Monday, September 21, 2009

A "Real" Moutain Bike Adventure in Italy

No doubt, those who read my first Italian bike adventure blog are still laughing (at me). It's amazing the compromises I'll make to avoid confusion when I don't speak the language. However, I changed my tune for my second bike ride after a tip from the hotel manager that morning.

It was our last day in Pisa and my last chance to ride before we left for three days in London. To avoid a repeat experience, I asked the hotel front desk clerk for another shop in Pisa that rents bikes. To my surprise, he suggested I go back to the original rental guy, and, get this, that rental guy has "plenty of bikes" in the "shop." Oh, NOW you tell me. I marched out, determined to get what I wanted this time, because the day before I had found a great place to ride -- a trail along the old Roman aqueduct that led to the mountains. Those mountains would be my first destination.

I walked down the street and around the corner... only to find that bike rental guy was not even set up yet. I waited on the corner for about half an hour... then watched for another half hour while rental guy brought out each and every multiple-person Surrey bike (thanks to Google, I now know what they're called). And just as he finished putting up his display, two soon-to-be bikers jumped at the chance and got there right in front of me. As I walked up, they were haggling about something... rental guy looked up... ah, recognition: "How can I help you today?" I said "I want a REAL mountain bike, not THAT one" -- I pointed to my previous bike and continued: "you know, so I can ride up a MOUNTAIN" -- I pointed toward the mountains (I think). He said "you, come with me." The couple in front of me followed us. He led us to the shop and behold, there they were: scooters and mountain bikes... a veritable playground of two-wheeled vehicles. So THIS was it. The couple gets first pick. Then he wheels one out for me -- oh no, not another Bottecchia. I wondered: is Bottecchia is the Huffy of Italy? Where were all the Bianchi bikes? For cryin' out loud.

But again, time was short and I didn't want to argue. Besides, this one actually LOOKED like a real mountain bike. You MUST be kidding -- this mountain bike had its OWN rental rates: €13 for six hours. Come on, rental guy, cut me a break. No deal. I handed him €13 and my drivers license this time. It was 10:51 a.m. -- he said "I give you deal, I mark it 11 a.m." Big whoop. I grabbed the bike and got on my way, adjusting the seat when I was out of sight.

I found my way to the trail and I rode. Despite low air in the tires, the bike felt surprisingly good and shifted well. I rode to a little town called Asciano, built into the side of a mountain. I rode up the first hill I saw. It was so steep I thought I would do a wheelie and flip the bike over backward. Not good. I turned around. Half way down, I realized there were no back brakes -- not "worn" back brakes -- NO back brakes. Why didn't I check?? I ground the front brakes to a halt and got off the bike. Sure enough, the back brakes were broken. I put on my bike maintenance hat... I tried to remember how mountain bike brakes worked -- I just had to pop the the cable in the slot, right? Not so easy. I couldn't do it. I loosened the back wheel -- ah, that did it. Disaster averted, and I was on my way. But not before I learned that my dad wasn't the only pissed-off Italian man behind the wheel. One angry driver let me know how he felt about stopping in the road. Even though he was the only driver ON the road.

I rode down to the main drag and saw signs to Lucca. New plan: I would ride to Lucca and find a mountain or two on the way. The road to Lucca was perfect for cycling -- so perfect that there were groups of bikers decked out in their fancy bike outfits on the same route. I knew I had found THE place to ride. I rode through a nice town called San Giuliano Terme. When I reached Lucca (about 14 miles), I had found no mountain roads, so I turned around and went back the same way. I passed that first little town of Asciano and kept going, still hoping for a mountain workout. When I reached the town of Calci, there were signs that read something like "vista panoramico" and "Monte Serra." My correct assumption: there was a mountain called Monte Serra with a great view at the top. I followed the signs.

I rode up. And up. I stopped to get water (one great thing about Italy is the water fountains everywhere). I filled my water bottle and continued. Up and up, and up and up. I saw riders coming down. Lots of riders. I mused to myself that I had found the Italian equivalent of Everett Road hill in the Cuyahoga Valley. But it just kept going. I stopped to take photos of the scenery. I saw a sign that the summit was about 12k away... time was tight and I wanted to be back before Jim got out of his conference. I decided to turn around. But I rode to a point where I could get a photo of how high I was. Vista panoramico. I snapped a few photos, took in the view, and headed down... down down down down... I watched the road bikers fly by. I smiled. I found a mountain and all was good.

I finished the ride along the aqueduct and back to Pisa. My watch said just over four hours. Rental guy asked me if I was done. I nodded - he handed me my license. He asked me how the bike was. I said "good - you might want to put some air in the tires." For some reason, I felt no need to mention the brakes.

On the way back to the hotel, I saw a street vendor selling something familiar. Gatorade. And in my favorite flavor: Arancia!

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