Rainy days were among the hardest during my travels. Once near Lucca, I stayed for an hour in a roadside church, wet to the core, with an entire day of rain predicted. I wanted to dry out just a little, and tried to dry my socks and cycling gloves over burning candles near the Virgin Mary. It was no use. As soon as I left my spot by the candles, I felt the cold and damp church atmosphere envelop me. Weaker souls may have asked someone in the church to help, but I just prayed and prayed and went back out in the downpour and resumed my ride. There was nothing I could do but plow through to the next youth hostel and dream of a hot shower.
A few days later, an acquaintance I had met in Miami provided me a great Italian meal with her family and cold medicine after I came down with a head cold. She took me on a sightseeing tour of Lucca and I explored the Puccini Museum, among other notable structures. The rain continued, and armed with her umbrella, I took a train to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower.
Leaving that area, and after a bike ride over mountains, I approached the Mediterranean Sea. As near as I could figure out, while I ate two sandwiches at a waterfront park, two Italian men asked me if I wanted to shower with them. They said the sea was dirty from petroleum. Were they explaining their question? I had learned the Italian word for crazy and used it, legitimately I think, in response to their shower query.
After several stages in this vicinity, the bike race headed back to north central Italy. The Giro concluded in Milan with 15 laps around a historical fortress. Gaston of CLAS won the prestigious overall mountain-climber’s green jersey as the almost three weeks of racing ended.
Giovanni Pinarello, former bike racer and now bike manufacturer in Treviso, Italy, was at this final stage and noticed that I was riding one of his bikes that dated to the Los Angeles Olympics. Without introducing himself, he inquired in Italian why I had my fine bike burdened with panniers and I replied that I was following the Giro, and since this was my favorite road bike and because I was riding so many miles to keep up with the Giro, I had brought it with me from Miami.
Pinarello’s daughter was with him and helped with communication. He introduced himself to me, and I grinned at my good luck. He proceeded to give me a bright pink Pinarello cap and a Pinarello T-shirt which portrayed him, Fausto Coppi, and others racing in the Giro circa 1950. As we parted, he said “If you come to Treviso near Venice, I will give you a Pinarello bike factory tour.”
In addition to Mr. Pinarello, I met a nice Italian nurse named Marco during the Giro’s final day who was about my age, and who invited me to call him when I reached Como. Although Marco watched the Giro’s final stage, he was not an avid cyclist. When we rendezvoused a week later, he brought me to a friend’s expansive orchard in Fino Morasco where we celebrated wine and cherries at a festa (party) with his friends. It was a great, relaxing day with wonderful company.
With about 20 days to myself before the start of the Tour de France, I explored Italy’s Lake District and rode through a mountain tunnel to Switzerland for a day. As occasionally happened, I had not intended to go to Switzerland. But right out of town, I took the wrong road and began climbing switchbacks. I continued on my errant path to Lucano. While I ate a ricotta and cream torte in the town square, I listened to a street musician and her daughter playing “Five hundred miles…” on a synthesizer. Sometimes, life was just too funny. I hummed the tune all the way back to Italy.
That was also the beauty of traveling solo. There was nobody to blame for choosing the westward path rather than the northward one. There was nobody to argue with over whether to continue on to Switzerland or not. Everything was my responsibility and my decision, for better or worse.
Was it me or did everything in Switzerland appear a little nicer, a little cleaner and quieter? Sixty-six hilly miles later, I was back in Menaggio stuffing myself with a filling meat, rice and carrots dinner at the Italian youth hostel.
Having figured out the correct road now, the next day I climbed and climbed to the Madonna del Ghisallo church, which was dedicated to cicliste (cyclists). I couldn’t be in the Lake District and not have seen this. But, oh, I paid the price in tired legs. In the church were cycling jerseys and monuments to cycling greats. Claudia Chiappucci’s maillot jaune, the overall race leader jersey, from the 1990 Tour de France hung proudly, as did jerseys from Fausto Coppi, Francesco Moser, Eddy Mercx, and Maria Canins. A bronze sculpture of two cyclists with one raising his arm in victory paid homage to the exciting sport.
Freshly out of church, I have a confession which doubles as a tip for cycling adventurers. Just as some Italians play loose and fast with rules, I learned to do the same in their country. The first time I rode a train with my bike in Italy, I correctly paid for it to go in the cargo car separate from me. I had played by the rules. The next four times, however, I opted to be an ignorant tourist. I took my bike wheels off the frame, locked the three bike pieces together with my kryptonite lock and hauled the whole thing above my head to place it in the train’s overhead compartment. I made it look as if my “luggage” was easily portable, and carried my panniers separately. Once, a train’s ticket taker lectured me in Italian about how the bike had to go in a separate compartment, and that this situation was verboten, being placed up there like luggage. He glared at me. I pretended I only spoke English and didn’t understand him in Italian or German. Was he going to throw me and my bike off the train? As I slightly shrugged, he was mighty mad. I apologized, and he let my transgression slide.
Another time, the ticket taker looked at me, then my bike in the overhead, then at me and then the bike again, then just heaved a huge sigh and carried on collecting tickets. I had learned in my first train ride that having my bike arrive a day or so after me just did not work, and so the apparent occasional lawlessness of this country worked in my favor.
June 1991 was drawing to a close, but before it did, I slept in a youth hostel that dated to 1362. It was built within a castle wall that encircled the small village of Montagnana. I fell in love with this town and its people. I ate breakfast and decadent chocolate snacks in the town centro at the pasticerria. It was so easy to meet people in the small villages because I stuck out so blatantly. They always wanted to know what brought me to Italy and where I was headed. The last question was simple. The Tour de France began on July 5 so I was off to Torino, then over the Alps and on to Lyon.
Several century-long bike rides and a train ride later, and I was in Lyon seeing Greg LeMond race in person while wearing the coveted yellow jersey for a few hours after a morning race stage. I happily wrote in my journal that delicious food was less expensive in France, so I could eat better and more cheaply. The French were friendly to me. I appreciated the women being more freely engaged in conversations. In Italy, it seemed, all the people who approached me were male; here everyone I encountered was simply pleasant.
I saw my amigo from the Spanish team, CLAS, on July 8. I asked him, “me recuerda?” and he did. Inaki Gaston gave me a red water bottle with refreshing cold water in it and the words “Buvez Coke” on its side. I thought how ironic that he had just finished racing in the multi-mile, arduous Tour stage that day, but he was offering me a drink. We talked about his racing career and how he sometimes did three international stage races in Spain, Italy and France in the same year. This is not something many cyclists do because it is nearly impossible to maintain top form in all of them. He had been a pro cyclist for eight years but had never visited the U.S. He was married and said he missed his wife and his dog, but this was his career, so c’est la vie.
I became acquainted with the team mechanic, Alejandro, and the masseuse. Day after race day, I would run into the CLAS team and support personnel. They were friendly faces to me in the enormous Tour crowds. Occasionally, they would give me and my bike a lift in their team cars, and I got to eat breakfast and lunch with them one day in Reims.
The Spanish television crew noticed me hanging out with this Spanish team and asked how I had come to know them. I said I had met the team at the prologue of the Giro d’Italia. Si, but that was some 35 days ago, they said. So, I told them that I had followed the stages of the Giro d’Italia throughout Italy and had watched the team race day after day, and saw the Giro’s finish in Milan. Then, I had biked toward the Alps and was following the professional racers as they competed in the Tour de France. Their eyes grew big at my story.
“Who did I think would win the Tour?” they asked.
“LeMond, naturellement!” I answered.
I cannot tell you how difficult it was for me to have just been in Italy speaking Italian for 30-plus days, then crossing a border into France and having to switch gears to speaking French, and then, in this situation having to speak Spanish in which I had not had to seriously converse since Miami. All these foreign words would simultaneously pop into my brain and I had to pick the right one for the right person in order to utter simple sentences. I thought my head would explode.
Still, the wheels of the Spanish TV crew’s heads were spinning, too. They had a story here. This crazy American female, on her own, was following the two biggest international stage races on her bike. And she was there at race starts or finishes, day after day, while the teams and support personnel covered hundreds of miles in race caravans. My story was amazing, they thought.
They asked if they could interview me. “Si,” I said, but wondered aloud if my was Spanish good enough. They assured me it was.
For the interview, I wore the Pinarello bike jersey Mr. Pinarello had given to me. In this small way, I wanted to repay him for his generosity to me. The crew filmed me with my bike and one of my travel bags, and asked me questions in Spanish such as why I was following the two races, why were they important to me, what work did I do in the U.S., was it difficult riding so many miles and not having access to ordinary things such as washing machines or being able to cook for myself. They asked if I was sightseeing and visiting monuments in addition to following the races, and I assured them I was, every chance I got.
In my best Spanish, I said the Giro and Tour are the ultimate bike races, and that the pro racers were essentially dios, gods, to me. I said it was definitely difficult riding so many miles, with heavy bags weighing down my fast bike, and getting lost from time to time, and daily having to figure out every small detail myself – but I wouldn’t want to do it any other way. And my smile must have filled the whole TV screen. I concluded the hardships really didn’t matter. “I am here, seeing the best racers and races in the world. “Puedo mourir ahora.” I can die now.
Shortly after this interview, a Spanish rider began to lead the Tour de France. Miguel Indurain earned the yellow jersey. Although he rode for a team other than CLAS, CLAS members were ecstatic and proud as Indurain went on to win the Tour that year.
Meanwhile, Mecanico Alejandro totally revamped my bike, by replacing the headset and the ball bearings in the crank – repairs requiring expertise and finesse. He washed my bike, and installed a new chain and new handlebar tape. My shining, clean bike had a new lease on life, especially after having shimmered and shook all over the historic pave or uneven brick roads of Italy.
This team was so good to me. Gaston gave me a pair of his Time brand cycling shoes, which were a tad big for me, but he said he had other pairs, newer, and I could have these $200 shoes if I wanted them. Alejandro gave me CLAS team gloves, a team jersey from last year, hat and headband. (I still wear my CLAS jersey… 21 years later). The only drawback was all these special gifts weighed me down. I had to send a package home, pronto.
On July 22, I rode for nine-and-a-half hours in two sessions. The next day, I watched the infamous mountain stage of Alpe d’Huez on TV. On July 26, I saw Lemond up close with his startlingly blue eyes warming up on his bike and it took me a minute to register that it was him, my hero!
I also learned from Alejandro that day that with the Tour finish only two days away in Paris, all of CLAS’s support personnel would be returning home this day, leaving only the racers, masseuse and director sportif to carry on in Paris. Tears came to my eyes. The thought of friendships ending, despite this trip having been better than I had ever imagined, made me nearly inconsolable.
After seeing the end of the Tour in Paris, I experienced many bad travel situations but emerged, worse for wear, in Marseilles in southern France. Mistral winds and cliffs challenged me while beautiful vistas carried me through on my way back to Italy and Montagnana, my favorite Italian village, where a young Italian was waiting for me.
I had met Corrado during my visit to Montagana, and called him to tell him I would return there. He worked in a T-shirt factory from what I could understand, and lied to me about his age. He was 20, ten years my junior. He had been a successful junior-level bike racer, but when a friend had died in a cycling accident, he had hung up his aspirations. I liked how fun-loving he was, irreverent some would say, like when he climbed and balanced on a 15th century sculpture of Saint Frances outside one of the churches in his village. Anyway, I thought our friendship worth exploring and used my last week in Italy to do that.
I cried on the flight as I returned Aug. 14 from Milan to Miami. I was unsure why I was headed back. I had stuff in South Miami: a house, a car, a shady yard with five avocado trees, and a job of sorts there, but were they good enough reasons to leave a place that made me so happy? Still, I couldn’t be a vagabond forever, could I?
When the plane landed on U.S. soil, I had resigned myself to carrying on, seeking opportunities to return to Europe as soon as possible. I picked up my bike box from the luggage area, assembled my bike in the airport, attached my panniers and water bottle for the last time this trip and pedaled home.
In honor of the many people who showed me so much love and respect on this trip, I quote one of my favorite poems by Johann von Goethe that I committed to memory:
To know someone here or there
With whom one can feel there is
Understanding in spite of distances
Or thoughts unexpressed
That can make of the world