Saturday, September 19, 2009

First Bike "Adventure" in Italy

My first four days in Italy were "running" days. I saw a different city every day - Milan, Ravenna, Florence, and Pisa. I had no time to find alternate ways to work out. Thus, my first attempt to bike was the second day in Pisa -- the first day of my husband's aerospace conference. I would be alone all day, so I decided to rent a bike. I wanted to ride to a Mediterranean beach which, we were told was only about ten miles away.

It was an adventure from the get-go, starting with the bike shop. It took me 15 minutes to find it because it wasn't at the location advertised. It was on the street. Around the corner. Across from the tacky souvenir shop. What else would I expect when the window sign has a map with a dot that says: "YOU are here" with an arrow pointing to another dot, one that says: "WE are HERE"? Duh! And all that time I had been looking for a business with a door.

So, yeah, it's the guy that rents six-seater bikes for groups to tool leisurely around Pisa. I didn't see any regular bikes, but thankfully, he spoke English. The ad says they rent hybrid and mountain bikes. I pointed to the add and said: "hybrid"? He pointed to a clunker girlie bike that looks like it's seen better days (see photo) -- not at ALL what I was hoping for. I gave it that once-over and pointed, again, to the statement on his ad: "Hmm, do you have a mountain bike?" He looked at me like I wasn't "getting it" and said "yes!" emphatically, and pointed, once more, to the very same bike. Clearly he thinks I'm an idiot. Or doesn't realize I'm a cyclist. He spoke: "Dees one - dees one for you." He was not to be swayed. He pulled out the rental rates. €13/day. Clearly, I must bargain. I asked for hourly rates. He reluctantly pulled out a second chart. €5/2 hours. Now THAT'S more like it. If I'm going to ride this ridiculous bike, I'm not taking it for more than a couple hours.

The business deal took place. Not finding my drivers license, I reluctantly surrendered my passport as collateral and handed him a €5 note. He gave me a quick lesson on how to lock up the bike. In these parts, security requires a massive chain that weighs over 10 pounds attached to a gigantic key lock that probably weighs more. After the lesson, he tossed the giant chain in the giant basket on the front of the bike -- a basket that will be heretofore known as my "water bottle cage."

The test drive - I almost wiped out on first revolution of the pedals. Great - so much for convincing this guy I'm a veteran cyclist. But clearly, this type of bike required some finesse. The handlebars were shaky and the brakes barely touched the tires. Rental guy assumed it was my position and lowered the seat. I got back on. I was now Peter Fonda, riding my chopper. But I had no time to protest, the clock was ticking and there was no time to lose. I rode around the corner out of sight where I could stop and readjust the seat to spare my quads. I headed toward the city wall.

The shakedown - I assessed the situation to determine if a "long" ride was feasible. The handle bars vibrated at low speeds, there was a bump on the tire causing anything in the bottle cage to jump once a revolution. I thought to myself: "throwing the chain" on this bike meant something entirely different. I noticed the brakes only served to slow me down and there were only six gears. Yep. I'm riding to the beach. What have I got to lose?

As I embarked on my quest, I contemplated my biggest fears: mechanical failure, flat tire, getting hit by a crazy Italian man who pulled out on me, getting hit by a smart car and causing IT more damage than the bike, and getting in trouble with the law (but bikers seem to ride everywhere in Europe, even against traffic on one-way streets). Then there was the humor factor: the whole time I was riding, I mused to myself that someone would see me and repeat Princess Leia's reaction to Han Solo upon first seeing the Millenium Falcon in Star Wars: "You came in that thing?!?! You're braver than I thought!"

Determined, I made it to the river (all rivers flow to the sea, right?) and onto the main road following signs for "mare." As I rode, I contemplated the bright side: afterall, there ARE six gears, the water bottle cage is easy to use, the aero position (which I now call "the crouch") is more comfortable than my TT bike, I'm getting new highlights in my hair because I don't have to wear a helmet, my foot muscles are stronger because I have to keep them on the pedals, and the seat doesn't cause saddle sores. Woo!

I made it to the beach in about an hour (including the 30 minutes I tooled around Pisa), which gave me time to check out the sights: beautiful mountains to the north, beachgoers, and seascapes. I took pictures. I met an African man selling silver jewelry who spoke many languages. When I told him I didn't speak Italian, he asked if I spoke French. I replied: "no, Inglese" -- to which he responded by asking me if I was from England. I laughed -- to my delight, this is, perhaps, the only person I've met who would mistake me for an English person. Do I NOT stick out as an American? I told him I was from the United States. He replied: "oo - ess - ay" and then "Obama!!" I smiled. He said "Obama is a very good man" -- and then tried to sell me some silver. Despite the offer of a "good price," I had no spending money and got on my way. When my watch said 1 hour 25 mins, I decided it was time to return.

As I turned to ride back to Pisa, I was confronted with those damn Mediterranean winds... I dialed all the way down to 4th gear and did "the crouch" to gain some speed heading out to the main drag back to Pisa. Local traffic ensured that I barely made it back in time, upon which rental guy assumed: "two more hours?" I was done: "Noooooooo!" I was desperate to be back on foot and in possession of my passport. He didn't push the point. I thanked him, smiled, and ran back to my hotel, happy that I got through one day without Jim and without any major disasters.

Some photos from the beach trip:

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