On day three, I grasped a previously overlooked drawback to cute hillside villages: they’re on hills.
The rhythm of the rides seemed to develop effortlessly, if you can apply that word to what we were doing. There was no competition and no judgment: Two couples from Quebec who quickly became known as the Canadians generally led, Paul and Char set an easy pace in the back, and I found that I liked riding alone in the middle. For one thing, there was nobody around to watch me wheezing up the hills; for another, I didn’t have to argue with anyone over directions. But the main pleasure of riding alone was looking at the scenery and daydreaming. I missed some turns this way, though I didn’t mind. If I got lost, Jessica or Gilbert would find me. They were never far away, and would double back if you weren’t in view. In the meantime, I noticed that the cornstalks were greener in the highlands than in the lowlands, watched a dapper little gent flirting with a pretty neighborhood lady, and barked at dogs.
Another pleasure was getting to the tops of hills, which I discovered was always worth it. One afternoon in Asolo, following a luxurious postride shower, I wandered up the winding street from Villa Cipriani into the heart of town. This was Piazza Garibaldi, whose centerpiece is a beautiful 16th-century fountain fed by a Roman aqueduct. I took a table at a nearby café, ordered a glass of the local wine, and started to work on my day’s notes. For the life of me, I’ve never understood how writers like Hemingway could get anything done in cafés—all I can do is look like a writer while watching people come and go. In time I discovered that the café menu listed the names of luminaries who had sat on that same terrace overlooking that same peaceful piazza—Robert Browning, Henry James, and old Hemingway himself, among them. This was close to A Farewell to Arms country, and as I ordered another wine, I imagined Hemingway penning his timeless tale of love and loss to the sound of that ancient fountain.
Friday was my worst, and best, day. Friday was the day I began to “get it.” I woke up sick from all the rich food we’d been eating, and I phoned Gilbert to tell him I wasn’t riding. Then, after facing myself in the mirror, I called him back. Struggling into my Spider-Man suit, I checked the day’s itinerary. It was a 26.2-mile excursion through the Prosecco wine region, ending in the village of Follina, where we would spend the next two nights. “Our route becomes rolling as we head into wine country…,” the instructions stated cheerily, but I couldn’t help noticing the ominous deletion of the word gently before rolling.
Sure enough, the hills came early and often, though even under gray skies the terrain, geometric with reddening fall vines, was the most picturesque yet. We made a morning stop at sculptor Antonio Canova’s monument to himself—his Pantheon—which was so far up a long, steep hill, and my legs were so rubbery and my stomach so fluttery, that I just got off and walked the bike up. A couple of hours later, when we finally pulled into a trattoria for lunch, I thought I couldn’t eat a thing. Then I wolfed down a vegetable plate of beets, beans, peas, and tomatoes, a bowl of pasta with meat sauce, and four pieces of bread sopped in olive oil.
The rain started lightly just after lunch. By the time we got to the Bisol winery three miles away, it was coming down hard. “Taste a lot of prosecco,” said Gilbert, eyeing the sky. So we did. An hour later we emerged, not into sunlight but into blue gloom and a cold, steady rain, the heaviest in days. Follina was about eight miles away, over slick country hills and along a busy highway at rush hour. “Who’s riding?” said Gilbert. For reasons I still can’t fathom, I knew I was riding the bike. Maybe I didn’t have enough courage to take the van.
As Gilbert loaded up the others’ bicycles, four of us—three of the Canadians and me—headed into the darkening Italian countryside. We were soaked in no time, and soon the first hill showed up like a schoolyard bully. The three of them climbed it quickly and then waited for me at the top. I no longer felt embarrassed by being slower. Over the week I had learned that it’s not me versus them. If anything it’s me versus me, and it doesn’t even have to be that.
After the hills, we turned left onto the busy highway toward Follina, still some two miles away. In the dusk, one of the Canadians began riding behind me because his jacket had a reflector on the back, and mine, of course, didn’t. Besides, my jacket was black. What kind of idiot buys all-black clothes when heading out to dodge Italian drivers? This ride provided me ample opportunity to dissect the staggering stupidity of my so-called preparation. Not being an avid cyclist, I hadn’t wanted to spend lots of money on cool gear that I might not use again; one day in the rain, though, and I learned that cool gear is better than cold gear—my cotton T-shirts were always wet, while the others’ Lycra shirts dried quickly. My inexpensive waterproof jacket was good to keep out the rain, but it also kept in the sweat. I was cold all the time. Bottom line: you don’t need lots of clothes if you have the right stuff—a pair of padded bike shorts, long bike pants, a shirt or two, and a jacket. The Canadians brought no more than two shirts apiece, washing one each night with something called Zero. Their clothes were dry in the morning, while my cotton shirts were wet for days.
The traffic was as dense as the rain, and we stuck to our few inches of pavement and prayed. “Hold your ground,” Gilbert had instructed. I was just glad that the ground we were holding was flat. Summoning up my best Lance face, I glared straight ahead toward the finish line. In due time, the lights of Follina twinkled through my wet glasses, and soon the four of us were squishing into the lobby of the luxurious Hotel Villa Abbazia. I was hoping for a bathtub, but my room came with a shower—a very, very good one. Stripping off my sopping clothes and shoes, I turned on the hot water and sat underneath it on the floor for 20 minutes, letting it spill over me like a steaming, healing spring. Was this fun? It was hard to say yes, but I couldn’t say no, either. Would I do it again? Who knows? All I knew for sure was that I had a feeling I didn’t get from reading by the pool.
On our final night Jessica and Gilbert presented me with a certificate proclaiming me Biker of the Week. And the strongest rider of the group shook my hand and said, “You really showed what you’re made of.” It was a wonderful ending to a week that had looked mighty bleak at the beginning. Over our farewell dinner, as we toasted our success and exchanged addresses, I thought about all the times my wife and I had passed a string of bicyclists on a busy thoroughfare and I had said, “Who are those fools?” Now I was one of them, a fact that made me, surprisingly, inexplicably proud.
Besides, a Spider-Man suit is a terrible thing to waste.