September 24, 2011

Conversation Piece

Climbing Old La Honda Road this morning, I heard the quick "yip" of a siren. On Old La Honda? That made no sense. Maybe one of the homeowners has an unusual alarm system.

I rounded a bend and was completely astonished to see that a motorcycle officer had indeed stopped a minivan driver. Slow climber that I am, I overheard a snippet.
Do you live on this road, ma'am?
Are you late for an appointment?
The supreme irony of this encounter would be clear if you had been following the chatter on one of the local bike club mailing lists over the past week. The authorities recently stepped up enforcement for cycling infractions in this area, and there has been much indignation about (perceived) selective enforcement.

There would be more surprises on this familiar climb today.

A couple of riders passed me. [No, that's not surprising.] One called out Cima Coppi! ... in perfect Italian. My feeble monolingual brain was not quick enough to respond with a friendly Ciao! I had chosen to wear the new jersey that I had earned on the Stelvio Pass; I did not expect anyone to understand what it represented.

Never underestimate the Bay Area cycling community. A racer in a team kit slowed to chat with me, wanting to hear about the Stelvio. He had spent some time in Italy, and compared watching the Giro d'Italia to the Tour de France (the former being much less commercialized). The crowds are smaller, he explained. There is nowhere to park a car on the big climbs; to watch, you need to cycle up.

Before the day was out, another pair of guys climbing Tunitas would chat with me, too—one had also climbed the Stelvio. What a great way to meet interesting people! At my pace, wearing any other jersey, I would be lucky to elicit so much as an "on your left" from any of those riders.

Riding without full stats today; this 41-mile loop likely involved some 4000 feet of climbing. With all that conversation, the top of Old La Honda came much sooner than I expected. Surely, I am not faster.

September 10, 2011

The Long and Windy Road

Having just climbed some 27,375 feet over 287 miles during ten days in Italy, climbing 6,260 feet over 100 miles down the California coast should be no problem. Piece of cake, right?

Two days to recover from jet lag were almost enough. Almost.

An Audi R8 led us out at a brisk pace—I averaged 19.7 mph over the first 10 miles, which is a personal best. Of course, that is also not a sustainable pace for me and once the hills started rolling, I started crawling. [I must note that the R8 driver failed to rev the engine in the tunnel under Robinson Canyon Road, an offense for which the key to that vehicle should be summarily confiscated.]

The day was cool and foggy, but not as intensely so as last year. The sun began to break through near the Bixby Bridge, which was a fine place to peel off a layer. I rounded the bend on the other side and ... when did they install a wind tunnel here? It was blowing a gale—headwind, crosswind. This is completely unnatural; in the morning, the air should be still. In the afternoon, there should be tailwind.

Twice, I was nearly blown over—the bike tilted violently to my left each time. I actually contemplated getting off and walking. This was the most extreme wind I have ever faced on a bicycle. Ever. How far would I have to walk? How much would that slow me down?

Being the stubborn sort, with less common sense than I need, I kept pedaling. One thing about wearing one of those ultralight jackets: the material snaps loudly in the wind, and it was snapping furiously. This is the perfect accessory for fine-tuning your aerodynamics: streamline yourself and be rewarded with the sound of silence. Streamline yourself to stay upright.

Further south, a presumptuous passenger in a passing Prius with Utah plates shouted
Get on the other side of the line!
Wrong. I don't know what your vehicle code specifies, but the California vehicle code does not require me to ride on the shoulder [which was vestigial, at that particular point]. I may choose to ride on the shoulder, but I am only required to ride as far to the right of the road as practicable. The white line is the "fog line" that marks the edge of the road.

At our lunch stop, I assured a weary rider that he could make it. I told him what to expect of the two hills ahead. Two riders recognized me from our Woodside training ride. Passing me a short time later, one called out "I hope this is the second hill!" Cruel, isn't it, at mile 80?

The sky was growing darker [and not because I was running out of daylight, I am not that slow]. Ten miles outside of San Simeon, the first big raindrops plopped down. I am not made of sugar, I will not dissolve in the rain. [A chemist told me so.]

I crossed the finish line a full hour behind my best pace [in 2009]. It was the headwind, I tell you!

A local band from San Jose rocked out at the post-ride barbecue (Smash Mouth). Well-fortified with caffeine, I was still awake at 8:30 p.m. The best was yet to come.

The Neptune Pool. What if this is my last chance? Cold, tired, foggy ... none of it matters.

To everyone who supported my fund-raising for Best Buddies this year: thanks for throwing me in the pool!

September 7, 2011

The Adventure Ends

My Italian adventure draws to a close today. Aware that the airport shuttle would pick me up before breakfast, the hotel delivered one to my room the night before—without a word from me. Croissants, bread, jam, cheese, butter, juice, tea, and a small electric kettle.

The first part of the trip included a ride downhill, then snaked along the shoreline through small towns. With the road barely one lane wide in many places, hugging the contours of the cliffs around blind corners, it was quite the ride. In the early morning shade of the valley, the driver would flick his headlights on to illuminate the arrow signs on the outside edge of the curve—thus alerting oncoming traffic to our approach. Where that was not feasible, he would sound the horn. Driving those roads takes nerves of steel. We didn't share a common language, but facial expressions were enough to convey a mutual opinion of a few incautious drivers.

He transported me safely to a rendezvous with a full-sized bus, which would carry me the rest of the way to the airport. Again, I was the solo passenger—but this driver spoke some English. He was impressed to hear that I had bicycled up Stelvio, Mortirolo, and Gavia all in one week; he and his wife ride motorcycles, so he knows those roads. At the airport, he sent me off with a traditional European kiss (both cheeks).

I managed not to doze off until I saw the icebergs and glaciers at the edge of Greenland. It would be several more days before my body would find the right time zone.

September 6, 2011

Passo del Ghisallo

This was the first day that I managed to bike with our host, Laurenz. We headed downhill and traced the shoreline of the lake to the city of Como, passing through many of the little towns we had admired from the water yesterday. After relaxing in the Piazza del Duomo, we meandered [with a few wrong turns, for good measure] toward a café at Lago di Segrino.

At small places like this, lunch is whatever they are serving: in this case, pasta with pesto or a tomato/bacon sauce. As we were leaving, the matriarch approached me, expecting that I spoke Italian. From what I gathered (through others), she was suggesting that we call ahead the next time we have a giro and want some lunch. Nonetheless, they had accommodated our crowd of hungry cyclists with grace.

An unanticipated bonus was a visit to the tomb of Alessandro Volta, which was being tended with fresh flowers by an elderly woman. She chattered on about Volta, and I did not have the heart to tell her that I do not speak Italian; I smiled and nodded and offered si and grazie when she would pause. That worked out quite well.

One disadvantage of this loop was that we would take the easier approach to visit the Santuario Madonna del Ghisallo as we returned to our hotel, rather than earning our blessings with the long, steep climb from Bellagio. The locals had assured me that the climb to the hotel itself was the worst part, so I did not feel like a complete shirker. The rest of it, though, is pretty darned steep. At the end of the day, I had covered 47 miles and climbed 3,605 feet.

The chapel is an inspiring place, venerating cycling champions the world around—not just Italians. Admission to the nearby Museo del Ciclismo is discounted if you arrive by bicycle [keep that in mind].

It was a chance encounter, though, that I cherish most.

I lingered after the rest of our group had departed. An Italian cyclist in full team kit rolled up; as the only other cyclist there, he wanted to chat. Non parlo l'italiano, I explained. Deutsch? Belgian? he tried. With a mixture of gesture and simple words, we established that this was my first visit and the route I had taken. He drew my attention to the key bicycles in the chapel—especially Casartelli's. He pawed through the brochures and handed me one in English. He kept going back to one tray in particular, clearly troubled that it was empty.

And then, it became clear: That was the tray that normally held prayer cards with an image of the Madonna del Ghisallo, the patron saint of cyclists, that are meant to be carried with you.

Reaching into a jersey pocket, he retrieved a small plastic box and spread the contents on the table.

He found the image of the Madonna that he carried with him.

And then, he gave it to me.

September 5, 2011


Despite our host's admonishment,
You will not dissolve, like sugar, in the rain!
most of us opted not to bike again today. If it is necessary, I will bike in the rain. If it is not necessary, I will not. Primarily, it is not fun.

Toting my new umbrella, I joined a small group that chose to take the slow boat to Como (two and half hours). We strolled about, had lunch, visited the Duomo, and took the slow boat back to Bellagio.

Out on the lake, the skies opened up and nearly everyone fled to the cabin. I popped open my umbrella and shared the deck with another member of our group who did the same.

First to arrive for dinner, we scouted a table with a great view of the lake and were treated to an ever-changing show of clouds and distant lightning.

Tomorrow, it will be dry.

September 4, 2011


5:19 a.m.? I didn't ask for a wake-up call.

Apparently the local roosters get started before sunrise.

Expecting last night's rain to continue, most of us opted for a rest day and hiked down the hill. After exploring the gardens and antiquities on the grounds of the Villa Melzi, we headed for downtown Bellagio.

My first order of business: Buy an umbrella. [Just like the last time I visited Europe ...]

Much to my surprise for a Sunday morning, the shopping district was fully open. Even more to my surprise, a cyclist wearing a full kit from Stanford cruised past.

A few stalwart souls from our group chose to bike, despite the weather. All returned fully drenched, one having met the pavement along the way. The rest of us were content to stay dry. Sheltered on the hotel terrace overlooking the misty lake, I worked at the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle over a steaming cup of tea. There are some constants in my life.

September 3, 2011

Grosotto to Bellagio

A lovely coda to our stay in Grosotto was a choral concert at the church after dinner last night. For a small town, the Santuario della Beata Vergine delle Grazie is unexpectedly elaborate, with enormous organ pipes adorned with carved wood and a magnificent frescoed ceiling.

Our next home base would be on the shores of Lake Como. We followed the route of the Sentiero Valtellina, as best we could, aiming to rendezvous with our hosts at an abbey for lunch.

What a bike path! For most of the first 41 miles of our journey, we enjoyed the seclusion of this path. One stretch of highway challenged our nerves, but advice from a local cyclist got us back on track.

The Abbazia di Piona is situated on Lake Como ... uphill, of course. After some 60 miles of smooth, mostly flat riding, we did not begrudge a little climbing. But, cobblestones? Well, those are another matter.

Each day's riding had included some stretches of cobblestone streets. Or, so I had thought, having mistaken cut stone blocks for cobblestones. About one mile of the undulating road leading to the abbey was entirely paved with cobblestones.

That means the road surface is studded with closely-packed stones, rounded and polished smooth by centuries of use. Climbing is tricky and mildly uncomfortable; keeping a light grip on the handlebars affords some relief. Descending is treacherous and painful; gripping the brakes to control speed, the vibrations rattle through your wrists, arms, and shoulders, jostling your brain. Emulating the pros at Paris-Roubaix, I made a beeline for the concrete gutter at the edge of the road whenever possible.

Before the end was in sight, I dismounted and walked.

Our day's journey was not yet over. Having procured tickets for ourselves and our vehicles, we lined up to be ferried across the lake. Ahead, one final surprise awaited us.

Fourteen percent. As in, 14% grade (according to a roadside sign). One rider exclaimed:
This is a cruel joke!
Our hotel was located along the famous Madonna del Ghisallo climb, featured in the annual Giro di Lombardia. At least we didn't need to pedal to the top ... today.

Our longest ride so far: 72 miles, with a mere 1,310 feet of climbing.

September 2, 2011

Passo di Gavia

Truth be told, I had not yet earned my new Cima Coppi jersey. While Stelvio is named prominently on the front, the back features three Giro d'Italia high points: Mortirolo [check!]. Stelvio [check!]. Gavia [not yet].

The logistics for attacking Gavia were a prime topic of conversation at the bar yesterday afternoon. The outcome: our host would shuttle half the group to the nearest approach, outside Bormio; then, shuttle the remaining riders to the far end, parking the van at Ponte di Legno. After climbing to the top from either side, one could descend to Bormio and ride back to Grosotto or descend to Ponte di Legno and be shuttled back.

The more difficult (Giro d'Italia) approach ascends from the south, but the only viable route for me was from the north—slow as I am, I could not afford to start with the later bunch. It would be unreasonable to ask anyone to wait for me to finish.

With no particular need to hurry, I reveled in another glorious day on another famous climb. As with Stelvio, I began to pass other cyclists as I neared the summit. [Pacing is everything.] From Bormio, the climb is pleasant and never difficult. Although the pass tops out at 8,700 feet, I was not troubled by the altitude.

Facilities at the summit were modest; the Rifugio was a combination bar/café/souvenir shop. I enjoyed a slice of fruit tart before heading for Ponte di Legno. As I launched, I heard a fading voice:

And we waited for her, why?!
I actually stopped to take photos on the descent—that is a rare sacrifice indeed, which should tell you something about the beauty of this area.

Moments after a few motorcycles zipped past me, I was suddenly grateful for their presence. I was headed, full speed, into a galleria. One that was totally unlit. [I would later learn, from those who climbed this side, that there was a walkable bypass with a mural memorializing those who lost their lives when a convoy truck plummeted down the cliff.]

What I should have done: Stop. Fish headlight and taillight out of saddle bag, mount them, and turn them on. Swap the dark lenses in my sunglasses for clear ones. What I did: Fly into the tunnel and follow the taillights of the motorcycles. Pedal faster, accelerating in an effort to keep them in sight and to get the heck out of that tunnel as rapidly as possible. It was longer than I expected, and the taillights went briefly out of view ... the tunnel is curved—yikes! One final glimpse kept me on track before they vanished, just in time for the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

A word to the wise: Do not do as I did. Look for a bypass, or prepare yourself for the darkness. I am extremely fortunate that I did not come to grief.

Studying the plot from my bike computer (speed, heart rate, altitude), it is quite evident where I entered the tunnel. The map confirms it. I was traveling approximately 23 mph as I entered. My heart rate, steady up to that point, quickly spiked up by 15 bpm. As I gave chase to keep the motorcycles in view, I accelerated to and sustained 30+ mph for three tenths of a mile. The tunnel appears to be about four tenths of a mile long; it took me just under a minute to travel through it.

I covered 28 miles and climbed 4,600 feet; the 17-mile climb to the summit accounted for all but 20 feet of that.

September 1, 2011


Having enjoyed perfect weather so far, no one was complaining about a few raindrops on a day when we were all ready for a rest.

Rest, of course, does not mean lounging about the hotel reading a book—not with this crowd. After breakfast, I set out with a small group hiking to Grosio, where we explored the remains of a medieval castle and then searched (in vain) for traces of the Iron and Bronze Age-era carvings on an adjacent rock outcropping in the Parco Incisioni Rupestri di Grosio. There are some 5,000 carvings on this boulder and we could not find a single one. Not surprising, then, that they were not discovered until the 1960s.

As the rain began to pelt us, I was reminded that I had neglected to pack an umbrella for this trip. We headed for town and took shelter in a café.

Returning to the site of the carvings, we found the adjacent museum now staffed by an amiable young man who spoke English fluently. He grew up in the area and assured us that he had not been able to spot the carvings either, until he learned where to look. Afternoon light is preferable.

The best vantage points are on the rock itself; to get close, you shed your shoes and scramble over the boulder in your socks (or bare feet). [This sort of experience would be inconceivable back in the litigious US of A.] In the flat light, visibility was somewhat enhanced now that the rock was wet: warriors, dancing figures, animals, a rake (early testament to the importance of agriculture). Once you know where, and how, to look.