Friday, June 26, 2015

Well, that escalated quickly

Things have gotten really out of control.

Thunder is echoing across the hills but hidden behind the black clouds rolling in behind me. It's so dark that it feels more like twilight, not late morning, and the fog is so thick I can't see more than a couple meters in any direction. The narrow potted road I'm on is pitching down into blackness, I think a car is coming towards me and I just dropped a chain.

How did I end up here?

Today was supposed to be a long but easy going ride. I'd checked the weather and didn't see anything more frightening than a slight chance of rain in the afternoon. I scanned a map and figured I could make it to Asiago and then follow a clockwise loop along the ridges and down into Valstagna, then home again in little more than four hours. Maybe I should have looked at the map a little closer and seen that the shortest distance between two points dives deep into hidden valleys and climbs up excruciatingly steep backroads past farms and churches to reach the hilltop villages scattered along the ridges.

But I've never been a huge fan of too much thinking ahead.

I slept in, then left the house late. Typical. The weather was almost perfect, sunny but not yet scorching or humid. I made my way up mostly familiar roads and found my turn towards Asiago, and began climbing into the front range of the Dolomites. The road looped back on itself as I wound upwards, the plains spilled out below, partially hidden by the clouds I was starting to climb into.

Mandatory cycling selfie!
It's important to remain flexible, to be open to adventure when you're exploring new routes and new roads. When I saw the sign for the Chiesetta del Ciclista, I couldn't say no. I took the detour about a half mile off the looping switchbacks to the Chapel of the Cyclist, refilled my waterbottle, ate some fig newtons, and said a small prayer of thanks for the beautiful ride.

Inside the chapel are jersey's donated by pro-cyclists, posters,
and other cycling memorabilia.

Half an hour later my prayers were answered with a loud pop followed by hissing. My first blowout in 10 months is halfway up an Italian mountain.

Haven't taken one of these pictures in a while. 

I went through the old but familiar routine of pulling out the tube and inspecting the tire to find a single clean gash in my fancy Gatorskin tires. These things are supposed to be invincible and I couldn't imagine what would cause a huge gash right across the thickest part of the tire. Maybe it was the broken glass I couldn't avoid earlier that morning, or perhaps the dirt and sharp rocky bypass that I had to use to get to and from the chapel just a few minutes ago.

A 5 Euro shim and one CO2 cartridge later and I was ready to head home. And that's when my decision making process failed me.

How can you decide to head for home with roads this
beautiful to ride on?
I was only 25 miles in, the weather seemed to be cooperating, and it couldn't possibly take me that long to at least get close to Asiago, right?

An hour later and I was completely committed, there was thunder chasing me farther into the hills, and I was desparately searching for any shortcut that would take me to the Fiume (River) Brenta and back down to the plains and home.

At one point, I even hid under an outdoor cafe's awning when a brief rain shower chased me off the slick road.

I rolled through one eerily quiet village then started to descend back into another valley. The trees closed in thick on both sides, the sky was completely hidden by fog, and I was riding in twilight. It was creepy, almost scary, and I started to scan the edges of fog for eyes or snarls or heavy breathing of any kind, but the thick curtains of moisture swallowed up every noise but the steady drip of the impending rain and my raspy breath.

A sweeping descent finally led me out of the fog and into a verdant, hidden valley. I crossed a very modern looking bridge that spanned a rocky ravine out of which a single church tower was peeking. My route, what I had decided was the quickest way to my destination, left the main road and turned upwards. By up, I mean it turned straight up the hillside, I rose out of the saddle for the next kilometer of nonstop climbing until my lungs burned and ribs ached. 

Two roads diverged in the valley, and I took the one that went
straight uphill.

When the road finally leveled off, I was rewarded with an amazing view back into the valley I'd just left behind.

Looking back the way I'd come. The village across the valley
was still hidden in fog, and cattle below meandered through
fields, their bells the only sound breaking the still air.

A few more miles along this final ridge and I reached the last town and finally began to descend in earnest, down into the Brenta river valley and my road home. The 10-mile descent began with long sweeping roads and the sky was opening up into patches of blue and puffy white clouds. I coasted along, no braking, just gently leaning into the turns and trying not to howl with joy at the free speed and open and lonely road. Of course, this couldn't last forever either. 

Halfway down I hit the first of 18 numbered hairpin switchback turns that would go on for five more miles. When I finally eased around turn number one my hands were cramping and my back ached from the constant braking, acceleration and then almost immediate deceleration. 

I rolled into Valstagna and turned left without hesitating and coasted to a stop at the first gelateria on the town's promenade. 

My reward for making stupid decisions and ignoring every warning
 sign thrown at me: a bottle of aqua minerale, a cafe, and cookie gelato.
After that the ride was mostly routine. I cruised, with aching and sore legs, the almost 30 miles to home, most of it slightly downhill or with a light tailwind. 

I left in the cool morning and returned in the tepid afternoon heat. Looking around as I rode back through the same small towns and villages almost seven hours later I wondered what other riders and bystanders, people in shops and businesses along my route, thought of me pedaling past. Did they recognize that I'd been out all day, climbing and rocketing down mountain valleys and ridges, visiting cycling shrines and repairing blown tires, outrunning thunderstorms and keeping guard against fairy tale creatures lurking in the fog and forests? Or was I just another one of the many nameless and faceless cyclists that flies past on any given day in this land so prolific with bicycling culture?

I do know it meant a lot to me, to spend so long out on the bike, suffering and enjoying what the local roads had to offer. It's been a long time since I subjected my body to that many hours in the saddle. It's something I should do more often, but maybe with a little better route planning and without ignoring blown tires.

Well, tomorrow's schedule looks open. Let's see what kind of trouble is waiting out there on the road.