Pain in the Apennines
Ridden by Rob Sawkins on 20th March 2015
April 2003, Agar Grove, Camden, North London, 14:32 GMT. I’m sat at my desk procrastinating, ignoring a deadline. It presses down on me like a deepening trough of Mid-Atlantic low pressure. I’m avoiding redrawing an arterial system and instead I’m surfing Ebay for bike parts in a virtual Aladdin’s cave: turning over crank, pedal, seat tube, and wheel set combinations in my mind. But it’s no fantasy dream bike I’m coveting. I need a ‘new’ cheapish road bike for a trip to Italy in the summer, and I’ve been buying bargain bike bits since Christmas; secretly keeping my winning bids from my girlfriend.
But a frame set is eluding me. Exotic carbon weaves, double-butted Reynolds tubes, and space age titanium triangles flaunt their best angles at me, but I’m having none of it. Then I see her buried deep in the bike parts category: a bottle green old school steel frame with ornate lugging on the head tube. I’m smitten. I enter a bid, close the web browser tab, returning to the design of the Manual of Surgical Treatment of Atrial Fibrillation with a long sigh of resignation.
I won! Chapeau! I punch the air as if I just won the stage up Mont Ventoux and taken the yellow jersey. A few days later, my prize comes delivered in a beaten up cardboard box. Made sometime in the early 80s, my steel frame set has seen better days, and looks like it belongs in a museum, but I’ve fallen for the elaborate hand-cut and filed head lugs, all sensuous fleur-de-lis and French curves. I begin building my bike from my stash of parts and start wheeling out during the week for training rides near my flat; loops around Regent’s Park, jostling for position with lycra lout couriers who blaze past me, radios crackling ‘urgent pick-up Marylebone Road, number five, top bell’; or the longer and more taxing route up Highgate Road, skirting Hampstead Heath, returning jelly-legged and pink-cheeked via Belsize Park and Chalk Farm.
‘It’s all going to shit’. Ian holds his head in his hands staring down at a huge baking tray of runny tiramisu we’d just made. ‘Perhaps half a bottle of Amaretto was over doing it?’
Malcolm, Ian and I are sat in Ian’s parents-in-law’s farmhouse over-looking Arezzo, Tuscany. A stop-and-stare vista unfolds before us, but we all look miserable. Ian’s liquified desert is the least of his problems. He and his wife Giovanna have been together for eight years, but they’re on the downslope of their marriage.
‘I’m sure she’s having an affair with the neighbour’, Ian scowls.
‘Really? Shit!‘ says Malcolm.
I breathe out hard through my nose, averting my eyes. I haven’t told them that I too suspect my partner of infidelity. Necking my tumbler of Strega, a boozy mint and fennel fire burns my guts.
‘I hate this stuff’, I croak, sliding my glass over for a refill.
Unfurling a map on the blond pine kitchen table the next morning, we three aren’t quite what sports pundits might call ‘match fit’. But the reason to be up so early on a pin-sharp June morning is today’s ride, one we’d talked about all spring. From Arezzo we will thread our way north via Subbiano and Rassina to Bibbiena – stopping for a caffeine hit and a pastry – before snaking our way up kilometre after kilometre of hair pin bends to La Verna. At 1,283m, perched on Mount Penna (an isolated mountain situated in the centre of the Tuscan Apennines), the La Verna complex includes a monastery, church, museum, chapels, and caves. There’s also a bar, a restaurant and a souvenir shop, but it’s bowls of creamy carbohydrates and a full-bodied bottle of red that we’re peddling for, rather than a miniature plastic St Francis of Assisi; though the later might just come in handy though the way we feel as we begin our ride...
My eyes are being sucked into the back of my skull. And I feel like I’m going to crash, as in bonk, as in hit the wall. Inching my way up towards the monastery, I’ve dropped the other two, I’m mesmerised by the bucolic beauty of the valley below. Visions of steaming bowls of Penne Arrabiata swim before my eyes which now resemble piss-holes in snow. I’m out of the saddle, bobbing up and down with a grimace on my rosy face. Despite increasing physical distress (or because of it), I feel a calmness growing stronger with each turn of the cranks. I’m not relaxed by any means, but I feel lighter, less under pressure and somehow above my worries and frustrations. Robert Hurst in The Art of Cycling has a possible explanation: ‘Vigilance while cycling can actually be relaxing rather than tiresome; it requires light but constant attention and thus ideally takes you away from other thoughts and cares. The more you ride the better you can become at vigilance – although riding will never be a time to totally relax, nor a place to daydream’.
Hurst’s book is aimed at urban bikers, but pedalling the last few bike lengths of our modest alpine ascent to the restaurant steps – wood smoke and garlic filling my nostrils – I recall his words and a crooked smile cracks my salty face. I’m hungry, physically spent, alone on my hacked-together bicycle, and yet I’m at peace. Chapeau.