TOP RIDES: Chasing A Stranger On Italian Roads

What have we learned from this year’s Giro? Well, Italy has it all and should be on everyones ride bucket list, but maybe riding with Italians has different rules than other cultures. Corey Sar Fox takes us on one of his old winter routes that becomes something memorable when a stranger comes along. Usually you go looking for Top Rides, but sometimes they can find you.

These photos were taken a week later, on a day that was not as brilliant

Back in mid January here in northern Italy, it’s one of those Saturdays where the sun and air are crisp and bright, almost harsh. After so many days indoors and on the trainer, it beckons, no matter how cold. The winter bike, called a mulletto here, doesn’t even get a rub down, some mud and salty brown slush add to its utilitarian charm. The chain is checked for proper gooey-ness and a quick squish of the tires confirm that they must be around a comfy 6.5 bar, ready to roll over that gravel they spread on the roads.

Also, I just bought some new neoprene shoes covers, the old ones that were held together with duct tape finally got replaced [Ride Rule No. 9: new gear must always be tested asap]. It’s frosty-cold, so any extra motivational excuse is welcome. My winter form is so bad that it actually makes cycling un-fun (almost). Riding training loops at unprecedented slowness is disheartening. Thank heavens the computer on my mulletto only reads speed, the other functions that would better document my slide are stuck. Since winter takes away most of the climbing routes around here, it leaves us with the same valleys to investigate, waiting for subtle indications of a far off Spring.

Let’s Ride
I start out from Bolzano on the same path that I so often take. Five kilometers later and we are already out of town. Scale is completely different over here. That’s why European cars look so funny in the States. Every time we visit, my son cannot comprehend that an SUV like the Porsche, which is a big thing, is dwarfed by GMCs, and even Toyotas. Likewise, 100,000 inhabitants constitutes a good sized city in Italy, even if you bump into the same people often.

In warmer months, I usually pick my routes based on the wind. I like to come home with a tailwind, it makes me feel stronger, though there is always the (slight) risk of changing winds and getting screwed. In Winter, I pick routes based on the sun. That leaves pretty much two choices: ride northwest or ride south and stay on the eastern side of the valley. For maximum warmth, travel time is from 1 to 3 pm, better yet, the roads are pretty clear because lunch is a serious thing in Italy.

My Stranger
I notice my stranger while crossing over the railroad tracks that lead to the bike path to Merano. She has a nice long pony tail, brown but with fiery highlights in this strong sunlight. She’s wearing a smart, all black kit with a touch of orange on her windbreaker’s sleeves. Her ride is a carbon black and silver Scott CR-1 from a few years back with a SRAM Red gruppo, Mavic Kysrium wheels and a Sella Italia SLR saddle (black, with no cut out). Her wheels are true and she’s got a 53 x 39. Good signs. There is just enough mud-slush on her bike to know that it’s used, yet well maintained. She has a nice, strong pedalata (or pedaling stroke) with just a slight hitch at the top on her left leg. Another good sign: she has her saddle height properly set.

Yes, I check people out. Yes, it borders on voyeurism, however, a) I’m paid to be observant, b) checking people out, especially their shoes, is fairly acceptable behavior over here and c) I firmly believe that you can tell a lot about a person by their bike, kit and how they ride. Case in point, the shop that sells Scott is located a bit outside of Bolzano in Appiano (or Eppan) and is mainly frequented by German-speaking residents. Besides the big sports department store, all of the other bike shops in town are Italian-centric. Also choosing SRAM is a pretty progressive choice – 90% goes Shimagnolo.

Now contrast this with three middle aged guys on spotless carbon fiber mountain bikes that we ride past. They are all wearing spotless kit. Two of ’em even have white shoe covers, bright white shoe covers! She rides by them and they immediately jump on her wheel. I keep my distance, letting them ride on, it’s creepy enough that I’m a bike peeping-tom, I don’t need to be a wheel suck too. After a few hundred yards she rides them off her wheel. And now I become interested.

The Adige river, the bike path and the train tracks

Now It’s A Top Ride
She is riding around 30 km/h, a normal pace around here for fit cicloamatori. I’m a good 50 meters back, yet I decide to keep up with her tempo and see where this goes, despite my unfitness. An odd and attractive thing about her is that there are plenty of strong female riders in these parts, but all of them ride for teams or clubs in groups, never alone. I, too am often a loner, preferring to ride with my own thoughts and aims. But keeping her in sight now seems to be a good aim for today. As I blow by the dandy mountain bikers, they don’t even bother trying to catch my wheel.

2019 Giro d’Italia stage 18 to Santa Maria di Sala – Many wheels to sit behind in the mountains

Now that I’ve got a pace-setter ahead of me I can settle down into my thoughts. Today I am worried that my 13 year old son (and many other kids out there) have developed acute social media skills while sacrificing real, physical relationships. When I was a kid, we’d just meet at the park or knock on our friends’ doors. In such a connected world, it seems ironic that you just can’t do this anymore. “Look, having digital friends is better than no friends at all,” he reasons. Yep, I guess so.

After awhile my thoughts go blank as I enter cycling nirvana. Perhaps, it’s just a jazzed-up term for being properly warmed up and feeling good; where you and the road and the machine disappear, where cycling becomes a natural rhythm like breathing. You, dear PEZ Readers, know exactly what I mean, so there’s no reason to beat this tired drum. I am also reminded what a great bike this really is [Ride Rule No. 32: bad kit does not disappear]: an aluminum Bianchi MegaPro L from 1998, in Team Mercatone colors, with nicely shaped Dedacciai 7005 series tubing. These old Flite saddles are also marvelous.

This 300 euro purchase awhile back warms my cheapoh heart. The previous owner obviously spent the great majority of his time in the 19 tooth cog, it’s pretty wasted, while the rest of the cassette is fine. I forget this sometimes and get a harsh ghost shift there. I also set it up like they did back then, with a downtube shift lever for the front derailleur. It makes a lot of sense. My 9 speed [Ride Rule No. 67: never envy another’s gears, they can only use one at a time not 10 or even 11; Ride Rule No. 68: feel free to envy their wheels] Dura Ace right shifter has an interesting defect: you have to hold the front lever and push the inner lever with your thumb to downshift. The inner lever won’t move unless you keep the outer (brake) one in place. You get used to it. The rear brake doesn’t center and I can’t get around to fixing it (it’s on my list), so I have to push it back after braking or else it rubs. These quirks of my ride make it mine. There is no way that your ride is exactly like mine. That’s euphemistically called character. Cars also used to be quirky, now they are all so perfect and uniform. I’m not complaining, I’m grateful, but that’s just the way it is nowadays.

The bike path runs between the Adige river and the train tracks. Supposedly the planners wanted some record for the longest line (at the time), so they planned the Bolzano-Merano tracks to take in every little town between them, hence its wandering nature. We pass Settequerce and Terlano. At Vilpiano, a row of cars are waiting for a train crossing. The bars go up and the cars start to roll. My stranger darts across them with a risky move. I have to wait.

This is where we separate

By the time I get back on the bike path, I can no longer see her. Drop down a couple and start hammering, I’m wringing myself out and just as I decide that this is silly, I get a glimpse of her off in the distance. The next town is Gargazzone and I can see that she is not getting off there. So I ease back down to 30 km/h and decide to keep going, even without a pacer. I’ll let her go. Maybe she’s going all the way to Merano or maybe just Lana, both popular routes, but the next town of Burgstall Postal will be it for me, 50-something kilometers is enough.

[Ride Rule No. 9: never take the same road out and back, explore other options] I take the exit ramp off the bike path that leads to the main road back to Bolzano and lo and behold, there she is at the top of the ramp, standing by her bike. I catch a casual glance, but keep riding. Playing it cool, I head back home.

And Back…
I’m on the Statale, the main road back home (they made an expressway now, so this road doesn’t get that much action). This road being more eastern than the bike path to squeeze out those last warming rays of light as the sun is already easing itself behind the mountains. I look back and she’s about 50 meters behind me. Shit, I was hoping to loaf it back home, but pride rides with me now and encourages me to get back up to our old cruising speed. Now it’s my turn to set the pace.

While this road is a bit shorter than the bike path, it has some rolling hills that act as little daggers in my out of shape-ness. Keep pushing. Each rise, I call up all my power. One of the advantages of riding the same roads over and over is that you know the exact effort required for each stretch. Each new sign or landmark passed is motivational. It is also apparent that standing up doesn’t get me any more speed today than sitting down. The tank is running dry. I keep assuming that she’ll blow by me any minute now, but notice that whatever she gains on the climbs she loses on the descents. Man, this Bianchi glides (and I must weigh more).

The church in Terlano.

There’s another thing: I recall Argentin once saying that you shouldn’t attack on the hard parts, rather attack right after the hard parts when everyone else is catching their breath. It’s one of those pieces of advice that make so much sense that it’s become Fox-Dogma. So I always keep a last drop of juice in the tank to launch an acceleration at the top of each climb. This squeeze box pattern of riding continues until we reach the outskirts of Bolzano, then my stranger passes me on one of the longer hills.

These little risers are mean.

Last Stretch
Instead of letting her establish a 50 meter distance ahead of me, as seems to be our established custom, I greedily hang on to her back wheel like a life preserver. Ok, next descent. I’m faster than her and pull along side, resisting the temptation to give her rear a good push (if she were a cycling buddy, this would be proper form since she’s stronger today). But I do finally get a look at her face. An attractive one, mid thirties, I’d say. Also she doesn’t have any water bottles in her fancy Tune bottle cages. Even though I drink far less in the winter, a 90 minute ride without water is inconceivable.

The sun is starting to set behind the surrounding mountains

There are two kinds of cyclists: those that impose their will on traffic and those that timidly wait for traffic. She is the first kind (and I am the second, as if this weren’t obvious). But today, I follow her as she flicks her arm out and then instantly cuts in front of a car to turn off onto the old road that shortcuts around the hospital. This is our last climb, and it is the hardest. I pull alongside and pass her my water bottle (our Coppi-Bartali moment), asking if she’d like any. Despite indications that she is a German speaker, I ask in Italian because it’s the universal cycling language in these parts (it’s the cursing one too). She refuses with a smile and then digs in, climbing in the big chainring – this is one of those climbs that can be done in either, depending on your fitness.

This is the last climb, harder than it looks, too.

I give her those 50 meters now. After the descent, I see that she heads straight towards the Gries neighborhood, while I cut back through the hospital parking lot for the center of town. I am dead tired, a confirmation of my terrible form. However, the post-ride-high should be kicking in soon. I didn’t get a chance to thank her for this workout.

Conclusion Thing
Danilo Di Luca once said [note: whether you like him or not, doesn’t stop him from saying interesting things, the corollary is also true; there are plenty of likeable people that say banal things] that he’d be a pretty good time trial-er if someone were up ahead to pace him. He did not lack speed or stamina, it was the chrono-man mentality, the controlled release of the human spring, the complete unwinding that he did not have. And you can’t learn it either. I’d imagine that Andy Schleck would agree. I, too, can commiserate completely. If it weren’t for my stranger up ahead, today would have been another one of those spin-the-legs type rides instead of a wring-yourself-out one. And that’s just it. If you ride alone, form and feel dictates. If you ride with others, especially stronger cyclists, the rising tide lifts all the boats.

Two days later, I am at a video shoot and the make-up artist looks very similar to this woman (hard to tell for sure when hidden behind a helmet, sunglasses and neck warmer). I spend a good deal of time debating whether it’s her and if I should ask. I finally do, but regret it immediately. Some things should remain distant and unknown, self-contained in their completeness. Thank heavens, it’s not her and I did not have to break Ride Rule No. 38: never show your bike stalking cards.

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