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by SS at 11:31 am on Friday 26th July

This is a bit of a bumper update. The last four days have been extremely busy! We're now in Hostel San Marino, a rather good hostel which is close to but not in San Marino. This is probably the cheapest accommodation we've booked this trip - for 25 euros each, we have our own room (with four beds, hah), bathroom and air conditioning! They even include breakfast, although this was meagre - cornflakes and melba toast. Phil is out searching for an actual coffee as I write this.

We left Susa late on Monday. Italians famously operate on a later schedule to much of Europe and breakfast only opened at 8am. (The smell of fresh bread at 7:15 suggested that we could probably have gone down earlier.) After some faff, we hit the road at just before 9 for our first full day in Italy.

The condition of Italian roads vary from smooth as butter to worse than most African roads. I thought the A5 was bad but these could be so much worse. With the heavy traffic (both in terms of volume and in physical size - many many lorries), there is often no room to manoeuvre around the potholes that seem to line the bicycle line of the lane. These bumps are uncomfortable sure, but the main problem is that they cause my Garmin to turn off sporadically. Only particular bumps seem to cause it to turn off and I can't work out why. This is a little hairy when we're riding into a roundabout and the GPS turns off - I have to switch it back on with one band, brake with the other and then indicate before pressing another button to change the display to the one we use for navigation. Thankfully Phil's unit seems a little more robust (and has a proper basemap) so we're covered if mine stops working altogether.

Italian drivers also drive in a very similar fashion to how I drive normally - that is, heavy on both the accelerator and the brake pedals. This is nerve wracking as a cyclist. Drivers approach T junctions at full speed and brake to a halt only at the last minute, all whilst looking straight ahead and giving no indication that they have seen us approaching on the main road they are joining. There's nothing we can really do except stay as visible as possible and prepare to take evasive action if they do actually come out.

That morning, we cycled in Turin. Phil appeared to be against this detour but I hadn't realised this until we were navigating the busy dual carriageways feeding the city - by which point it was too late to turn around. After reaching the nominal city centre and Phil decrying it as the Italian equivalent of Birmingham, we eventually caught sight of the famous tower, the Mole Antonelliana, a structure which I recognised from the Civilisation video game and from a liquor called the 'Chocolate Turin' which comes in a bottle shaped like the building. We cycled towards it as best we could and eventually ended up in the historic centre of Turin, which was beautiful - full of impressive buildings, statues and huge piazzas.

Eventually we came to the Mole Antonelliana and Phil's wheel decide to puncture as we approached it. After taking our photos of the building, we retired to a cafe nearby to fix the puncture and drink ice cream and coffee/hot chocolate.

As we passed a market on our way out of Turin, a lady shouted out what is the equivalent of 'nice thighs'. This was reassuring because the marginally shorter route out that I picked (to avoid yet more dual carriageway cycling) took us over a couple of pretty serious climbs.

That afternoon, we kept going towards Alessandria, intending to have lunch in Asti, a town some distance away. Phil's wheel punctured again when we were about five miles away and then again less than a mile down the road. At this point it had just hit 2pm and the day was as hot as it would get. Phil was suffering in the heat, and I was pretty dehydrated myself. We retired under a tree to fix the first puncture and then just another tree outside the large garden of a local home for the subsequent punctures. His patches were failing to stick in the heat and we ended up replacing the tubes. By the time we got to Asti it was 4:30pm and I was starving (it's unclear whether Phil gets hungry, normally coffee alone sustains him for lengthy periods of time!). Another amazing pizza later, Phil's tyre went flat again and we asked the cafe operators if they could point us to a bike shop. We were in luck - there was one just a short walk away.

Sadly, Italy being Italy, the shop was shut in Mondays. Phil pulled into a driveway to fix his puncture and I patronised the gelato shop that was conveniently right next door. After getting many curious looks from bystanders as he sat cross legged in the middle of the driveway repairing his tubes (and attracting brief police attention), we were ready to go again.
We had further punctures about 10 miles out of Alessandria, and pulled into a lay by next to an industrial estate to repair them. A nice man in a white van saw us and turned around to offer assistance! We were shocked but gratefully turned his offer down - intent on riding all the way.

We reached Alessandria just before 8pm, to the nicest (on paper) hotel we would be staying in - with a proudly advertised 4* rating. It didn't however have a restaurant, which prompted us to look up how ratings are assigned. It turns out that each country does this differently and Italian ratings are presumably more generous.

We went for dinner to a great little pizzeria where I had a quatro formaggio and panna cotta for dessert. Yum. Upon returning to the hotel, I tried figuring out why someone had built a nice hotel in this seemingly uninteresting destinations. The receptionist suggested the Cathedral might be nice to see. I was unconvinced.

The hotel was amusing. It had lovely furnishings, soft fluffy towels and a huge bathroom. This was topped off with a grey 14" CRT television.

Despite the fast wifi, I was so exhausted after the hours of delay that I went straight to bed. Although our riding time was just 5.56.18, we'd been on the hot road for 11 hours. We cycled 91.78 miles, with a 15.4 mph average speed.

On Tuesday we cycled from Alessandria to Fiorenzuola D'arda, a town not far from Parma (the famous ham and cheese place).

The day was very hot. Despite leaving earlier (our 4 star hotel offered breakfast from 6:30am), the heat had carried over from the previous day and it was near 30 degrees from the mid morning. Our adventurous routing took us over some fairly steep hills which were the foothills of the Apenine mountain range. Sadly the same routing also assumed we could ride on footpaths and so the actual mileage ended up being more as we routed around it. Thankfully, we had stopped at a supermarket that was the Italian equivalent of Waitrose, and I had picked up half a kilogram of some amazing chocolate oat biscuits. By the end of the day I had less than half of these left...

We stopped for lunch in a wonderfully air conditioned cafe just after the climbing was mostly over where they made me a panini with many, many vegetables in.

At just before 3pm, we stopped for a gelato in a little town called Niviano. The shop was advertised to open at 3pm but predictably opened late. While we were waiting, Phil's tube punctured again in the heat. We were fresh out of inner tubes at this point and our repairs failed. Phil managed to ascertain that there was a bicycle shop 3 or 4 kilometres away and while he tried to repair his tube again, I cycled off in search of the shop. (It's worth noting that we did eventually get our ice cream.)

I cycled off in the direction of the bicycle shop and spotted a road cyclist wearing red lycra who I was certain would know the location of the shop. He was going considerably quicker than me though, so it took some effort to catch him with my pannier. When I came along side, Itried asking him for help and motioning towards my wheel. He refused to even try and understand, instead shouting 'no parlano Anglaisi, no parlano' and accelerating away from me. So much for cyclist on cyclist support. I wish many punctures upon his wheels.

After asking a very helpful gentleman at a supermarket who gave me excellent directions, sadly all in Italian, I pulled into a car garage and asked for inner tubes. They laughed and said they only stocked tyres for cars but got on the phone and soon wrote down the address of what they assured me was a bicycle shop.

I finally reached the bicycle shop, a curious place which was a mess of spare parts and oily used parts and appeared to service anything with two wheels. The bike shop owner was out when I arrived but he soon pulled up in a large jeep. After explaining our predicament, he pulled out two inner tubes and some rim tape, I took a celebratory photo with him and pedalled back to Phil.

Our puncture problems behind us for the day we continued on to Fiorenzuola. Our route took us over some lovely gravelly 'roads'. Phil's confidence on these roads had been slowly increasing (at the beginning of the trip her was flatly against unpaved surfaces) and he was amused when the road took us over a river. Thankfully this had dried up, but my shoes still were soaked as we walked over the riverbed.

I was pretty exhausted coming into the town, having cycled 98.67 miles, the route for the day plus the additional running around looking for the bike shop. This was 6.52.22 hours of cycling with a respectable 14.3 mph average. My skin was covered with salt, something I had never really noticed before (having always assumed it was road grit). Overall this was an 11.5 hour day on the bike.

As we walked around the town looking for food, we disappointed the proprietor of an empty bar when after some discussion, the only vegetarian meal he could offer was a salad. Eventually we went for apertivi at a cocktail bar called Cafe Suavato where a 3.50 euro spend gained you access to a buffet of food. After this we went to a small restaurant where I had my first pasta in Italy - which was good but nowhere near as much better than home as the pizzas here are. Dessert was a semifreddo, which was nice - a little nutty and essentially a slice of ice cream.

The next day we left later again (after a cold shower and after Phil was told off for attempting to use the espresso machine to make a cappuccino). Luckily we had a tail wind to Bologna, and although we stopped briefly in Parma for a snack, we made excellent progress, reaching the outskirts of Modena at about 11:30. Our route took us past the Auto Drome Modena, a race track where we stopped for 20 minutes to watch a party on a track day get briefed. I also snuck into the pits to admire the Formula1-esque cars they were going to be racing.

On our way into the city centre, Phil had another flat next to a supermarket. He tried repairing this, which failed, and then replaced it with the other spare tube which also failed - it seemingly already had a hole in it! Eventually he managed to get it fixed up and we made it to a bike shop called Sportissimo. Alas, it shut for lunch at 1 and we arrived at 1:15. Lunch breaks in Italy are long and they wouldn't open again until 3...

Standing outside the front entrance, we tried to figure out what to do next. The owner, locking up, saw us and asked us if we were ok. Phil explained the problem to him and he told us to come around to the side entrance.

They were happy to help and replaced the rim tape, tube and gave us some free tubes. They even offered us water and coffee for Phil. We spoke to the owner while one of his mechanics fixed the wheel - his shop was one of the largest in Modena, and he'd been running it for 23 years. He thought we were Dutch initially (possibly due to Phil's build and orange jersey) and was happy to hear we were from London. After the puncture was fixed, and the rim tape replaced (again), he refused to let us pay. What an absolute legend!

We stopped for lunch briefly at a strange smelling cafe under a walkway where I had a salad in the hope it would expedite our lunch stop. This was a mistake though since I burned through the 200 calories the salad supplied in about 20 minutes and was hungry for the rest of the day.

The tail wind that had carried us in the morning stopped and turned around as we neared Bologna, becoming a fierce headwind. Additionally, dark grey clouds ahead looked as if they were about to soak us. We pulled over to waterproof our panniers and continued on down a rather unpleasant dual carriageway that was heavily trafficked and lined with prostitutes. Very odd. Although we had missed the scheduled Ducati factory tour at 3.30pm that I had hoped to catch, we decided to visit the museum anyway and their very friendly representative managed to book us on a later tour. It was amusing touring a motorcycle factory in cycling lycra and the other tourists found the way we parked our bikes quite astonishing (in the absence of a bike rack, we had hung them from a railing). The museum itself was interesting but I found the factory more fascinating. They turn out between 300 and 400 bikes a day and the factory is manned 20 hours a day.

We left the factory at the same time as the shift change and battled some epic traffic into Bologna where we met Adrian for an evening of so much food. All in all, 89.20 miles, a 16.4mph average over 5.25.36 hours.

The restaurant he took us to offer an amazing starter where the food just kept coming. They would remove half eaten plates from the table to make room for new ones. My favourite was pecorino with jam/chutney, although the buffalo mozzarella was also excellent. We had a bottle of local sangiovese to accompany our meal - my main course was risotto with gorgonzola and pears. A strange but delicious combination. The meal was topped off with a delicious gelato.

The next morning Adrian treated us to a wonderful quantity of cereal and then took us to a breakfast bar where I had the most amazing layered custard pastry called a 'Diplomatica'. He accidentally ordered three coffees and so I was treated to my first ever espresso - an excellent Italian one at that.

This helped contribute to a quick ride that morning. Phil's puncture woes looked as if they were mostly over. Aside from a quick stop for iced tea and espresso in Imola, we stopped in Cesena for lunch from a bizarre cafe. The owner was very impressed by Phil's Italian and even more impressed by our proposed route. When he asked about what vegetarian vegetarian meals she had, she pulled out several frozen ready meals to show us... D'oh. So much for fresh Italian food. A quick gelato later (where the lady was amused by my pronunciation of 'stracciatella'), we hit the road.

The climb into San Marino was fierce but short and we arrived at the hostel at 3:30pm after 80.16 miles, an average of 15.7 mph over 4.47.49. I went looking for the hostel operator to rent a towel but she was away, so I decided to go get a cold drink from the supermarket nearby. I didn't manage to find this but did manage to find an outdoor shop where I picked up another t-shirt. (Only having 1 makes impossible to wash... Lesson learned.)

1 comment posted so far
John & Jean wrote at 2:17 pm on Fri 26th Jul -
What a fantastic write-up of an equally fantastic ride. Enjoy the final week!

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by SS at 7:05 pm on Wednesday 14th July

I'm a bit worried that I'm in the wrong place - this is supposed to be the gate for the British Airways flight from Bologna to London Gatewick but there is no one else here. The Aerobus broke down on the way to airport and there were some amusing acts of Italian rage as fellow passengers saw the next Aerobus drive straight past us. Arriving at the airport, I rushed to the very busy checkin counter and managed to bypass the queue because I had checked in online. When going through security, lady looked at my boarding pass and said 'London this way, directing me to an empty queue - the only empty queue out of many full queues.

The only difference appeared to be the addition of an explosives scanner which, predictably, found nothing. Wandering around duty free, I struggled to find any genuine Italian coffee to gift my mother - a lifelong coffee addict (and hence coffee snob). Whether this Segafredo brand raw coffee from Costa Rica will be up to her taste, I am not sure. Quite whether it will even work in her fancy coffee machine is another matter.

My brief visit to Bologna was spurred by both growing boredom and restlessness at home (four years of summer jobs have rendered my ability to enjoy largely vacant periods of time null) and a desire to meet up with a TDA rider who I became good friends with before he unfortunately crashed out of the Tour on our second day in Ethiopia.

This was my second visit to Italy - my first being a school trip to the Lake Guardia region. Bologna is considerably older than much of what I recall of the last trip and I enjoyed the architecture. A student filled city, there was graffiti covering a lot of the area. While the vast majority of this was crass and unimaginative, there were some witty legitimate attempts at making a pictorial statement.

The city itself varies from being clean to dirty (although any traveller who has visited India will rejoice at the cleanliness). Walking the covered arcades that line the streets is fraught with danger from weaving cyclists. I was amused to see a girl on a bicycle trying to navigate a narrow gap between a row of tables and a shop front while eating a gelato with one hand and steering cum balancing with the other. Another danger is produced by the city's large dog populations and their careless owners - you can be as diligent as possible but will still dirty your shoes.

Moving onto more gastronomical and delicious matters, most people of the world are familiar with Italian food. Whatever you thought was good Italian food outside of Italy is easily matched by the cheapest street level pizzeria and for a meager 3, a margharita worth of happiness can be yours. Pasta is similarly wonderful although Vegetarians should be sure to question their assumptions when ordering about what most filled pasta actually contains.

The gelato is also a favourite of mine and, in the baking summer temperatures nearing 40 C, was the perfect treat (to be offset by about 12 hours of heavy cardio-although I wondered how all the patrons of
the parlour were so skinny). A final mention of the food, my host was insistent that I try the coffee. Apparently it is in another league to what is normally served as an espresso. Indeed it is that jolt of caffeine which is fuelling this literary burst and I can confirm that while most coffee irks me tremendously, this was at least drinkable (with a reasonable addition of sugar). The accompanying 'pasta', known to English speakers as a pastry, was much more palatable - imagine a croissant filled with Nutella in one half and custard on the other.

As a tourist, there is a fair amount to see. We followed one of the excellently presented walking tours courtesy of Tourist Information. The museum of modern art (mambo) was quite interesting, as were several churches. Most museums are usually free to visit but you may need to pay for special

On Saturday evening, we saw an Italian-subtitled American movie in a giant open air cinema in the main piazza of the city. While the movie itself (a 35 year old film called Nashville) seemed to lack a story line, the atmosphere was quite amazing - the piazza was packed full of thousands of people. Confused by the movie's lack of plot and aching from the brittle and unsympathetic chairs, we left early. Hopefully Google will be able to help us figure out the true intent of the movie.

On Sunday we took a state bus on a whim and travelled some distance out of the city to experience the rolling countryside hills. My host, a big road cyclist, related his stories of climbing the hills at just over 6kmph. He is a superb climber too so I imagine that I would most likely be walking.

That evening we watched the first half of the World Cup final in a packed Irish pub just off the main piazza. An overwhelming bias towards the Spanish side was obvious, for reasons I am unaware of. This was the first football match my host was watching and as he tried to work out the offside rule, he was quite amused at the ridiculous showboating of the world class soccer players. After play paused for half time, we went home to rehydrate ourselves via the local gelateria.

Despite trying our hardest to stream the football via the neighbour's wireless connection, we failed and thus I can maintain my achievement of not having watched the entire of a single world cup 2010 match.
Once I land back home, I will thankfully be reconnected to the world (my new mobile phone contract was annoyingly not enabled for roaming, leading to an interesting experience trying to contact my friend on arrival by first trying and failing to use a public payphone and then asking strangers nearby to use their mobile phones).

(The above post was written entirely on a touch screen keyboard. Intense.)

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Shuttered Windows
Shuttered Windows

11:11 pm on Sunday 11th July by SS
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