Words: Rebecca Rusch
Illustration: Stephen Haynes
Originally published in Issue #192
I was wet, cold and fucking miserable. Riding 500 miles through Italy sounded much more pastoral and heavenly than it was turning out to be.
At home when I looked at the squiggly lined course map for Italy Divide weaving through the hills from Rome to Riva del Garda, I envisioned a “Sound of Music” sort of passage with panini and cappuccino lining the way. Instead it had been days of torrential, freezing rains, vomiting on my top tube, pushing my bike through ankle-deep mud and seriously doubting why I chose to do this to myself. I hadn’t planned to be wearing a plastic trash bag and shower cap, but those became regular necessities for survival.
But the most essential items I would come to cherish in the four days that seemed like 10 were the Italian hospitality and empathy granted toward a cyclist. The Giro d’Italia, Fausto Coppi and Bianchi are just three of the many household names written into Italy’s long and illustrious cycling history. It’s a history that spans generations, races, industry and icons.
You could see and smell that history in the rolling hills of the Chianti region, in the hundreds of bikes parked outside the old city wall of Firenze (Florence), and in the grizzled legs of old men and women passing me along the bike paths near Bologna. Even wearing a skirt or with a dog in the front basket, these folks were often moving faster than I was in all my kit and carbon. Cycling is in their veins.
I was hanging on by a thread. This self-supported, bike-packing style of event meant I was alone and on my own. In my self-induced funk, I began to understand that while I may have felt lonely, on a bicycle in Italy you are never truly alone.
I first started to realize that Italy would embrace my bike and me on the second night of racing. I’d replenished in Siena, and with a looming forecast I wanted to use the final hours of daylight and a break in the rain to cover some distance. Around midnight, just as the rain returned, I rolled into the quaint village of Panzano in Chianti. A robust, friendly woman at the wine bar was sweeping and shooing away customers. I had an emergency bivy and my trusty plastic bag, but sleeping outside in 40-degree temps in the rain was not a sound idea. I needed shelter.
My soggy, desperate appearance spoke to her. She pointed me up the hill and said, “Ask for Mario.” For 15 euros, I escaped the rain and had a warm bed, a steaming cup of tea and Mario’s sympathy. Mario: “You don’t love yourself, do you?” Me: “It doesn’t seem like it right now, does it?” I slept four hours until the rain stopped and continued my journey.
Paola was the second angel that took me in. Uninvited, but she still took me in. Day four and it had fi nally stopped raining, but I was so depleted that even with a down coat, rain gear and hand warmers in my bra, I couldn’t raise my body temperature no matter how hard I pedaled. My shivering made it hard to keep the front wheel straight. At 2 a.m. in the middle of semi-desolate farm country, I was in real trouble.
I rode by a small, rustic sign that said “La Montina Azienda Agrituristica.” I interpreted the light in the entry as an invitation. Peering through the glass, I saw a couch like a beacon of hope. Tentatively turning the door handle, it opened. Slithering inside, I curled into the fetal position on the couch with helmet and gear on. I vowed to just sleep a couple of hours and be gone before anyone woke. The house cat wandered down and nuzzled up to me. I wept feeling the warmth of a living being for the first time in days.
It was the dog who gave me away before I could make a stealth exit. Paola stood behind her barking dog in her underwear staring at me in disbelief. I took an apologetic posture and muttered, “Scusa, scusa.” There was a long pause as we stared at each other soaking in the scene while the damn dog kept barking. Finally, she smiled and said, “Un caffè?”
She poured me cup after cup of strong coffee and plopped down heavy slices of her homemade cake. She smoked cigarettes and told me about her life, the Italian mafia, her triathlete sister. I showed her the map of where I’d been and where I was going. Paola understood I was on a journey. Unlike Mario, she didn’t think I was crazy. Instead she pointed to her temple and said, “This is where you must be strong. This and my special cake will give you energy to continue on.” The dog had even become my friend by now, too.
With the sun up and Paola’s cake in my belly, I straddled the bike and rolled away from her little slice of heaven. I had typed into Google translator “you are my angel,” and she understood that she had saved me. I also know that she would do the same for any other wayward cyclist who happened to sneak into her house in the middle of the night.
That’s just the way the bicycle breaks down barriers and literally opens doors in Italy. Grazie, Italy! Andiamo!