“Moderate Difficulty”

20100915_248I cycled a lot during the summer of 2011. Every week, I cranked out at least fifty miles on the Silver Comet and added a spin class or two to my usual routine so I would be in peak condition for the up-and-coming trip: a cycling tour of Tuscany. I did not want to be the old man at the back of the pack when I encountered the hills of Tuscany and the young group of cyclists who had signed up for the trip. It was important to me that I hang with the tour. I had to be ready.

The travel brochure advertised “moderate-difficulty” cycling while enjoying breathtaking scenery, delicious food, unique accommodations, and unparalleled camaraderie. With all my preparations, I could surely handle cycling described as moderate difficulty.

After a long plane ride and a short train ride, I arrived in Florence at a small hotel where the tour was to begin. After a shower and a brief nap, the tour guide summoned all of us to the lobby for a meet-and-greet orientation meeting. We each introduced ourselves and talked a bit about our cycling experiences. I felt a little intimidated by the fact that eight of the sixteen riders were tri-athletes and all of them were young enough to be my kids! What had I gotten myself into?

The next morning we began our trek through Tuscany. Wow! The weather was perfect, the scenery was phenomenal, and the group really seemed to click. The gentle climb out of Florence was like riding a bike through an IMAX screen. I was engulfed in culture, history, and the incredible beauty of Italy.

A couple of miles into the trip, we stopped at a large park just south of Florence where the views of Florence were breathtaking. The “kids” were all very pleasant and I was having a blast.

The next sixteen miles were incredible. With our guides Ron and Jacques at each end of the pack, we snaked our way, single file, along a winding, hilly road to the little town of Greve where a picnic lunch was prepared. So far I was hanging with the tri-athletes and feeling pretty good about myself. Moderate difficulty seemed to be an appropriate description for the cycling so far.

After lunch, the guides circled us up to describe the next leg of the trip. “Those of you who want a more challenging ride, follow me.“ Jacques said. “The rest of you can continue down the highway with Ron.” So, I had a decision to make. Do I take the girly-man option and play it safe, or do I follow Jacques and the group of tri-athletes who had already lined up for the more challenging ride? After all, the trip was advertised as “moderate difficulty.” I can handle moderate.

“As you approach the curve down there be sure to gear down before making the turn,” Jacques warned. “It will make the hill a bit easier.” As we rounded the curve, there it was; a straight-run incline that would be right at home in San Francisco. We all quickly geared down further until there were no gears left. As we struggled up the steep incline, the single file of cyclists began to compress. I was inches away from the girl in front of me when she DECIDES TO STOP! Still clipped to my bike and nowhere to go, I gently keeled over and hit the pavement. The girl apologized profusely and began to push her bike up the hill. I was not about to travel halfway around the world to push my bike up the first hill we encountered, certainly not with six mean-and-leans looking on.

I checked myself for damage and began to assess the situation I was in. I’m halfway up a twenty percent grade, falling behind the younger generation, and unclear as to how I would get started back up the hill. Every time I tried to clip in and start up the hill I would fall. I could not power the pedals quickly enough to clip in and go up the hill without falling again.

After two or three tries, I discovered that if I aimed my bike across the narrow road, jumped on my bike, clipped in quickly, and pedaled hard once, I would have enough momentum to continue up the hill.

The whole gang was waiting for me at the top by the time I arrived, including the walker. I imagined several of them thinking, that old man will be slowing us down for the whole trip.

The rest of the day went much better. I made a point of staying near the front of the pack and ahead of the “stopper lady.” I was no longer the guy in the back that couldn’t keep up. I was right up front with the youngsters, with the wind in my hair and bugs in my teeth.

I was ready for the next challenge.

Near the end of the day as we rounded a curve on a small gravel road, there it was: Castelvecchi, a sprawling stone castle overlooking miles of Tuscan valley. This would be home for the two days.

I may write a different story about the fantasy-like visit to Castelvecchi, but this story is about my quest to hang with the “A” crowd and survive to ride again. After a great dinner and good nights’ sleep, Ron had us up early to prepare for a day-trip to Radda in Chianti, an enchanting little village atop and adjacent hill that we could actually see from the castle. We gathered around to hear Ron say, “the only time anyone has been injured on this tour was during the descent from the castle on the ride to Radda.” We had arrived from the back of the castle, so none of us quite understood the cause for Ron’s concern.

Out the front gate and STRAIGHT DOWN we went! At the first switchback brakes were squeaking and tires were skidding. The short stone wall along the edge would do little to keep us from catapulting to severe injury. The switchbacks seemed to get tighter and the hill even steeper as we whizzed our way to the bottom. We gathered at the driveway entrance and gazed back to the castle high on the hill. The excursion to Radda was enchanting but the return trip to the castle was the talk of the day. Would anyone make it back to the castle? Would the old guy fall and be the last one up the hill? How many riders would cop out and ride up in the van?

To be continued….