Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Aosta, Italy

Friends: I set out before Jesse this morning for my first solitary cycling in the 1,300 miles we have biked together, other than on the long climbs. The road ahead didn't seem to require both our navigational skills, as it led directly to a town where we could meet up, though one never knows what puzzlements the Italian road sign-makers might inflict upon us. The evening before, when we turned on to SS26, we were greeted by a sign that announced "Aosta 45 Kilometers." Eight kilometers later a sign said, "Aosta 53 Kilometers." We're all too accustomed to such inconsistency, so all we could do was laugh. And all the way to Aosta the signs continued to be equally erratic. Even Jesse the film-student, who thrives on movies that are woefully deficient in clarity, is frustrated by attempting to solve the unrelenting senselessness of the Italian road signs.

We agreed to meet up at the tourist office, or the nearest Internet outlet to it, in Aosta. How far that might be we could only guess. A sign along the road where we had camped put the latest estimate at 47 kilometers. It had been both our best and worst camping spot in Italy, and the hardest to find, other than the campground in Milan. Usually we can find a place to disappear to for the evening within a mile or two after we decide to call it a day, but in this thickly settled valley, it took us 45 minutes to find a secluded nook for our tents. We were starting to get desperate when we noticed just ahead the road was about to begin its climb out of the valley we had been riding in. But just at that point, the road rose on some risers above the ground and below it was a clump of trees that offered some shelter. It was much too near the road for a quiet night of sleeping, but the campsite offered the bonus of being beside an ancient Roman road dating to the first century BC. The centuries and variety of traffic that had trod its cobble stones provided much to ponder, much as camping along the Pony Express trail has.

After about an hour-and-a-half of cycling this morning a car pulled over in front of me and an older guy hopped out and waved me down. That happened to me regularly in India by people who would say, "Welcome to India," and then invite me to their home. Here, my first reaction was, "Oh my God, has Jesse had another disaster?" Thankfully, the man just wanted to ask me about bicycle touring. He was 63 and had long wanted to do as I was doing. He hoped to tour around Europe next summer. His English wasn't the best, but I was able to tell him about camping and finding roads to cycle and the essentials to bring. He was interested in what it was costing me and how much all my equipment cost, as he didn't even have panniers.

He also wanted to know how old I was, a question I can vividly remember first hearing in Colombia, when I was cycling the length of South America in 1989 back when I was 38 and clearly no longer a spring chicken. People are always heartened to know that one doesn't need to be young to tour, that they needn't give up their longings of doing such a thing just because age is gaining on them. After several minutes this guy shook my hand and said, "Complementi," the closest thing the Italians have to "Bon Courage." I was hoping we'd be greeted by some unique exhortation like the Australian "Good on ya mate,"or the Mexican and Latin American send-off, "Que le viaje bien," but all we hear is "ciao" from the passing cyclists. One shop owner bid us farewell by saying, "Piano," a bicycle insider term meaning, "Take it easy." When Italians decide to have an easy training day they'll say,"We're going to ride piano today."

In many ways Italy is the ultimate place to bicycle despite the erratic road signs, the difficulty of wild-camping, the congested roads, and the paltry variety of easy to prepare supermarket food. Cycling is deeply venerated. It is deeply satisfying, if not uplifting, to be in a land where to be on a bicycle is to be in an exalted position. A cyclist is not regarded as a novelty or a curiosity, nor taken for granted. To be on a bicycle is something commendable. If this were Japan, the bicyclist would continually be bowed to. When an Italian sees a cyclist, it immediately brightens their day. When I'm on or with my bicycle, I'm granted immediate respect. The bicycle is like a badge I've been given, proclaiming that I am a person to be honored. Never before have I been treated with such universal warmth. I was accorded similar, if not greater, regard in Columbia by its corps of cyclists, though not by everyone, as here in Italy.

Even though there is much more traffic than in France, the traffic has given me no frights, as the drivers are so accustomed to cyclists and are likely a cyclist them self, they know enough to give cyclists room despite the narrowness of the roads. The road builders are so stingy with their spread of asphalt, they rarely even provide a shoulder of more than inches. Another of the amenities of Italian cycling is the abundant opportunity of drafting with so many cyclists on the roads. We had a pace line with an English touring cyclist the other day for about an hour. He'd been on the road for ten days. We were the first touring cyclists he had seen. Three minutes after meeting us, he said it was the longest conversation he'd had in English since he left England. Like us, he is always taken for being German. When the guy I talked to along the road earlier today learned I was American, his head actually jerked backwards in surprise, like an audible gasp.

Later, George

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