What would Lance do? The thought flashed through my head about the time a tour bus whooshed by three feet to my left, splashing rain and rocking the air in waves, wobbling my front wheel crazily toward the swollen canal rushing way too close to my right foot. My glasses were fogged, the sky was blue-black with a sick tinge of yellow, I was nine miles into a 50-mile bike ride that I knew ended with a two-mile climb, and my new over-the-shoulder spandex biking pants—which the guides had urged me to buy, and which made me look like Spider-Man in his pension years—were beginning to chafe. “The first rule of biking,” said Jessica, one of the trip leaders, “is no underwear.” It’s not as sexy as it sounds. A huge garbage truck veered near to avoid colliding with a white Fiat passing on a curve in the driving rain. What would Lance do? I knew what he would do, and I was determined to do the same, if at all possible. In the meantime, I opened my mouth to the rain, then—contemplating six more days of biking through this “tranquil” region of Italy, as the catalog described it—screamed to the heavens: “This is insane!”
First impressions die hard—but they do, occasionally, fall by the wayside. So did I, a few times, during my week of bicycle touring. But I’m happy to report that, by the end of the trip, I was able to place beautiful scenery, comfortable villas, fantastic food, fine wine, great people, and a whole bunch of less tangible benefits in their rightful places alongside rain (which is unusual for October, when I traveled), hills (less unusual), and erratic Italian drivers (unavoidable regardless of season). Some things in life are more easily appreciated through a rearview mirror.
Our star-crossed pack of cyclists had first come together in the little town of Mira, west of Venice. I was an impostor—a wannabe among true cycling enthusiasts. I was also a little worried because at 61, I appeared to have 15 years on the oldest of the others. Then Char and Paul, both in their 70s, arrived, and I felt better—until I found out they had brought their own pedals. That spoke to a certain seriousness that left me, maybe literally, in the dust. I had been “working out” for a month—reading novels while riding a stationary bike—but these people looked hungry for the Alps. The catalog for Bike Riders, our tour company, stresses that the trips are vacations, not races, and that all are free to go at their own pace—or even to ride in the ever-present and extremely comfortable van whenever they get tired. Those are nice words, but it’s still the nature of the beast to size up the rest of the pack.
Our warm-up ride together was a 12-mile jaunt under threatening skies to and from the Andrea Palladio-designed Villa Malcontenta, a house named for the thieves and robbers—malcontenti, in Italian—who used to hide out in the nearby marshes. “Thomas Jefferson and other famous Americans came here,” our wry tour guide said as we stood in a circle in the back garden, “which is why Washington, D.C., looks the way it does. Palladio was a maniac for symmetry.”
That first evening we gathered over bubbly prosecco—the Italian version of champagne—to toast the coming week’s rides. The Veneto is where 16th- and 17th-century Venetian swells built their summer places, many located along the Brenta Canal, a man-made diversion of the once wild Brenta River. The catalog had been positively rhapsodic about the area: “This tranquil region in the Northeast of Italy has enough gardens, Renaissance villas, and sophisticated little towns to inspire us all.” Beginning on day two, we would ride north into the wine country, where for the rest of the week we would visit cute hilltop villages, taste prosecco and grappa, and even have a cooking lesson at a medieval castle. Alas, one thing the catalog couldn’t have foreseen for our particular tour: rain.
I was thinking about all this as I began the steep climb into the renowned walled village of Asolo at the end of the second-day ride. The hill hurt, and riding the bike in low-low gear was so slow that I almost fell over several times. What would Lance do? He would reach deep down inside himself and gut it out. So that’s what I did—reached far down into that deep reservoir of self that yearned to be filled by the coldest, iciest, dust-cuttingest beer in the history of man. And at the end of the climb, in the bountiful garden of Villa Cipriani, where we were to stay the night, I looked over the cedar-peaked valley now thankfully below me and slowly sipped my reward.
The subject of rewards was much on my mind during my week in the Veneto. I am, it should be noted, more a read-by-the-pool vacationer than an action-adventure guy—which is why my wife couldn’t stop laughing as she imagined me climbing hills in the rain.
I had to admit, the evenings were fun—lots of laughter, great stories, delicious meals, and very, very nice Italian wines. Jessica and Gilbert, our two trip leaders, would later tell us our group had “jelled” surprisingly fast. Any thoughts of age differences quickly fell by the wayside. We were just a group of new friends gathering each evening to rehash our day’s adventures. Of course, those evenings were the first obstacles we faced in the mornings. Our days began at 9:00 a.m., with a route briefing, and we were usually on the road by 9:30. “Wine goes straight to the legs,” a more experienced rider told me. Right. This was especially evident on day three, when I grasped a previously overlooked drawback to cute hillside villages: they’re on hills.
The Bike Riders catalog had rated this trip 1A/B—“Flat to gently rolling terrain, a few hills”—but after a few days of riding through vineyards undulating in the shadow of the Dolomites, even some of the fitter ones remarked the going was harder than they had expected. “Those ratings don’t really mean anything,” Jessica said, shockingly, one day over our usual carb-loaded lunch.
“What?” I nearly choked on my spaghetti con funghi. I had pored over the various trips to find the right one, and the ratings had been key to my final selection. She pointed out that it’s impossible to gauge the difficulty of a ride to all comers. To someone like me who hasn’t ridden for years, ten miles is a long ride. Yet to a seasoned cyclist, it’s not so tough.
“You worked out for only a month before coming?” Jessica said. “We recommend three months, minimum.” I didn’t remember seeing that in the catalog, but clearly these bike vacations require, and assume, a certain level of fitness. What would Lance do? Well, first, he would’ve gotten his fool self in shape.