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Monte Grappa and Feltre | Asolo | Selle Italia | The Gang from ICC | Our Solo Tour | Dolomites | Sella Group | Farewell


No offense to our mates back in New Zealand, but by the time John and I left the country in June, we were ready for some cycling culture, and most of all a chance to ride on lovely small roads shared with motorists who actually had respect for cyclists. Our wishes were granted in Northern Italy. We were so taken with the place, we almost terminated our round-the-world trip right there. It is still our dream to move to Northern Italy someday, but in the end we decided we needed to get back to work for a few years, and rebuild our savings before we plan our next escape from reality!

We had initially planned to do a self-supported point to point tour in Italy, but after some research, we decided to indulge and slowly immerse ourselves in Italian by going to the Italian Cycling Center for a week. John had found an incredible resource online for all things cycling Veneto in the form of April Pedersen Santinon's awesome website. April sometimes leads rides for the Italian Cycling Center, and recommended it so we decided to check it out. We had such a great time there that we stayed two weeks.

John had been talking about doing the Gran Fondo Campagnolo on a single bike for months, and I had encouraged him to either bring a single or rent one in Italy. Staying at ICC until the event would certainly make the logistics of getting to and from the start easier. Then somehow April talked us into doing the ride on tandem, but I've jumped way ahead.

Our flight from New Zealand to Venice was a long one. First we had to get out of Auckland. We have flown within NZ a few times in the last two years, but have not been on an International flight since we arrived in NZ in October 2002, so we were actually expecting anything in terms of security. It wasn't too much of a surprise that all our bags (check-in and carryon were x-rayed before we even got to the check-in counter.) But it was a bit of a surprise when the technician asked us to remove the glue from our tyre patch kit and our chain lube from our to be checked in baggage. What could I do with a tube of glue in a bag down in the baggage hold? Ah well, you dare not question the security folks or you may end up in a cell in Cuba, so we opened the S&S case and located the offending materials and handed them over. Fortunately he only specified a bottle of chain lube, so we got to keep the very expensive and hard to find grease for the couplers, as well as the other small tube of grease we use when reassembling the bike (after wiping all the grease off everything when we disassemble it!).

What if we had a puncture on the way out of the airport? Oh wait, we were taking a taxi, and we have spare tubes, but what if we weren't and didn't? Just a note for future trips - always make sure you have spare tubes - or maybe two tubes of glue - one sacrificial!

Otherwise our flight was grand, albeit long. We flew Singapore Airlines from Auckland to Singapore, then Frankfurt, Germany, before taking another flight to Venice - arriving 36 hours after we left! Singapore Airlines is my favourite airline now. The seats were roomy. And each seatback had it's only video station with over 60 on-demand movies as well as various TV programs, and musical selections. And they were new films and on-demand, so you could start and stop them, as you please! I watched a couple of years worth of films!

The Singapore Airport is a model for what an airport should be. It was clean and spacious, and had clean toilets located every few metres throughout the airport, so no walking miles to find a mile long line to go into what smelled like a sewer (like Frankfurt). No, there was literally a toilet at every gate, as well as all over the place. There were also heaps of comfortable chairs, including sleeping (lounge) chairs for the fatigued traveller. There were separate TV areas, and even a little cinema, playing films continuously and FREE. And speaking of bargains, the food was an incredible bargain. John and I stuffed ourselves silly with some pretty awesome sushi for about $15.00 (US$). The shops were spacious and the staff friendly. Everyone spoke English (and probably several other languages). The only negative - I was hoping to find a new tiny digital camera that I'd been lusting after for a few months, but no one had it in stock. I did So we dealyed some of my spent up spending! buy a Swatch - I'd lost my old one shortly after arriving in NZ, and they were very expensive and hard to find there. So I finally treated myself.

I wish I could say our experience in Frankfurt was as good. I swear there is only one toilet in the entire airport. Worse is that smoking is allowed throughout the airport in smoking zones, located as frequently as Singapore had toilets, complete with an overhead fan to spread the smoke around the whole airport. Despite the lack of toilets, we sought out a coffee shop, which was just as smoke filled as the rest of the place.

So when we finally reached Venice, we were wiped out. We had arranged for a taxi to take us from the airport in Venice up to the ICC in Borso del Grappa. Matteo, the taxi driver, does a lot of work for the center and spoke just enough English to make us think he spoke more. He was very gracious and informative. He brought us to the hotel to pick up our keys, and then down to the residence a few blocks away, where our room, and the bike garage were located, and then said he'd pick us up in half an hour to bring us back up for lunch. We quickly unloaded our gear - far more than we would normally have - since we were carrying stuff for relocating half way around the world. Then we showered and headed up for lunch.

At this stage I'd been up about 40 hours, with a few fitful lapses into sleep. John is much better at sleeping on planes, but I'd barely had any sleep. Let me just say a first meeting with George should not take place after 40 hours without sleep!

I eventually grew to adore George. But my best description of him is that he is a prickly ole teddy bear. George is actually quite charming once you get to know him, but he's a bit abrupt on first impressions. He's been running the Italian Cycling Center for something like 20 years, and he's heard all the same questions over and over again. He's written a tome which he sends out to all participants so he can avoid some of the basic questions, but of course, he still gets them. The info is 7 printed pages, and it's pretty easy to miss something or forget. We referred to this document as the bible after a while. Anyway, John and I kept our eyes propped open for lunch, and then found our way back to the residence, this time without Matteo's help, so it involved walking around it circles a bit first. We got the tandem put back together, and went to bed. We slept through dinner and woke in time for breakfast the next morning.

There were only a few folks at the center when we arrived, and as it turned out, all were from Massachusetts. Imagine our surprise after travelling from the other side of the planet to see a CRW (our old club in Mass) jersey hanging out the window, and a Peter Mooney ( a local Mass framebuilder) bike in the garage. John even recognised it as belonging to Peter Brooks, who we'd ridden with a few times back in Mass. The other two riders were racers and friends of Bill's, also from Mass. Bill leads the fast more training oriented rides at the center, while George takes the moderate paced folks out and does the more cultural rides - visiting villas and such. Anyway Bill was taking his two mates out for a final hammerfest before they departed the next day. John and I would join Peter on a cultural ride. We had a very pleasant morning ride, but still felt energetic enough after lunch to head back out. We decided to go find the recommended bike shop and replace our patch kit and lube, and drool over Italian bike parts.

We found the shop, using George's directions in the predeparture info. With phrasebook in hand, we went in and prepared to try and ask a few questions. When we first went in, there appeared to be someone in the back working on a bike. We figured that he would come out when he was free. We looked around the shop, and found all sorts of interesting bits and bobs. It's been almost two years since we'd been in a bike shop that had more than just the very basic bike parts. This was heaven. I found some shoes at a great price. The boxes were stacked up out in the main part of the shop, and there were chairs next to the boxes, so I sat down and tried on the shoes to be sure. We had picked up several items to buy, but still no acknowledgement from the back. Eventually a few other folks came in the shop, went to the back and started chatting. But still no greeting for us. After a while, we gave up, put back our intended purchases and left.

We later learned from George that the businessman running the shop took great offence that we had come in, didn't speak Italian, and rifled through his stuff. Since he heard us speak English to each other, he refused to come out from the back. He never even gave us the opportunity to speak Italian to him. As far as rifling through stuff, I didn't go behind the counter and pull out boxes of unopened stuff. I picked up shoes that were out on the sales floor and tried to buy them. Oh well, we later found a friendly shop and spent lots of money there. They graciously put up with our phrasebook Italian and gestures! They also took no offence to my wanting to try on the shoes!

We later learned that browsing is not really accepted in many Italian shops. When you walk into a clothing shop, you should know what you want and ask for it. No flipping through racks of clothes, unfolding stuff to hold it up, etc. "I would like a blue shirt in size 4". Some shops have signs that say free entry - which means browsing is allowed. Others tolerate the American style of shopping, and some don't tolerate it at all.

But back to riding. The next day Bill had no hard core racer types, and John and I wanted to do some reall climbing and descending, so we joined Bill while Peter and George took in some more culture. We ended up alternating our days between hard mountainous rides with Bill and slightly less intense recovery rides with George. As I mentioned above, at some point April talked us into doing the Gran Fondo Campagnolo on tandem, and we felt that we should get used to the climbs and descents, but not completely wear ourselves out. We also tried to figure out the logistics of getting to the start of the Gran Fondo and finding a place to stay (competing with 3700 other entrants for rooms). It turned out lots of folks had come to ICC with the idea of doing this ride, and the plan was for Bill to drive folks over for the start and bring them back. We were having such a great time that we decided to stay a second week (til the day after the Gran Fondo).

In our time there, we did several of the Gran Fondo climbs, the Passo Rolle, the Croce D'Aune and the Cima Campo. The mountain right behind us, Monte Grappa, provided us with a great afternoon ride and view. We also went to Marostica, a lovely medieval walled city and up to the Asiago plateau. Nearby Asolo was another walled city with a great weekend market and wonderful people-watching opportunities. We rode out through vineyards that are the source of the lightly sparkling wine, Prosecco. We went to Feltre, which is the starting point of the Gran Fondo Campagnolo, but also has a great underground archaeology exhibit, with a personal tour by a drop dead gorgeous female Italian archaeologist. We sampled Grappa and lots of the aforementioned prosecco. We stuffed ourselves silly with great Italian food, and ice cream and the best coffee in the world. We soaked up lovely warm sunshine and phenomenal scenery. And we screamed down the twistiest most technical descents. We were in heaven.

Oh and we shopped. George has a few contacts in the business, one of which is an Italian bike clothing factory, where we got to buy clothes at a good discount. The Euro was about 2 NZ$ at the time, so the prices (numbers) already looked good to us, but with discount, they were great! I learned part way through the trip that all my bike shorts were well past their use-by-date - i.e. they were worn thin in the bum and were all but transparent. So I bought a few new pair, as did John.

In addition to shopping, one of the other things we had missed in New Zealand was social cycling. Our Sunday Betty rides were centred around being social and riding somewhere to eat (usually a bring your own thing up in the forest somewhere). But the club rides were all races, and folks just weren't into going for a coffee half way through or even afterwards. So it was so nice to ride for a while and then stop for coffee and fabulous Italian pastries.

We also got to meet lots of new folks. Shortly after we arrived lots of others came - many aiming to do the Gran Fondo Campagnolo. We had a great time hanging out with Miles - what a great names for a cyclist, eh. Miles was a young doctor from Canada. He had a great deal with his job - which he shares with another doctor, so he only works half the year, alternating months with his colleague. Our best ever small world story came during a conversation with Miles. While he claimed to be Canadian, it turns out he was actually born in England. John claims to be Irish, but he was also born in England. At some point John asked Miles where in England he was born. The response was Buckinghamshire. John said, "me too, what part". Miles responded, "High Wycombe". John said, "No way, me too." But then it got weird. Miles said the best part was that he was "a plant - I was actually born at The Shrubbery." To which John responded, "No way, me too." Now at this point I have just found out that I married a shrub - which couldn't be good as it was now the nickname many were attaching to the US president for whom I had no affection. As it turned out The Shrubbery was the name of the birthing hospital. But I can't tell you the great mileage I've gotten from the fact that John came into the world at a place called The Shrubbery. When I later confronted his mom with the fact that she'd never told me that young John was in fact a plant, I heard from his sisters that they'd all been told that mom and dad had found John under a shrub in a park!

OK, so we travelled from the opposite side of the world to find a former clubmate at the same place, and then to meet someone born in the same hospital as John!

We also met Mark and Frieda who were on their honeymoon, and taking a few days at the center before doing a whirlwind driving tour of Italy. Roger and Gary arrived soon after. Roger had been to the center before and talked his friend from Texas, Gary, into coming. Gary was a real character. He refused to eat anything but grilled chicken and baked potatoes. No Italian food at all. We tried as much as we could to get him to try something else, but to no avail. Gary was also a bit intense in his attitude about riding, and liked to use race tactics and swearing lots. At some point I suggested he watch his "f-ing" language with ladies present and he was so shocked he didn't speak for almost 5 minutes! We had a great time with these guys. Unfortunately after Roger accidentally pointed out the sheerness of my shorts, I bought new ones and stopped putting on a show. For some reason he stopped drafting us so much after that!

Roberto and Peter were also from Texas, except Roberto was originally from Italy. We also were joined by Dave, a fire-fighter from Las Vegas, Juan from Panama - who bought a brand new Pinarello the day before the ride, two families of doctors from South Carolina, another couple from Massachusetts, and a couple from Australia who arrived the night before the Gran Fondo.

The night before the event itself, the heavens opened. And the didn't close until 24 hours later - completely empty after dumping a seasons worth of rain on us in one go. 3700 people had signed up for the event. Only 2500 took the start. Less than 1500 actually finished.

There are three options. The Gran Fondo is 208 km and includes 4 major climbs and 16,000 feet of climbing. George described it as a ride with 75 miles of uphill. The Medio Fondo is 112 km and has three big passes, and the shortest option just takes in the first and last climb in 92 km. John and I had planned to do the big ride, but faced more logistical difficulties since everyone else planned to do the medium or short ride. Folks didn't really want to have to wait for us to to finish a ride twice as long as the others! As the weather set in, we decided that the medium ride would be a better choice, since the descents would be treacherous and we would not be able to make up any time. We'd likely take 12 hours to do the full ride. I was still a bit bummed to do the shorter ride until I got chilly on the first climb! Fortunately John and I were much better prepared than most folks for changeable mountain weather. We had wool jerseys, arm and leg warmers, rain jackets, headbands, gloves and overshoes. Many folks headed out in shorts and a jersey. Many regretted that choice!

There was no official tandem category, and registering was complicated. April did some translating with the organisers and got us registered under my name alone - since they couldn't put two registrations on one of the timing chips attached to the bike. So we only paid for one, but got meal tickets and goody bags for two. We also got to start with the women, who started FIRST. So while everyone else lined up behind however many of the 2500 people arrived before them, we got to go to the front. Of course during the first hour of climbing, most of those folks passed us ;-( But they cheered for the tandem as they did! We thought we must be the only tandem, but at some point we saw two lads on another. We to-ed and fro-ed with them a bit, til we passed them on a descent and never saw them again.

The first descent went on forever, then we had a sharp climb and thought we were starting the second climb, but then began to descend again, and continued down and down until we were convinced we must be below sea level. We got pretty chilly on the first part of the descent, but the little climb broke things up and we were in good shape for the remainder of the descent, but we saw plenty of folks shivering and stopping. We had no idea how many were suffering so badly until at the finish we heard many of the stories. The second climb was a up a tiny little road called Le Ej, that we could not find on any map. The top km was all dirt, including a 10% descent.

All the roads were closed to car traffic for this event, so we had the whole road, well shared with 2500 other bikes. For the first climb, it was wall to wall people for as far as the eye could see. The split for all three rides was after the descent, so the second climb only had folks doing the medium ride. We figured lots of folks would make the same choice we had. We later learned many wished they had as they hit snow on the second climb up Passo Menghen, and most of the folks who dropped out did so there. Getting all those folks off that mountain proved a great challenge - and for weeks after we heard incredible stories of how folks got back to the start. It seems there was one tiny bar on the road, and most folks tried to crowd in there to get out of the cold and snow.

The rest of the ride went quite well for us. We stayed warm through out and at some point the sun even poked out. We had done both the first and last climb in the week before the ride, so we knew both how hard and how long they each were. When we roared past the Campagnolo memorial at the top of the Croce D'Aune, we knew we were home free. We flew down the mountain and then hammered the remaining flat kms into town, for the final steep little insult into the walled city and up and up an awful little climb to the finish line. Bill was at the finish to greet us and give us keys to get our dry clothes from the van. After changing we saw the winners of the long ride roar up to the finish line, doing twice the distance is just a few more minutes! These guys are professional Gran Fondo riders - no kidding.

We met up with our friends and heard how others had underdressed and nearly froze and various stories of taking refuge in bars and such. One sweep picked up riders. Another took bikes. Some of the bikes did not show up until after dark, so Bill took us all home and went back for the bikes later.

It was very cool, to say the least, to take part in such an epic ride, and even better when I saw my name among the official finishers. Poor John!

That night John, Miles and I joined April in Marostica to see Tullo perform in front of the castle under the stars. We were pretty wiped, so fortunately it was a very energetic concert!

The next day, we took a break from cycling to head off to Venice to do some sightseeing before we loaded up panniers and headed into the Dolomites. The next few pages have photos rom our first two weeks leading up to the Gran Fondo, followed by a few pages of our self-supported tour in the Dolomites.

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Monte Grappa and Feltre | Asolo | Selle Italia | The Gang from ICC | Our Solo Tour | Dolomites | Sella Group | Farewell