Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Alba, Italy

Friends: Not every town in Italy has a bicycle store, though it certainly seemed so at first. We saw more in our first forty miles bicycling along the Mediterranean than we saw in 800 miles through France. And there were hoards of guys decked out in full racing attire pedaling the roads like they meant it, in pace lines and on their own. The Italians are known as the most passionate of bicycle racing fans. There was ample evidence to verify it.

It wasn't until we went searching for a bike store in the small town of Chiusauecchia did we learn that bike shops weren't as ubiquitous as we thought. We needed a bike shop to replace Jesse's front wheel. It had been bent beyond repair when a car coming around a blind corner at forty miles per hour slammed into it. Jesse was on the bike, but was miraculously spared injury. We were just starting our day, crossing an exit ramp from a highway. There were high bushes to our left, preventing us from seeing cars that might be preparing to exit. There wasn't much traffic on this road up from the coast. I went first, looking and listening. Jesse followed a few seconds later without pausing to verify that it was safe to proceed. The driver was evidently momentarily distracted by the odd sight of me on my loaded touring bike returning to the highway and was suddenly upon Jesse plowing into the front part of his bike without even braking, narrowly missing Jesse himself, very well sparing his life. The damage to the wheel and the bike would have been much more severe if it hadn't been protected by a pannier.

I was lucky not to have witnessed the horror of the collision. I just heard the thud of car into pannier. I slowly turned, not eager at all to see the likely sight of a fast spreading pool of blood and a comatose body. Instead, I was shocked to see Jesse arising from the pavement without a spot of blood or even a bruise. The driver came rushing over apologizing, but pointing out that we shouldn't have been entering the highway there. He was right, and we apologized ourselves. We were all in such a state of shock that we didn't take time to assess the damage to the bike and enlist the driver in getting us to a bike shop, before he had sped off. We were all simply relieved that Jesse was OK. His wheel was severely pretzeled, but after jumping on it and taking a truing wrench to it, we straightened it just enough so that it could spin unimpeded if we released the brakes and removed one of the brake pads.

As long as we didn't ride too fast, Jesse's rear brake provided enough braking power for us to safely putter to Chiusauecchia, two miles up the road. It was a slight climb, so we didn't have to worry about a descent generating unsafe speed. Though Chiusauecchia didn't have a bicycle shop, it had bicyclists. A kindly soul most graciously offered to lend us his front wheel so we could more safely bike back to Imperia, a large city six miles away. It was an astoundingly generous offer, but since we had hobbled two miles already without much difficulty, we knew we could manage a few more and wouldn't have the complication of returning his wheel. We were under no severe deadline to be anywhere, so the only stress we felt was recovering from the trauma of this near disaster. It didn't take us long to find a bike store in Imperia, and it had a comparable wheel to Jesse's old one.

The accident occurred on our first morning in Italy, two days ago. If not for that incident we would say that Italy has been perfection. Despite his ill-luck Jesse is loving Italy so much, he is expressing regret that he chose to learn French rather than Italian. The Italians are responding to us and our bikes with even greater fervor than I could have imagined. This morning when we came out of a grocery store two guys were huddled over our bikes, closely examining their every feature. They expressed a level of curiosity way beyond anything we had encountered in France. We are on our way to Milan for the final stage of Italy's version of the Tour de France, likewise a three-week grand tour of the country. But before that we will visit a chapel overlooking Lake Como devoted to bicycling's patron saint, the Madonna de Ghisallo. Could be she has already been looking out for us.

Later, George

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