It's over. Almost as fast as it started it ended. 6 days and 5 nights of cycling surrounded by unreal scenery and immense pampering by Backroads. I cannot say enough positive things about this trip and experience to make it match the feeling I had throughout the trip. There was nothing easy about the cycling. That was great. There was nothing ugly about the Tuscan countryside. That too was great. There was nothing bad about the food. Also great. There are no words to put into context how cool it was to share this trip with my best friend. To ride the trip alongside great friends like Alex and Tracy made it all the more special. The true makers of the trip, those who did all the work, coordinated the events during the rides, kept the espresso flowing and provided great context along the way were the guides, Edo (from Gaoile), Chris (from Australia) and Katie (from SW Colorado). These guys made the hard work of the climbs more fun, adjusted for the desires of the group, helped keep us on the right route and made sure we had lots of local color throughout the trip. The put on birthday parties, made extra cheese snacking occur when they found out people (me) liked eating cheese, introduced you to their family when they rode through their hometown. Just amazing and the trip was far better off because of them. More than anything, they made it possible for experienced riders and more novice riders alike to enjoy the same experience. They allowed for adjustments when people wanted to stay in a town longer or skip forward to get to the hotel earlier. One of the coolest jobs ever but certainly not the easiest as these guys worked their tails off for us.
I went into the experience like I do almost anything that is new. Cautiously. Backroads is a shared experience and going into it I fretted about the type of people that we would get in our group. Would these folks like us? Would there be someone in the group that didn't mesh or was unpleasant? My M.O. is to hold my cards close and share only so much to avoid befriending before I really know someone. I find myself always walking out of conversations after getting to the surface level only. This is likely a defense mechanism of some sort. Maybe the result of not trusting my judgment of people. Maybe a situation where I became friends with someone I didn't like very much once I really got to know them. I'm not sure, but on a trip like a Backroads adventure, this is certainly a detriment. It reminded me of my family vacations to Calloway Gardens where I would wait until about Thursday of a Sun-Sat trip to open up to new friends and then regret the depth of friendships I could have had if only I had dove right in on Sunday. There were 14 unique and nice people on this trip. Briefly:
- Mary Beth & Stefan: Westport, CT couple, 2nd Backroads trip, Stefan rowed and had immense wattage/power. Mary Beth was funny and rode an electric bike. They traveled here with Chip and Kate. Ex-banker, now business investor.
- Chip & Kate: Westport, CT couple, 2nd Backroads trip, Chip was also a strong rider. He ran a Private Equity firm after spending time in Commercial Banking. Cindy referred to Kate as an ‘enigma’ because you rarely saw her riding but she rode lots of miles. I’m not sure Kate loved this reference.
- Ester and Klod: Ester was a hoot. Boisterous with an infectious laugh and lack of a filter which was endearing. Her biking confidence grew by the day. Klod was an Ironman Triathlete. Strong rider with a happy-go-lucky attitude. You got the impression that the only thing that could upset Klod was a lack of trying. He wore an Ironman ring- never seen that before. Good Calgary folk.
- Cary and Julie – a true cycling couple. Both coming off of injuries and not riding as much as they once had, but you could see their strong potential. Portland, WA.
- Roger and Sheryl – a really funny couple. Roger was a Personal Injury Attorney in Toronto and very well-spoken and witty. You get the impression he may be the best PI lawyer in all of North America but he’d never say so himself. At 67 he was very fit and clearly very successful. Sheryl and 'Rog' had been married less than 2 years but really seemed to soak up life together. This was Sheryl's first time riding a bike since she was in her teens. She improved quickly throughout the trip. I really enjoyed the time spent with them.
- Alex and Tracy – these are two of my closest friends and truly great people. I am so happy that Cindy and I got to experience this great trip with them. We have laughed a great deal and the trip with them has been amazingly easy. The sign of great friends is when the unexciting times are as good as the exciting times.
Hopefully this is one of many adventure cycling vacations we get to take in our lifetime. Cindy was awesome on the bike. Strong uphills, finished easily in the top 25% of the riders on the trip. We are going to work on her fear of going downhill. Edo helped her relax this fear a bit on the final day – I owe him for that. I am amazed at her strength. I dare anyone to tell Cindy she can't do something…
The Route: a loop from Castello Di Velona (CdV) back to CdV – 74km. After more bread, cheese, yogurt and cappachino for breakfast we headed out for the route rap (where they tell you all about the route with a brief history lesson added at the end). CdV is set atop a large hill overlooking the vast Tuscan valley so the downhill to the roadway is no joke. Easily 12% grade. The road continued down for a short distance on a brisk morning until pitching upward for a 10k climb that was no joke. My goal was to go at it hard riding from last to first and to the top in 40 minutes. Not a bad time for me considering it was about a 1600 foot climb. Once on top we were back to great views that by now are almost something we take for granted. Open air views on all sides as far as your eyes can see. Winery's, hillsides, sheep (some blocked the road earlier up this hill for Cindy), olive trees, castles…amazing. Interestingly, in Tuscany many of the towns are built on top of the hills which added to the scenery after a tough climb. These towns have narrow roads with the buildings right against the roadway almost creating a tunnel. After some minor ups and downs we stopped in for the traditional morning espresso or cappachino. From there we motored onward towards lunch at Piesa, named after a Pope many centuries ago. The pope asked for this town to be created as the perfect utopian city to compete with the likes of Siena and Florence. To do so atop such a small hillside the architects had to build with many optical illusions like curved and angled walls, offset buildings and non-square piazzas. Cool town where I had my best pizza (Gorganzola and red radish) and best Gelato flavor (Biscotti) of the trip. After a leisurely time at lunch we headed back out for another 35km up a different route to Montalcino (big uphill with awesome switchbacks at the end) than the prior day and then down a great 11k to CdV! My favorite 11k of the trip because you can ride at a sustained 30mph for most of the way. So cool! This morning (Sunday and final Backroads day) and after a quick 11k ride up to Montalcino for sweets and espresso with Edo, we stopped in at the Abbey on the way back and heard the monks chanting. So very cool to watch and hear. I'm not sure why monks become monks but they sure seem at peace. Churches should consider this to get more people meditating in weekday services – totally peaceful experience.
A word or two more about the Castello Di Velona. A very cool place to arrive at for the last two days after 45-50 miles cycling. Typically we were greeted with an adult beverage and then we quickly found our way to the pool area where there were plenty of covered chairs as well as a 270 degree view of the mountains, valleys, wineries and olive groves of Tuscany some of it across a multi-tiered infinity pool. Now I am not one to praise the spa life but when it is included in the price of the stay I will wear it out. I found myself in the Turkish mineral bath, the sauna and the steam room (not sure I understand why the latter two are relaxing!?!?) as well as the “emotional shower.” What's this you ask? Think of a 4-stop shower alley. Stop 1: Cool minty misty shower. Stop 2: bucket-like shower. Not quite warm, not quite cold. Stop 3: an even cooler mintier mist. Stop 4: this stop puts the emotional in the “emotional shower.” Think ice cold rain. Ouch. Each stop is about a minute and oddly once done I missed it a bit. Still not much of a spa guy but it did provide a nice break to 2 hours of laying around reading by the pool with the great view. Clearly, I am a man of few real life problems and I am truly grateful for the gifts I have been given in life.
Speaking of grateful, it is trips like these that make me so fortunate that a great, smart, strong and beautiful woman like Cindy married me. She helps me build a deeper foundation with concepts like appreciation, gratitude, kindness and inner strength. She lives with these qualities and as an example of these things along with well-defined character, honor and integrity. All of this and I am lucky enough to wake next to her almost every day.
In addition to gratitude and a great deal of fun and excitement, this trip has reinforced my love for Cycling. While at this stage of my life it is difficult to be my primary sport given the time it takes, I still want to find myself on my bike weekly throughout the year and ramp up over the summer as the days lengthen. It also reinforces my one day desire to ride across the United States for no other reason to say I did it and see the small parts of our country. Lastly, this trip has not only allowed me to see and learn about another country but it has afforded me a view of a simpler life with greater traditions, less work and more play. A passionate life that embraces art, science, food, sport most of which has family clearly aligned at the center. Sure the economy isn't as strong and maybe political corruption is a dark spot, there is no doubting how this country embraces that which most humans would agree are some of the best parts of life. As Americans (warning vast and wide generalizations are about to be made here), we will likely never fully understand the value and benefit of this life but I would hope we could adopt the Italian philosophy of more play, less work attitude as a culture. I hope I am wrong – it is our loss if I am right.
Today we said goodbye to the Backroads guides and our group and have spent the afternoon traveling to Bellagio on Lake Como. Bus from CdV to Florence, speed train from Florence to Milan, slow train from Milan to Lecco, express train to Varenna-Esino, then ferry to Bellagio. If Steve Martin or the ghost of John Candy are in my room when we arrive I'll be sleeping on the floor (“those aren't pillows!”).
So I made you read a small novella. If you made it this far go ahead and click here for a slideshow of Day 8. Ciao!