Bike Across Italy - Day 7 - Spello to Todi (44 miles)

Traditional paper making in the town of Bevagna - a labor of love, like home made pasta!
May 18, 2007: Sunflowers, Olive Groves, Vineyards, and the Todi Challenge


FOR two days Andreas talked about the Todi Challenge and how difficult it was.

"Who's going to do the 17-22% hill?" he crowed.

This had the effect of psyching out all but two contenders - Dave with the carbon fiber Scott, who'd been spending most of his time chasing down lithe Italian stallions whipping past us on their Colnagos, with occasional sidelong glances at the bucolic scenery, and Bob, who, at 60 going on 40, clearly had a secret we all wanted to share.

We had all day to decide ...

The first stop was at a wonderful little town called Bevagna, and a tour of a one-man traditional paper making workshop. We watched as the artisan explained in Italian how he collected old rags, chopped them up, soaked them in lime, used a foot cranked turbine to crush them to a pulp, sieved and laid out moist sheets to harden, then hung them out to dry. The end result was a collection of evocative paper products - bookmarks, lampshades and exquisite leather-wrapped journals. Modern technology had eked its way into the laborious process - a large vat resembling an old round washing machine stirred the milky soup with an electric agitator to in lieu of a big paddle.

In the square, a small group of friendly local men stood with their bicycles caught my attention, and in gestures and non-language-specific whoops we compared and gesticulated over our respective transporters. Despite the obvious benefits of speaking the local tongue, the obverse has a wordless, borderless and joyous appeal of its own.

A quick sortie down a side lane leading off from the square revealed chic little stores selling the kinds of things I'd seen in the bigger, ritzier towns with less ritzy prices. I bet I could have scored a Prada-like something or other here for more reasonable Euros if I was so inclined.

There was a remnant of a pillar to one side of the piazza. Suzie, who'd done this same trip a couple of years earlier, explained that a little old man told them how it got there. "He, with a couple of others, rolled it into a church when the Germans were destroying everything in sight to save it."

We then climbed high on unshaded ridges through olive groves and and vineyards to Montefalco for lunch, the fabulous Assisi receding into hills behind us. In Montefalco, I discovered the kind of pizza they're serving in Italy these days - a super thin, crisp canvas, not unlike a giant Carr's watercracker, painted with a suggestion of tomato, an the odd topping or two strewn artfully and sparingly across a light, cheesy backdrop. Deliciously distant from the Papa-whatever thick, bready kind, overstudded with a pile of predictable toppings. Another great choice, and an antidote to the rich pastas and copious meaty offerings at dinner, is a mixed salad with tuna and eggs - something I should have ordered more often but there's something addictive about carbs and fat when you're riding a bike ..

After more climbing through vineyards, sunflower and wheat fields, we arrived at the medieval hill town of Todi and the palatial, 4-star Hotel Bramante, perched on the side of a hill.

The Todi Challenge

There was so much talk about not doing it that I decided I had to do it.

Dana looked at me like, 'what you're gonna DO it?'. She looked around for fellow riders to cheer me on but they'd all gone. I didn't really need an audience, I was more curious to test out my bike with its new little compact crank and 24" lowest gear.

The start was a 3 km swoop down a hill from the van. One had to keep an eye out for the start point, marked by a small orange building.

What makes a hill one worth bragging about versus one to conquer in self-satisfied silence?

A serious hill is one that silences idle chatter between friends as you ascend.

The King of Jester in Austin is a gradual 14-17% hillclimb race on a wide, suburban street that anyone reasonably fit can climb at an easy pace. You can still chatter, breathing hard towards the top.

The Manayunk Wall in Philadelphia, which USPro racers must climb 10 times each year, starts out similarly, flattens, then swings sharply skywards for a little longer that is comfortable. It silences you pretty quickly half way up.

GreenHill in Eugene is a dead straight, 4-stage ascent with 3 brief flat spots and a silencer of a final hump - one that almost brought me and Peter Kaspar on his time trial tandem to a dead halt. I call it the maximum workout for the minimum time.

All these hills are doable with low gears, you get bragging rights if a) you do an easier hill at speed, in which case you need the power to push the big ring or b) you do a preposterously hard hill and get to the top, on whatever ring you got. Switchbacky hills seem a lot easier, their variety keeps the mind from cursing in boredom and lets the body shifting about.

Todi is a 14-22% straight ascent for 3/4 of a mile, where the 22% is a significant portion of the climb. And narrow. I could hear cars behind me revving, but respectfully so. They'd seen countless Colnagos and Bianchis scaling it for sure.

Top of the Todi - hill? What hill? Oh, that little ramp behind me?

There are two places you can rest. I decided to stop briefly to take a shot backwards before scaling the second part. I could feel the leaden load in my biceps as I dragged the crank around, hauling upwards on my cleat and hoping it didn't yank out of my shoe. The slight ache encroaching on my lower back, and the grip on my handlebars as if clinging to the shuddering railing of the Titanic, told me this was not a hill for chatting. But again, thanks to a 24" lowest gear, I had the most goat-like road bike of the pack. At the summit I could see Dana waving and jumping up and down. She rushed down the hill to grab my camera, so slow was I pedaling that she could easily unclip it and remove it from my jersey pocket.

"You did it!" Apparently, it was a hill worth bragging about ...

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Copyright 2007


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