The trip started with a bit of bad news/good news. Bad news–our flight from Amsterdam to Verona was delayed over and over again, and ultimately got us to Verona 3 hours later than scheduled. Good news–we got to watch a mechanic change out the airspeed sensor on the airplane, which was pretty cool, and the flight went smoothly and landed safely.
Still, instead of having an afternoon (daylight!) to assemble bikes, then dinner and sleep, we were desperate for dinner, and were served in best polite Italian fashion at the hotel, giving us lots of time to linger and enjoy our food. It was quite late before we got to unpacking and assembling our bikes, and we were really tired by then. And in anticlimactic fashion, it all went fine.
The next morning, we eyed people nervously at breakfast, wondering who else was on the trip with us, and how insanely better than us they were. The rotund 70 year-old woman, probably not part of the bike group (though you never know… Some pretty unlikely-looking people can turn out to have a lifetime of bicycling under their belt, and whup any 20 year-old hotshot’s ass…) The guy with popping muscles and o% body fat. Yeah, he might be here to bicycle. Gulp. And yup, there was Andy Hampsten. Not even 8am, and I was already a nervous wreck.
A bit before 9, a group of alarmingly fit-looking people started gathering by the van driven by Gerardo. Gerardo! He is Cinghiale‘s guardian angel/patron saint/bike mechanic/rental bike provider/van driver/delicious lunch and snack preparer–calm, level-headed, funny, and capable, he’s the one who makes it possible for us to ride care-free (or at least, only burdened by worries about our fitness and the mountain ahead.)
Gerardo was loading bikes into the van, and, in a moment I will always treasure, saw my old Colnago (vintage Italian steel!) and Ian’s shiny Tommasini (beautiful new Italian steel!) and got a special gleam in his eye. Gerardo liked our bikes!!! Less importantly, though still awesomely, Andy came over and noticed our bikes. I’m not sure if he actually wolf-whistled, but that was what his look suggested. Gerardo made a comment, and Andy translated along the lines of if our bikes were mysteriously replaced with new carbon fiber ones, Gerardo would know nothing about it nor know about how our bikes ended up in his collection…
As none of the alarmingly fit-looking people had laughed at us–in fact, everyone seemed fabulously nice and friendly–and Gerardo and Andy were very happy to have our bikes along (perhaps reserving judgment on us for a little longer), my nerves started abating, and prospects for the week started looking up.
We got to the hotel in Alleghe midday. While we got to go in and have a delicious lunch in preparation for an afternoon ride, Gerardo was going over our bikes, fixing any little issues that occurred in transit. It was such a luxury to have a dedicated mechanic along, not to mention all the other things that he did for us on the trip!
And then, the moment of truth. We assembled in front of the hotel, and set off on our bikes. The day’s plan was an easy ride to get going into things, make sure our bikes worked, combat jet lag, and see the area. We rode along the lake briefly (this stretch of road that started a few of our rides in Alleghe was perhaps the only flat riding we did on the trip…) and then started winding our way up up up a number of switchbacks.
Alleghe was formed when a landslide in 1771 blocked off part of the valley, damming the river and creating Lake Alleghe. Looking at the precipitate slopes above us, and the tenuous way the road seemed to cling to them, I wondered a bit about how stable the rest of it could possibly be…
Once at the top, we wound around above a valley (more beautiful views, blah blah blah), and then started making our way back down again. At which point Andy came up beside me and said something like “do you really like descending, or are you just good at it? You have a nice sense of balance and flow on the bike.”
Did you catch that? ANDY I-WON-THE-GIRO-D’ITALIA HAMPSTEN COMPLIMENTED ME ON MY DESCENDING!!!!!!!!!
Really, it’s a miracle I didn’t fall off my bike, or do something equally boneheadedly uncoordinated…
I think I might have inarticulately tried to say something about all those years of ballet class being useful for something after all. At any rate, he then told me about a time when he was doing an intensive conditioning and flexibility program, was feeling pretty good about himself, and then tried taking a ballet class–which left him pretty wasted… (Side note–part of my trip-jitters way of reassuring myself during the year was to tell myself that even if I was the slowest up every mountain, I would probably be the only one on the trip who could do the splits in every direction. And that any cyclist who could break me on a hill–well, I could break that cyclist in a dance studio… Maybe this wasn’t the most noble way of approaching the trip, but it talked me off a ledge a few times.)
What was especially nice about him complimenting me–besides the obvious–is that descending is something I have a love-hate relationship with. It’s really fun, and I love the speed and sensation of flying. However, I’m by nature a very cautious, risk-averse person, and the speed–and thus increased risk of a bad outcome should something go wrong–also scares me. I’ve had to work very consciously on not freaking out and tensing up when descending, especially when going around corners. Tensing up shoots your bike handling ability to hell, and makes things real sketchy real fast. But staying relaxed and loose on the bike, the much safer way to descend, is not my body’s natural response when a descent has me in extreme pucker mode. I spend a lot of mental energy during a descent telling various muscles to relax, reminding myself to keep my body low, but my head up and my gaze far ahead, weight back and off the saddle, etc–and by the time I’ve gotten to the end of the list, some muscle has tensed up, my center of gravity has popped up, and I have to start all over again. But it’s also so much fun! Despite all the anxiety it causes me, I love letting it fly down a hill, the feeling of weightlessness, butterflies in the stomach–for a moment it feels like not only can I fly, but that anything is possible.
Anyway, some while later, we arrived back at the hotel after a fabulous first day’s ride. It seemed that all my pre-trip jitters aside, I was not egregiously out of place–I felt like I was solidly middle of the pack, which considering the skill and experience level of the other people on the trip, felt pretty awesome.
To make the first day even better, after nice riding weather, not long after we stepped inside the heavens opened. I don’t think I was the only one feeling smug and self-satisfied as I watched the rain pelt down on the roads we had so recently ridden, happy and dry.
And setting the tone for the trip, after eating a ton at lunch, thinking I would never want to eat again, I proceeded to ravenously devour an enormous and delicious meal. Italy is a great place to cycle.
At about 23 miles, and 2,500 feet of elevation gain, this was the “flattest” ride we did on the trip.