Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Riding My Bike in Italy!!! Fantastico!

So my arrival in Milano was celebrated with a good dumping of rain. I hadn't made any plans prior to landing, so I rang my crazy friend, Anna, from the airport and we decided staying in Milan a couple of days was the way to go so I could get my bearings. To be honest, I'm not a big city-dweller, and I wasn't too keen on the idea, but I was glad I did. The city is so vibrant and has some amazing architecture. My high school Italian lessons coupled with a phrase book meant I could communicate enough with anybody to be able to get by. I was surprised how many people don't speak English here, and I don't mean that in an ignorant way, like I would expect them to, but it was quite a challenge to fly into a strange place, where people don't fully understand you and you don't fully understand them. It hasn't been unusual for me to get the wrong thing when I order meals, and the basic social etiquette here is very different. It makes it really hard to look after yourself pre-race when you can't ask for what you really need or want, so by and large, for the first couple of days, I had to get by on what I could manage to ask for!

I spent my first day in Milan walking around in the rain seeing the sights. My first investment was an umbrella and I armed myself with a tourist map and set off early in the morning. I was constantly amazed by how stunning the old buildings were and the architecture was amazing. The detail in some of the stonework was unbelievable. I saw a number of different landmarks but probably the one that stood out the most was Il Duomo Milano... The Cathedral. I'm not a religious person, but when I stepped inside that church, it took my breath away. The stained glass, tapestry and stonework was artwork in itself. The atmosphere in the church was amazing, too, with the choir and prayers. It doesn't surprise me that religion is still such an integral part of life for Italian culture because there really was something about the way I felt as soon as I entered the building that was very special and I can understand how that would be an important part of peoples lives.

Sunday was also the day of the Milan marathon, so I got to check outsome sporting action in the rain, too, which was kinda cool. The other thing I really love about Italy is that there are bikes EVERYWHERE! Being such a small, crowded city, riding a bike in Milano is one of the quickest ways to get anywhere and everyone seems to have these cool old skool cruiser bikes. There are even bike hire vending points around the city!

Monday I headed out of the city on the train for a little day trip to Lake Como (Lago Como). I still hadn't put the Ninja together yet for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the weather was terrible. Secondly, I didn't know where I was going yet. And thirdly, because I had no idea where to go riding in Milan. So while I was at the train station, I purchased myself a train ticket to Lago Garda, apparently a pretty sweet spot to ride your bike. Lago Como was lovely. A lot of cobblestone streets and narrow alleys with window shutters that swing outwards in old style stucco apartments. The cathedral was nice, but certainly not as spectacular as the one in Milan. There was also a market next to the cathedral, with all kinds of weird and wonderful things on offer. Among other things, marscapone moulded into the shapes of fruit, sandwiches and sheep... Bizarre.

The lake was also very beautiful, and seeing as I didn't have a bike together yet, I decided to go hiking to stop myself going stir crazy, and also to work of some of that gelato I have been eating (real Italian gelato is soooo bloody amazing). My Italian had also been coming along nicely and I was starting to get more confident speaking to people... Not just saying hello, but also asking how their day was. The problem with that was then they would try to converse back with me, which resulted in some rather awkward moments... Mi dispiace, non capisco!!! I hiked up the side of the local mountain, Brunate. The track was quite steep with a lot of steps. Half way up, there was a random restaurant that looked closed, but was actually open. Perfect for a hot chocolate before I made my way the rest of the way up the mountain. After being chased by a dog, and successfully asking for directions in my very best Italian, I arrived at the top funicular station... This is how most people get up the mountain... I just used it to get back down after my delicious meal of spaghetti bolegnaise. The views from the top were definately worth the climb...

I went for a bit more of a stroll around the town centre and lake front, where there was some gratuitous use of the self-timer mode on my camera (that's what travelling alone is all about right???). There was snow on the peaks of some of the mountains to the north of the lake which made for some spectacular photos opportunities and then I made my way back to the train station.

I had dinner planned with my old friend Anna Mei for the evening. I met Anna years ago at a 24 hour solo world champs in Canmore and we had kept in touch ever since. I was really looking forward to seeing her. It was also nice to be able to have a conversation with someone. I found over my first few days that it can be quite lonely travelling by yourself in a non English-speaking country. The only conversations you have with people are when you need something, and even then, the conversations are very broken and not really all that fulfilling. Anna speaks excellent English and it was so nice to have someone to talk to for the evening. I hadn't organised a place to stay yet for the night, so that was first on the agenda and much easier with Anna's car than hauling my bike box around on public transport again (thanks Anna!!!), then she took me to a really authentic Italian restaraunt and fed me like I was wasting away. I then voluntarily topped this off with gelato (bad idea, but so tasty!). The area we were in has canals, a bit like Venice, that were used to deliver building materials by boat for the construction of Il Duomo all those years ago.

This morning I was finally on my way to a biking destination, Torbole in Lago Garda. I couldn't wait to put the Ninja together and head out for a good ride. I must admit that I have been feeling a little concerned at my lack of riding lately post-Epic and heading into 24 hour world champs. It's really hard to train consistently when you travel, and I guess this is why I just planned to choose two or three places to stay and not move around too much. It's also quite painful and stressful hauling a bike box around, breaking the bike down and putting it together again all the time, especially on public transport. Whilst my bike box had wheels, it can be quite awkward because of my height, and even having to wheel it 200m to the bus stand can be a real pain in the arse. The other thing about travelling by yourself with a bike is that it makes it really hard to go to the toilet or get something to eat if you don't want to leave your bike unattended...They can be a logistical nightmare. So anyway, I was stoked when I arrived at my hotel this afternoon and put the Ninja together. The place I am staying is really lovely, with those European-stylee shutter windows. Quite comfortable, and soooo much cheaper than in the city, especially because they are in seasonal changeover right now, so it's a bit quiet for them. The only thing I'm not so keen on is that my bike has to stay in a storage area, and whilst it seems pretty secure, you know how it is... I have separation issues when it comes to my bike!

Lago Garda is an amazing corner of the world. Snow-capped mountains tower over the lakes and make it confusing to know what you should look at... Oh, and let's not forget the riding! Both mountain biking and road riding are very popular here and it just so happened that I had arrived on the day that the Giro de Trentino was running from Riva Del Garda, 3km down the road! So I put the Ninja together and headed off to check it out. I was pretty amazing, seeing all the pro teams riding around, the fleets and crews and their setups and warm up areas. It was a really amazing vibe and so elaborate compared to anything we have seen in New Zealand. It was kinda crazy to be rolling around on my bike amongst BMC, Astana and Europcar pro riders. In fact, as I was on my way, I was overtaken by the whole Liquigas-Cannondale team doing their warm-up (just casually)!

The Ninja was pretty excited about it, too, and insisted on getting some photos chilling with the pros...

By the time all the teams had set off on course, it had gotten quite windy and cold, so I returned to the hotel to get some warmer kit before heading out for a more substantial ride. I couldn't help smiling and thinking to myself what a cool place this was, and even cooler that I had just watched a pro tour! I didn't really have much of an idea of where I was going, but had picked up some maps. The locals weren't very forthcoming with information about where the sweet trails were and I only had a couple of hours before sunset, so I headed up the "small" mountain in between Torbole and Riva... It offered about 400m of climbing and the opportunity for some views. As I started climbing on the road, bits of singletrack started to appear off to the side. I took a gamble and jumped off the road onto some trail and was blown away. Not only were the trails an absolute delight, but there were views to match! It's so hard to describe just how amazing some trails are and photos never really seem to do it justice. I remember climbing these trails salivating at the thought of descending them once I reached the top.

It was another one of those days where I just couldn't think of anything in the world that would make me happier than riding a bike. I didn't feel a million bucks like I had on my last few rides in South Africa, which was to be expected... I had been in transit and not really sure off where I was going for the last four days and had been eating terribly... But just the vistas and the surprise of stumbing across such sweet trails was enough to have me grinning ear to ear. I reached the tower at the top of the climb and then turned around and started picking my way back down the trails. As I descended, I found more and more trails and I just let myself get lost amongst them, trusting that they would spit me out somewhere near Riva Del Garda at some point (and they did).

The trails were a mixture of bed rock, steps and loose, rocky terrain and pretty gnarly in some places. It was hard to concentrate on technical trails when these crazy views kept averting my attention. I remember thinking something along the lines of "this is crazy... this shit can't be real"... But it was. I was so happy and having such a great time that I was hollering and laughing out loud as I descended like a crazy person... That feeling... THAT is what wwe ride bikes for! As the sun began to set, the wind picked up and I got a bit creative, once again, with the self timer on the camera, getting some pretty cool shots of me on the bike with views in the background (although, let's face it... There were views everywhere. It probably would have been more difficult to get a shot without a view!).

I arrived back at the hotel after shift change and the new guy on was so lovely. He spoke excellent English and we talked about bikes and riding. He knew what the Cape Epic was and seemed highly impressed that I had just completed it, then sent me over to his friends restaurant for dinner where I had my first well-balanced meal in days, with lots of fresh salad and veggies. It was a perfect end to the day (he also gave me some free limonata to try, which made me just a little tipsy!). Tomorrow I have booked in with the local guide in a group to head out for a ride (it is free with my accommodation, which is kinda cool). I figured the pace may not be what I want, but it might help me find some more trails along the way. It's going to be amazing! I may stay here longer than planned... It's comfortable and I find it an inspiring place to ride, which makes it a great place to prepare for world champs. Let's see what the next few days brings, but I think I may be in for a treat!

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