dink-dink of cowbells as we ride past fields where Guernseys graze, and smell new-mown hay, or maybe we smell the cow patties that cover the bike path. Crickets chirp in the trail-side grasses until the afternoon, when I realize that the faster I pedal, the louder and faster the crickets chirp. They’re in my bike. It works fine, though, and I ignore the cricket sound.
All day we follow our guide on paved paths, riding a steady ten to twelve miles per hour. Enrico stops the group every twenty or twenty-five minutes. I hear M.L. (the traveling companion of the wobbler) complain. “I’m not ready to stop. Why don’t we just keep going?” The guides don’t hear her but it wouldn’t matter, they follow their plan. The pace seems about right for Irv and me.
We stop in a village for lunch, then tour a marble factory where statues and ornaments are still carved by hand. We see how the pure white marble is mined and moved down the mountain, and we ride past fields of huge marble blocks stacked like ice cubes. We learn that this bright stone with its tiny sparkly flecks is the only marble used to make Arlington Cemetery crosses.
White marble in the field behind these guides comes from the mountains behind.
We end the day in a new village where Pino has our bags waiting in our rooms. Irv and I feel a nice tired, happy.
The second riding day, another twenty-four miles along the Adige. Wide paved paths take us through acres and acres of apple orchards, where the trees are planted less than two feet apart, like 12-foot high vineyards. Trimmed branches are tied up and down the trunk and the trees are loaded with easy-to-pick apples, just coming into season.
Now Mike, a pharmacist from Kentucky who is at least twenty years younger than many of us, gripes too. “Why don’t we go faster? The ride is too easy.” The guides continue to ride ten to twelve miles an hour, with a water break every twenty to twenty-five minutes, just like the booklet described. We join the sensible couples who mount up after the fast riders take off.
The third riding day, we take a half-day tour of a small town called Merano.
This small city with its promenades along the river and beautiful architecture was a former Roman crossroads stop. Mountains protect the city from the harsh northern European weather, and plants here are Mediterranean, like the flowering caper bush we see hanging over a wall. The guide on our city tour explains how two cultures – Austrian and Italian – meld here with no problems. Sharing a common denominator of religion helps, but the main contributing factor, he tells us, is communication. Everyone is fluent in both languages. Families can opt to send their children to a German-speaking or an Italian school, usually choosing the language of the mother since mothers tend to help with homework. But it’s mandatory that every child also learn the other language. I love this town and its attitudes.
Each day presents a new small village or town, and because rivers don’t flow up hill, our route is mostly level or slightly downhill. The Adige gets wider and the frosty mint green water––whitish from marble dust––turns a medium jade. It’s dicey when we go into and out of towns, where we mingle on streets and roundabouts with cars holding commuters. We use a cornering method that posts a rider at turns and includes a daily assigned “sweep,” who makes sure no one gets lost. Drivers in the area are patient, familiar with bikers, but it’s scary. The trick is to be confident, take your place in traffic, and always signal so as to not surprise drivers. I concentrate on the rider in front of me and strive to keep close.
M.L. turns out to be a big complainer: The ride is too easy, we stop too often, she doesn’t want a water break. At one point we hear, “Why don’t they speak English?” when the guides are talking to one another in Italian. Well, we are in Italy, and they are the natives here. The complainers like to hang together at every stop, making them easy to avoid. The fast riders fall into a pattern: follow close behind the guide, get assigned as a corner, fall back to the end, then ride like heck to get to the head of the line again. They’re happy.
The day after Merano, my cricket chirp is more persistent. Other bikers take notice and express concern. I tell Enrico, who takes a turn on my bike and decides it could be a ball bearing. That doesn’t sound good; I would have to wait for a substitute bike. Then Pino meets us for an ice cream break at a small trail-side cafe, and wise man that he is, finds that the noise is coming from a loose fender. A simple fix, no more cricket.
Towns are clean and friendly, some are walled, some have more historical sights, all have churches with plenty of art. We have two nights in Bolzano, another major stop on old trade routes to Germany, and we see the iceman Ötzi and his museum. From anthropologists, we know which direction he was traveling and what time of year, based on what they found in his stomach. Amazing. Enrico opts to take a tour of a castle and comments at dinner that the art is interesting because it is unusual to have vulgar art from that era. “Vulgar?” I question his use of the English word. Turns out that to Europeans, the word vulgar describes secular, as opposed to religious, art. Now I know.
Steep mountain sides continue to frame our vistas. We ride past parents chaperoning kids home from school, past grizzled old men and big-bosomed Austrian grandmas going to market, past college students and young men and women commuting to work, mothers toting babies in bike seats while running their errands, retired couples out for their exercise. Everyone rides a bike. I want to live here.
Initial worries about cold weather are unfounded. The only rain comes at night. The worrisome forty-three-mile day is completely doable, falling between two days of rest. No one in our group of twenty-four riders is injured, except for mellow Bill who turns grumpy toward the end of the trip. His wife confides to me that he slipped and fell in one of the deep tubs with no grab bars, may have cracked a rib, and is in pain. He toughs it out, though, and doesn’t say anything because he doesn’t want to be sent home.
The last day we bike through a bucolic area with sounds of pigs squealing and roosters crowing in addition to cowbells. We’ve ridden more than 180 miles – not counting the time Enrico missed the trail adding a mile or two. The farewell dinner at a small family-run restaurant in Mantova is a delicious multi-course Italian dinner, with three different pasta servings making up the first course. We pass when offered a third course of a salad, and barely nibble at small chocolates. Then shots of a home-made grappa diluted with a digestive made from the green hull of walnuts, slide down around everything else in our stomachs, and we walk back to the hotel to pack.
We all promise to keep in touch, even though we know we won’t, and head off in separate directions. We did it! Happy for the successful trip, I pull out my folder holding multiple hotel reservations and train tickets for Florence, Venice, and Rome. We expect to be walking, but the strenuous part of our trip is over.
We join fellow riders heading to the Verona train station, where we catch a high-speed train to Florence. There I will tear my rotator cuff while wheeling my suitcase over rough cobblestones, but we learn that when we get home and pain becomes real.
Right now we are set to enjoy the easy part of the trip.