Italy: Strada Dell’Assietta

The final day in the Alps was definitely a two banana day. I spent a solid five hours crossing checkpoint 2 by passing over the Strada dell’Assietta, an old military road that leads over a few peaks and along a mountain ridge for 30 miles of dirt, rocks, and gravel. As luck would have it, a stinging cold rain came through and fell throughout much of the day during what had already promised to be one of the hardest legs of the race.

2 bananas
Definitely a two banana day

Shivering and sniffeling my way up muddy gravel slopes, I often had to dismount after losing traction on steeper sections. At one point a group of three mountain bikers passed me in the opposite direction, exclaiming something in Italian while staring wide eyed and pointing at the skinny 25mm road tires kicking up mud beneath my bike. Miraculously, I avoided even a single flat, converting me into a lifelong advocate of H Plus Son Rims and Specialized Armadillo tires. No doubt the decision to drop tire pressure by 20 PSI for traction and flat-protection also helped.

The only other person I saw for the duration of the crossing was a weathered old man who had somehow hauled a small RV up one section of the road. Unfortunately, I met his dogs first. I’d been trundling along for well over an hour when two oversized mountain dogs came bounding toward me out of the fog. It was surreal enough to wonder whether I could trust my eyes, but by then the leader of the two had closed in with a menacing growl. My lungs were already wheezing from the thin air at elevation, but I forced myself to accelerate. This was little use, as I immediately lost control riding over the uneven terrain. Fortunately the dogs’ owner shouted out in the distance and the beasts receded back into the fog. I checked my speed and continued on my way.

Switchbacks
At times the steep road got so muddy I had to dismount my bike and walk. Over time, both of my cleat caps were sucked off in the mud, never to be seen again.

After 30 miles, the Strada ends by dropping you down the Colle delle Finestre, an iconic winding dirt track that switchbacks into a valley as far as the eye can see (on a clear day, when fog isn’t limiting the view to 10 feet ahead). Though the poor weather meant I missed the ideal photo opportunity, I did get a couple of shots when the fog cleared for a moment.

Not a shoulder. That's the road.
Rough riding
Fog cleared
Fog clearing

Eventually the Colle delle Finestre joins a paved road that whips you through a series of turns in a thick forest. Occasional gaps in the trees offer glimpses of distant Italian towns in the valley below:

20+ consecutive switchbacks lead you down to the town of Susa:

By evening I’d dropped out of the rainy Alps and logged 40 more miles for dinner in Turin, the temperature rising a couple of degrees every few miles along the way. I’m relieved to be finished with that challenging stage of the trip but already missing the alpine scenery. My ride across Northern Italy continues tomorrow…

Italy: It’s unclear where all the women are

Northern Italy is completely flat, incredibly beautiful, and painfully boring. Most of my interactions have been with old men, who really seem to be living it up around here. Consider the guy who just passed in the opposite direction, a septuagenarian gingerly pedaling down a countryside road on his 40-year-old Italian-manufactured cruiser, wearing nothing but a pair of sky blue shorts and vintage aviators, white hair slicked back, chest hair fluttering freely in the warm breeze. Is this not the dream?

It’s unclear where all the women are.

Cremona tonight, Venice tomorrow…

Italy: Models & Meat Platters

I rolled into Pavia at dusk yesterday for dinner in the main town square where a live opera performance entertained diners already a few hours into their meal. Maybe because of its proximity to Milan, Pavia is teeming with folks who look like they’ve strolled out of a magazine ad. As locals strutted past, they may have taken interest in my sartorial decision to dine in a lycra Sunski cycling jersey, saturated with dried sweat and dirt that had plastered itself to me over the course of cycling in 90 degree heat for the previous eight hours. But if they did take interest, they showed it with a distant gaze and cool drag of their cigarette. To spite this indifference, I did my best to ignore their good looks and tore into an oversized platter of traditional breads, meats, and cheeses, which kept me busy until it became necessary to waddle 20 feet in my cycling shoes to the nearest gelato stand. Feeling sufficiently fueled, I departed Pavia and its comely constituents for my own beauty rest which came 40 miles later shortly after midnight in a farm field outside of Cremona.

Grime

 

The morning after: Cremona camping

Last day in Italy

Today was a prolonged battle with heat exhaustion as I biked through the afternoon in upper 90 degree heat. With more frequent breaks than I would have liked, I lurched past Venice following signs toward Trieste. The traffic on small country roads intensified near the Venice airport, which was mainly problematic due to the lack of a shoulder, and I often had to cling to the edge of the road as large trucks pulled past. Drivers sped by in a more aggressive way than I’ve seen so far. Just a few days ago, the first serious accident of the race happened in this region when a van hit a TCR cyclist from behind, launching him onto the grassy shoulder. You try to keep these sorts of things off your mind as one car after another passes you, but these thoughts do creep in from time to time. All the best for a speedy recovery to our fellow rider.

Umbrella
The pace of life is slow here along the Adriatic coast
Can’t be sure, but this may have been my 18th pastry of the trip
Man-made forest