Archive for October, 2008

Ride Report: Matera to Rome

October 1, 2008


Arrived Rome a little after 5 pm last night having departed hotel in Pietravairano (mapquest that one) pre-dawn that AM – 6:45.  Man, was it cold, still in mountains, in twilight conditions first 15 minutes.  Takes a long time (9 AM) for sun to reach the road in the valley.  Another 41°F start – autumn comes early to the hill country of Italy – I should have remembered that when I picked my ride clothes.  I did make a vest out of a plastic pillow holder after freezing the first day to Potenza.  I hate that thing – stiff, makes noise in wind, but it blocks cold air.  On the last day, when things warmed up, I shredded it with gusto.  People make fun of us riders in Lycra, but consider the alternatives…


This was among the most difficult (not longest, but per mile) rides I’ve ever done.  2.5 days of steep climbs and descents – often times an hour or even two would go by with no opportunity to take even one hand off handlebars – up 10 degree and down 10 degree grades, narrow often bumpy roads.  I quite often wondered what I was doing out there (don’t we all ponder the easily answered questions and skip over the hard ones).  

Few street signs – every time I spotted a live human being (most live items being animals from snakes to sheep) – I checked directions.  Most people at least know where they are, and a few know where the next town on the map is.   There are no good routes through this part of the South other than one freeway, and so very few people attempt this route.  I only did it because the conference I attended was in Matera, and my next assignment in Rome.  Connecting dots I can handle.  But for a vacation I’d probably pick a route with better infrastructure.  I took enough food for the whole day, and supplemented only with water, mostly from bars –  the only commercial entity in the small villages I went through – otherwise begged from inhabitants.  If anyone is wondering about drinking tap water in rural southern Italy, I seem to have survived plenty of it.  Don’t know if I’d try that in some other countries, but the reason to drink bottled water in Europe has more to do with style than substance.  Not a route for an inexperienced cyclist.  The only food in these bars is potato chips and mints – not exactly good ride fuel!  But if necessary I suppose one could get by on chips…it didn’t come to that, thankfully.


Most of yesterday was on the straight rolling hills road back to Rome on the old main route – Casilina.  It is lined with war memorials.   And populated by plenty of traffic, including ridiculously huge trucks on a small road often with no shoulder.  I would call it unsafe, the only modifier being that Italian drivers are well adapted to cyclists, and there are many others commuting along the road.  Neither would I call riding within the city limits of Rome safe, but at least there are lots of bikes and scooters and drivers do not hate us as some do in US.  A long day with cars and trucks buzzing by riding the bumpy edge of the road.  The other three days were physically hard but peaceful and beautiful.  The last day was 120 miles grinding away – very Iron Man.  Even though I don’t look for that sort of thing, sometimes you have to do it temporarily.  “My mother told me there would be days like this” comes to mind.  But the bike was fine, I was fine, weather was nice, so no big deal.  The last 10 miles through Rome were an exciting compensation for the first 110.


Lots of work this week.  Cycling long distances is a hobby that can make you really appreciate a few days of presentations and meetings wearing wool or cotton that doesn’t squeeze your skin and wick anything.   Maybe by the weekend I might be in the mood for a few miles on the bike.  As Michael Phelps said after Beijing – I’m glad to not move for a day!  It’s hard to describe – it was a fantastic experience, but an exhausting one.  And when it’s over you’re both sad it’s over, and grateful you survived it – less in a danger sense, more that I wouldn’t have thought I’d have the physical ability to do what I did.  I look back and think – how did I do that (and why!). 🙂  I think I climbed in 3.5 days something like 30,000 feet.  Plus 375 miles riding.  And the first day I didn’t arrive until 8:30 pm – the last two hours on unlit, narrow, winding mountain roads, in the dark, to Potenza (the only town with an Albergo after departure from Matera).


Second day the choices for stopping points were again limited, and I ended up in Caposele, which is famous to us students of the history of salt as a place the Florentine salt cartel sourced the white gold.  Though in those days it was more often grey or black than white, containing plenty of other minerals which technology didn’t exist to separate except at great expense.  White salt was reserved the the priveleged few.  Crank that into your cost of living calculations – we’re all rich in salt.  Or maybe not – all those other minerals might be good for us…  700 feet up a 13% grade from Caposele is the shrine of Santo Girardo, with numerous hotels for pilgrims.  I joined those seeking cures, getting married, and shopping the street stalls for local chestnuts, Jesus figurines made of straw and other local curiosities including nougat, which is so sweet it’s hard to believe anyone over 6 years old actually consumes – but they do, of course.  There are several weddings per day up there, including 2 at my hotel during my 12 hours there.


Which brings me to my latest thermodynamic invention…  Which saved me from hypothermia over that cold night above 3500 feet in an unheated hotel room.


Many tourists come to Italy in hot summer, and learn about the Italian air conditioning – lobbies are frigid, rooms are tepid, and at night (coincidentally after everyone is checked in and no new prospects will enter the lobby), they save energy by shutting the A/C off completely.  


What tourists don’t experience so often is the other extreme – it’s 40 degrees outside, and the room is not much warmer.   The heat is on, explains the front desk.  But the radiatore is freddo – freddisimo – as only a hunk of unheated iron can be.  


Enter my thermodynamic invention.  The rubber band.  While void of heat or A/C, even the 1 star hotel bathroom (assuming you have a bathroom in your room) has a wall-mounted hair dryer.  No Italian will stay at a hotel without a hair dryer, apparently.  Armed with your stout rubber band ( I recommend carrying a few spares – they weigh just a gram or so each), you wrap it tightly around the spring loaded trigger grip on the hair dryer, and just leave the thing on.  Heats up the room, dries the cycling clothes you washed in the sink, and simultaneously masks the band and singing from the wedding going on at 2 AM down in the restaurant.  


The rubber band.  Don’t leave home without it.


Did I mention that for extra hero / idiot points, I made this ride with an apparent stress fracture of a bone in my right foot?  I think that’s why cycling shoes use Velcro – so you can widen them to accommodate swollen feet.   I expected it to be much worse after the abuse of the last 4 days.  But in fact it’s better – maybe only by contrast… 


With this ride I’ve managed to stitch together about 1200 miles of long distance cycling this “summer” – in quotes since I don’t consider riding in 40°F weather summer – wimp that I am.  I admit returning to a winter season of day rides and commuting, where you actually know where you’ll be at sunset (home) and don’t have to lug a day’s supply of hazlenuts and stop every 10 km to ask directions, scrutinize a map, your eyes tear blurred, or seek water refill sounds pretty good right now.  

It bothers me that I don’t read enough.  Nancy would consume a huge tome or two per week – real intellectual stuff – while I read mostly aerospace trade, ham radio and cycling magazines.  But my excuse is she read very few maps, if any.  Reading maps is like talking with nature – you have to bring a lot to it – isn’t that intellect at work – or at least fantasy.   By February I’ll be ordering my  ration of maps from Barnes & Noble and plotting next summer’s rides.  I had thought about a mid-winter ride this year, maybe RI to Florida or NYC, but this one might almost count.  I plan to rethink that from my heated – without use of any rubber bands – house in RI when I’m back next month.