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The Time I Almost Died Cycling In Italy

It's no secret in my family that I'm a homebody. I only leave the house when I absolutely have to. A good day in the summer for me would be: mow my lawn, weed wack, and watch the last 3 innings of a Red Sox game while re-hydrating. I also enjoy riding a bicycle or taking a motorcycle ride to Plymouth with friends and grabbing a burger at Isaac's, where the view from the far side of the bar is nothing short of spectacular. 

I'm simple, a common man with very little desire to extend my physical boundaries. I left the country once back in 1974 while attending Norwich University in Vermont to play rugby in Montreal. It turned out to be a 48-hour drinking fest and I'm pretty sure the local authorities were looking for me and at least one of my co-conspirators for days after we crossed the border back into Vermont...

Years later, my wife and I took our three boys on family vacations to Laconia, New Hampshire, spending long days at Weir's Beach. As the kids outgrew vacations with their parents, my wife and I started taking time off and going down the Cape, to Falmouth. I bring my bicycle and do early morning rides before we head to the beach.

As we got older, my wife began pushing me to go on a "real" vacation, a leave-the-country get-away vacation. I flat-out refused her suggestion to go on a cruise. The idea of being stuck on a cruise ship with strangers for 14 days and eating non-stop did not appeal to me in the least. When she started mentioning trips to different countries she finally had my attention. I've always wanted to go to Italy...

I surprised her when I agreed "Okay, let's go to Italy!" It was in December of 2018 that she started planning our trip which would take place during the summer of 2019. My wife likes to plan ahead and secure transportation, hotel accommodations, good prices and that's all in her wheelhouse. I suck at it, she's very good.

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As the talks intensified, I told my wife I was bringing one of my bicycles and riding it through Italy. She warned me that carrying a bike through an airport with luggage would be difficult and the bike could get damaged in baggage. I told her I'd find a travel bike, one that I could take apart and fit in a suitcase. She didn't like the idea, but I started my eBay search and found a breakaway frame that came with a case, all I needed were the components. I ordered them too, but the shipment was delayed, and completing the bike on time became impossible. We were leaving on August 9th for four days in Rome and then seven days in Sorrento.

My oldest son and his girlfriend decided to meet us in Sorrento, and he began looking for bicycle tours. He sent me links and the more I looked into it, the better it sounded. I sent emails to a company called Enjoy Bike Sorrento that charged $100 for a guided and supported tour through Sorrento that included a bike. I'm a real stickler when it comes to bikes and having a surgically repaired knee has made me very particular when it comes to fit. I emailed the company all my requirements from top tube, crank, and stem length, to handlebar width and seat height. The response came from a guy named Fabio and he said they could set up a bike to my exact specs. They sent me a photo of the bike. I was impressed. 

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There were three tours. The two 20 milers had the steepest grades. The third one was 40 miles, ran along the Amalfi Coast, was less steep, and so I chose that one. Even when I competed and trained with local pros and amateurs, I was never much of a climber, but I was strong on the flats and I had good endurance. 

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I trained during the spring/summer, but I was very busy and I didn't make an effort to "head for the hills" to practice climbing, and I should've. I believed my fitness level was good enough, but I'd never been to Italy...

I don't like flying, so I supplemented the 8.5-hour direct flight with 1mg of Ativan, and I actually enjoyed it. And the flight too.

I brought my cycling shoes, pedals, helmet, gloves, and clothing with me. On the evening before the tour the company called and we finalized our arrangements. They were picking me up just outside the villa I was staying at. 

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I was pretty sure we would be going in their team van to a place more conducive to cycling than the local roads which were narrow with barely enough room for two mini cars I called "clown cars". As pedestrians, many times we had to jump out of the way of speeding traffic, which in our experience, did not yield to pedestrians, ever! The scooters were a third vehicle on the narrow roads, and although I never saw an accident, there were close calls daily that had me grimacing. Everybody drives pedal-to-the-metal, but apparently, they're used to it. The most aggressive drivers in Massachusetts were nothing compared to the most passive drivers in Italy. The Italians are all fucking crazy drivers!

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I was waiting outside by 7:00 the morning of the ride, wearing my bike clothes, which consisted of my Team Colpack bib shorts and jersey. Colpack is an Italian cycling team and I immediately scored points with the guide and the support guy driving the van. "When in Rome, do as the Romans". Wearing Italian cycling gear was a good move.

The guide was a 25-year-old former pro who was training his way back from an injury. There was only one other rider, a woman in her mid 40's from Austria, and she was a former pro. At 63, I was officially the old man and the amateur cyclist.

They rolled out the bike and it had a decent looking carbon fiber frame with middle of the road components. I expected Campagnolo (Italian), but they outfitted their bikes with more affordable Shimano (Japanese) stuff. At first glance, the frame looked to have a racing geometry, steep angles to the seat and head tube. I had a mini tape measure and I checked all the measurements. Perfect, exactly the spec I emailed them. I was impressed.

I figured we'd be jumping in the van and driving to a starting point, away from the crazy clown cars and scooters, but we were starting right outside the villa. We took off through the downtown area, but within 200 yards we were already starting to climb. We made it up the first hill and I expected it would flatten out, but it didn't. We were on a switchback, climbing in the opposite direction. We continued doing switchbacks until at one point we were traveling on some flatter land that was crowded with two-way traffic. This is when I realized how steep the head tube angle on the bike was. The steering was twitchy and required constant attention. 

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The flat portion didn't last very long before we were climbing again, switchback after switchback. I kept my chain on the 39 tooth front chainring and the 25 tooth rear cog, the lowest gear, but I still worked very hard to maintain a good cadence. After 10-12 switchbacks I clearly established myself as the weakest rider of the three. The kid came back to see how I was doing, and when I reminded him I signed up for the flat course he laughed in Italian, yeah that's a thing, and then said "Vincent, relax and enjoy!" I had one bottle of water and it was almost empty. Italy was smack in the middle of a heatwave,  it was 90 plus degrees and I was starting to labor a bit. 

Where I struggled on the steeper climbs, I powered through flatter sections to remain close to the others. The pro had thick legs and a thinner upper body typical of cyclists, and the women had a similar build. We stopped at the 12-mile mark to take a pic, fill our water bottles, and enjoy the view, but only for 5 minutes. 

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After 15 miles of climbing, an Italian cyclist sprinted past me effortlessly and cheerfully shouted "Buongiorno!". I responded in kind, though my mood was anything but cheerful. I was beginning to wish I had trained more, dropped 5 more pounds, was 20 years younger, none of it mattered, I was here, on the bike, in Italy, struggling to keep up and there was no easy way back to the villa…

The pro dropped back to see how I was doing. I sensed that to him I was just another older American tourist who thought he was a cyclist. I asked him if the entire ride was uphill and he said "Vincent, two more kilometers and it's all downhill". I didn't believe him, not for one second.

It was more like three kilometers, but we began our descent. I was happy, but only for about 10 seconds. We picked up speed, and I'm talking 40- 50 mph speed and that steep head tube angle was making it difficult to keep my line. Just inches to my right was a useless 2' wooden guardrail and beyond that a fall down the side of the cliff that would surely have killed me! The clown car traffic now included clown trucks, and the scooters swarming between them made for a very crowded road. The three of us were struggling to maintain a small piece of real estate by the edge of the pavement.

I kept my front wheel close to the rear wheel of the woman rider in front of me. It was a white-knuckle descent, no braking. The breeze was good, but I couldn't turn my head, I had to keep my eyes forward the entire time. One distraction and this vacation could've been my last.

After the 2 mile descent, the road flattened and the pro pulled into a roadside coffee shop. He got coffee and a pastry. The woman got the same. I went for a sports drink with electrolytes and a pastry. I couldn't eat the pastry, way too sweet for me. 

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After 8 minutes we were on the bikes heading back. The pro said we'd be going back the same way we came, which meant a lot of climbing immediately. I was trying to stay close, but then a clown truck stopped in the middle of the road, in the middle of a steep turn, to back into a roadside driveway in between me and the other two riders. I was forced to dismount and wait. It gave me enough time to evaluate my situation, which was not good. This was supposed to be a vacation, and now I was beginning to think I made a huge mistake signing up for this ride…

After the traffic cleared I had a difficult time starting on the hilly curve, but I got up to speed and tried to maintain a decent pace, hoping I could catch up and complete the ride. After a couple of miles, I saw my two co-riders stopped on the side of the road taking a break and waiting for me. I got off the bike, but I was too tired to explain what happened. The pro asked me if I wanted to finish or wanted him to call the van to give me a ride back. I'm no quitter, but I knew the road ahead continued to climb before it became a very technical descent (switchbacks), and with the heat of midday sun upon us, it was pushing 100 degrees, one of the hottest weeks ever recorded in Italy (look it up), I opted for the van. He offered the woman from Austria the same deal, but she decided to finish. 

Once I was seated in the van I realized the extent of my fatigue. I was unplugged. The driver had no water and I was so fucking dehydrated. Like WTF? No water! The literature said there was no need to bring my own water bottles, that they would provide bottles and beverages, but they only provided one bottle and filled it with tap water. Having two bottles full of a sports drink on the bike might have made a difference.

The ride back to the villa dragged, no A.C. in the van. Once there I paid the driver, shook his hand, and started walking towards the villa. I needed liquid, air conditioning, nutrition, and a well-deserved nap, but I couldn't find the villa. I called my wife, but she and my son and his girlfriend were at the beach, which was down 100 stairs from the main road. She told me to go into the hotel and she'd see me later. I didn't dare tell her I was hallucinating, had lost my way, and couldn't find the fucking villa!

I wandered aimlessly like a lost American tourist and wearing my Italian cycling clothes while doing it was not a good look. Unable to find the villa, I just sat my ass down on the front stairs of another hotel and rested for a while. When I felt rested, I got up and continued my search. My gym bag was starting to feel heavy and when I saw an older women I immediately asked her where the villa was. She said something in Italian and pointed using both hands like she was landing a plane. I went in the general direction and about 50 feet away I saw the sign for Villa Angiolina.

Our room was on the third floor and I climbed the stairs like a wounded soldier. Once in the room I turned down the A.C., way down, guzzled an ice-cold sports drink that was in the mini-fridge, and laid down for a long well-deserved nap…

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After hydrating, taking a 3-hour nap, and eating some leftover pizza, I felt pretty good. No physical problems at all. My family treated me like I was Greg LeMond and I'd just beaten Laurent Fignon by 8 seconds to win Le Tour de France. Despite all the accolades, I felt horrible about the ride, but it didn't stop me from going out that night and enjoying some incredible Italian food, in fucking Italy! 

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I know in my 40s I would've crushed that ride. In my 50s I would've completed it, no problem. In my 60s… clearly it was too much for me and especially on that unusually hot day. In the end, I completed 25 miles of non-stop climbing and one very fast 2-mile white-knuckle descent. A year later, in retrospect, for an old amateur cyclist, I did okay…