Friday, May 28, 2010

An American in Tuscany

My 1972 Schwinn Sports tourer was made by a distinctly American (at the time) company with many distinctly American features -- thick-walled tubing, a built-in kickstand, and a headset to the American spec. But at the same time, this bike was just as heavily influenced by its European contemporaries, with tubing of chromoly, a standard English-spec bottom bracket shell, and Huret rear dropouts, of all things.

The bike took what I have to believe is its first trip to the source of its European influence in mid-May, on an Air France flight bound for Charles DeGaulle airport. Ultimate destination: Tuscany. The plan was to invest in myself in a badly needed break, and to get back to a place (Italy) that I've thoroughly enjoyed exploring in the past. The itinerary was ride the bike for a couple of days, then spend the next few days exploring Florence with my friend Allyson. She moved away seven months ago, and though we stay in close touch, in-person time is hard to get. This would be our third visit since she left, and the first time we've really traveled together.

So... good company, a good setting and a bike I've built and rebuilt with my own hands -- all the makings of a very fun trip!

The Gear
The bike went over just as I described it a few weeks ago. Fendered, racked, open pedals, front bag on a decaleur (with safety strap!). No real news there.

For lights I just had blinkies -- the front mounted on the fork crown where the fender keeps the mounting strap safely away from the tire, and the rear on the flap of my saddlebag. Italians pretty much don't ride around with blinkies, so I'm sure I looked a little ridiculous to them. That's OK -- nobody hit me. I didn't ride into dusk, so there wasn't need for anything brighter, light-wise.

The biggest investment in gear I made for the trip was in a Rivendell Saddlesack Large saddle bag, as seen in the top photo. It's a beautiful bag, made in small batches in Connecticut -- land of Ellsworths. As I think I mentioned before, I wanted to try touring with a saddlebag, and I didn't want to buy another set of panniers just because my V-O rack won't support my Blackburn panniers. Someday I'll rack a bike to support those and I'll have panniers at my disposal. In any case, the saddlebag is beautifully made and has classic good looks. It's big! And makes the bike look as if it's been eating too much pie. But at the same time, it offered me plenty of capacity, a decent level of water repellancy, and complements the bike's green Brooks saddle and tape, I think

The bike had to be pretty well disassembled to fit into the Cervelo box I got over at Landry's Bicycles. Stem and bars, saddle and post, wheels, pedals, rear fender -- they all had to come off the bike. And I don't think I've ever mentioned this before, but the bike has a mix of SAE and metric hardware on it. Schwinn was an American company after all, so French or not, the Huret dropouts are threaded SAE. The fork's dropouts are not threaded, so I used metric bolts and nuts there. Stem and headset -- SAE. Bottom bracket and seatpost -- metric. In any case, I couldn't just bring a multi-tool -- I had to bring a small kit of real tools as well, to handle reassembly (two SAE Allen wrenches, a multi-tool, an adjustable wrench, and two small metric wrenches, box and open end). Oh, plus a pedal wrench to get those on and off again. Not a light little kit, but one that fit just fine in the front pocket of my handlebar bag, in a heavyweight plastic bag to keep it neat.

The Ride
When I got to Florence, I took a van to a hotel (Hotel Ausonia-Kursaal) that had graciously agreed to allow me to store some luggage and my bike box there while I spent a few days on the road, before coming back and staying there. I unboxed the bike, rearranged my gear, packed the saddle bag with a couple of days worth of clothes, shoes and my toiletries, got changed and then headed out to find the train station. I got a little lost, which was a little funny, later, once I'd learned the city's layout a bit more. But I made it to the station about a half hour before the next train to Siena was scheduled to leave, so that worked out fine.

I had to fumble my way through the Italian train system, first not understanding the whole ticket stamping/validation thing, and then not understanding that I needed to buy a ticket for the bike as well. Then finding the carriage that had bike storage in it, and finally working past the uncertainty caused by the train itself appearing completely unattended. But the conductor turned out to be the guy milling around near the front of the train -- he was just out of uniform. A helpful and gracious guy.

Arriving in Siena, I bought a map (first thing to do in any new city), and spent maybe 45 minutes getting to the city walls. This was both because the streets weren't well marked outside the city, and I needed to get my bearings, and because I needed to do some tweaking and adjusting to the bike, post-reassembly. I got through all that, though, and spent the afternoon and evening exploring the city a bit.

Siena is charming, as you can see by the photo at the top. It's a little walled city made mostly of brick -- a maze of narrow streets plopped on top of hills that seem improbably steep for building a city. It's largely a walking city -- you can bike or ride a scooter, sure, but most people seem to walk around, and that makes riding a little sketchy. I explored on foot, and when I was headed in and out of town, walked the Schwinn around. Doing so introduced me to the one down-side of having chosen a handlebar bag and saddle bag -- the weight being up so high makes the bike want to fall over when it's not being ridden. But on the bike, that top heavy feeling seemed to vanish -- I'm way heavier than the baggage, of course, and I'm perched way up high, too.

I had a fun night that night, and was seated between two tables of Americans for dinner. I drank too much Chianti, but woke up feeling fine the next morning, ready to hit the road!

Making my way out of the city, I happened by a bike shop, and stepped inside to get my crank bolts tightened (I was a little light on the torque during the crank swap last winter, it seems, and didn't bring my crank wrench), and to pick up a cable lock. The shop was at all nothing like the typical superstore you see in the US -- more like the dim little shops you used to see back in the '70's and before all those places were driven out by the big boys in the '80's and '90's. Most of the shop's footprint appeared to be workspace and storage out back, rather than storefront (which was about the size of my kitchen, except darker and with more bikes). The proprietor was helpful, and took a moment to ogle the Rivendell bag. "Bella borsa" I think he said. Bella was easy enough, but I had to convert "borsa" to "purse" in my head on my way to "bag", so I was a half step behind when he started to point at the bag to close the loop. I pointed out the tag which explained its origin, and he gave the bag a once-over and a respectful nod. He sent me off with non-creaking crank arms and a lock I never ended up using, asking if I was headed to Rome. I managed to both understand that and respond back that I was headed to Florence. And off I went!

The ride to my first night's destination was interesting. Getting out of Siena required a bit of gut-based navigation. My city map got me to the outskirts, but then stopped before I was certain I was where I needed to be. I had much the same problem heading into Florence later, transitioning from street-level maps to the lower-resolution regional map, but I managed without getting too lost.

Once outside the city, the countryside was immediately fabulous. Hills everywhere, covered in vineyards, olive groves, other types of agriculture, hayfields and even some woods. SR 222 from Siena to Florence is a ride not to be missed! It's not long enough, but other routes could be added to make for a fantastic 5-6 day loop through the area. It's mostly agricultural, with just a bit of industry plopped here and there, and though the roads aren't wide and the traffic isn't slow, I never felt at risk of being hit (unlike, say, Route 2A in Concord, which is wider and flatter and straighter, and can be very scary if the traffic is up).

I stopped for lunch at Castellina in Chianti, a little hill town with a quaint shopping district, a neat church and a miniature castle (thus the name). Lunch was a banana I'd saved from the B&B's breakfast, some Orangina, a pear I bought in Castellina, some milk and four slices of Prosciutto bought at a little butcher shop that had cured meats in one case and things like rabbits and lamb shanks in another. I love eating that way when I'm traveling -- little of this, little of that, all tasty!

I'd noticed before lunch that some clouds had been approaching from the north, and heard a bit of thunder while I was eating. Then the temperature began to drop, and I'd say it dropped 15-20 degrees over the course of a half hour. The only shelter for me and my bike in Castellina was a sort of underpass through a line of buildings, and while there was a bench there, I figured if I didn't press on, I'd be stuck there a while. So I put on my new orange windbreaker, saddled up and made my way out of town.

SR222 north of Castellina largely descends until you start to make your way back up the hills toward Panzano. So I was coasting my way north, and had made it maybe a mile when it started to rain. Shortly thereafter, I started to get cold. I stopped, threw my Aardvark saddle cover on the Brooks, pulled off my windbreaker and added a layer of fleece to my upper body. This was standing under a small tree on the side of the road. That's about when the skies really opened up, and let loose not only with a God-awful torrent of rain, but added a solid helping of pea-sized hailstones to the mix. I wasn't really excited about standing under a tree during a thunderstorm, but neither was I excited about riding in a hailstorm, so I stayed put and put a little distance between me and bike, which was grounded through its kickstand, and standing in what was rapidly becoming a stream of runoff.

After a half hour or so of standing around, getting wetter and colder, the rain started to ease up a bit, and the hail stopped (but not the lightning), so I figured it was as good a time as any to make a break for it. I assumed riding would help me build up some heat. Except that the road was largely downhill, so I found that riding actually made me much colder, with both the wind and the water streaming down my legs from the road spray stealing all my warmth.

The shivering got pretty bad. First my legs, and then my arms. I've never been that cold on a bike before. I was worried a lot about crashing from the shivering and a little about hypothermia. So I stopped again in the lee of a quonset hut-like corrugated steel maintenance barn at the road side, again taking my chances against a conductive surface in a thunderstorm. About 15 minutes later, a rider out for a workout went by and that sort of shamed me into action. But I was truly cold, so I hit the next cafe I saw and sat for a few minutes, sipping espresso and warming up near the kitchen.

By the time I got out of the cafe, the rain had stopped. And not far past the cafe, the road began to rise again, and my body started producing heat again. As it turns out, I was completely unprepared to find my B&B for the night, and I followed my iPhone's maps app way out into the boonies, on a dirt road that ended at a farmhouse with a large, barky and unrestrained dog that fortunately had no apparent interest in doing more than barking. On the up-side, this detour gave me a glimpse at life off the 222, and it was pretty cool -- stone farm houses sprinkled among olive groves and vineyards. I logged 31 miles that day.

The next morning promised better weather. It was chilly, but the clouds were burning off even when I had this photo taken. I'm standing at the side of a major road, by the way. Not 222, but a route just as big. The proximity of roads and buildings is very different there than it is here.

I mentioned that there were other riders out there. And on the second day in particular, I saw many. What was interesting is that just as in the US, there is definitely some tribalism at work on the bikes. Whereas on my Kestrel I get lots of nods and waves from the more "racy" riders out there, I get almost zero attention on my Motobecane or my Schwinn (unless I'm riding with the girls, in which case other riders of all stripes are happy to see me passing the torch). In Italy, too, most of the other riders pretty much ignored me, given that I was a "touring" rider, not a "sport" rider. There were I think only two exceptions. One guy gave me a hearty smile and a thumbs-up. Another gave me a "Ciao!" in response to my "Buongiorno!" as he dusted me on a climb. The rest didn't acknowledge the nods or waves. Tribes.

I also noticed many more older riders. A third of the guys on bikes were past 60, I'd guess. Not here. And the only women I saw on bikes in my whole trip were commuters or tourists. No club-riding women at all, where there are plenty around here.

The ride from Panzano to Florence was really fantastic. The weather was great and I eventually took off first the fleece and then the sleeves from my jacket. The landscape was incredible, again -- a repeat of the day before, but in some cases even more stunning. The descent out of Panzano on SR222 was particularly beautiful, and my meager photography skills just couldn't do it justice. It was really steep, too, and I'm glad I was headed north, not south, like nearly all of the other riders -- I didn't envy them!

I made it to Florence just after lunchtime, and again had to sort of fumble my way through the outskirts of the city. At one point I found myself essentially at the top of a ramp onto the Autostrada, and realizing that really wasn't the place for me to be. Nowhere else to go but back, so I ended up backtracking through a village that didn't show up on my map and just sort of winging it through there to another road that turned out to be the right one to be on. I was much farther east than I thought I was, but everything is relative -- Florence isn't a big place.

I mixed walking and riding through the city as I made my way back to the hotel, stopping to read the map every once in a while. One thing I was taken by in that hour or so is how vibrant and seemingly communal that city is. At one piazza over near the University, a pair of elderly women sat at the other end of the stone bench I was on, as I studied my map. Another happened by and joined them in an animated discussion I didn't eavesdrop on, and would have missed most of if I had. But I was taken by the level of engagement I saw and heard. I noticed the communal aspect in Siena, too. People all seem to know each other, and stop to chat or vent or even just wave, if they're on their mobile phones.

Eventually I reached my hotel, having added another 30 miles to the odometer. I checked in, boxed up the bike, took a shower and planned the rest of my day, of sightseeing, laundry and food. I grabbed a slice and some biscotti as my laundry was churning away, then headed out to experience more of the city before heading to the airport to pick up Allyson. More on the rest of the trip another time -- it was just as fun, but different. Focused not on me exploring solo on a bike, but on exploring with a partner.

This Saturday morning I unboxed the Schwinn and discovered that the bike had suffered more from the flight home than it had in the crash a few weeks ago. The crash damage had been limited to a wheelset and tweaked fenders. At the hands of Italian, French and/or American baggage handlers, the fenders were tweaked, the little (irreplacable) TA rack I have bolted to my front Mafac was crumpled, there is a small dent in the top tube up by the head tube that wasn't there before, and the large chainring was both bent and suffered a broken tooth. The chainring was straightened enough to ride with an adjustable wrench as a lever, the rack has to be swapped and thrown away, and the dent isn't the end of the world. But the box really has to have been mistreated for that kind of damage to arise.

With that experience, next time I'm going to ask for a different kind of box -- one of the two-piece boxes that Trek Madones come in, with straps and the like inside, rather than the longer one-piece boxes like I ended up with. Particularly since I had to pay for the box (they used to be free!) A reusable hard case would be better, but they cost $3-400, and weigh 40 lbs themselves, both of which raise the price of bringing a bike somewhere considerably.

But there will be a next time, assuming I have the opportunity. And I'll give myself more time on the bike, next time, as well. There's just so much to see out there -- and so much I'd like to share about that experience with my kids and with others. Soon.

All for now,


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