Lina gave me cake and cappuccino for breakfast. My stomach was in a knot. She reminded me not to attempt the ride over the mountain: “Non devi farlo Signora, per favore!” – You are not to do it, please – They stood behind their gate and waved feebly as I rode off.
On the google map I see two small towns clinging to the slopes, Fognano and Tobbiana. Beyond that there is nothing but forest for the next thirty kilometres at least. That sounds okay, I can do thirty kilometres. Yesterday I did a lot more. The dwindling road became steadily steeper. Switchback after switchback took me up through the small villages.
The city of Florence, a bright urban carpet lay far off to the south. Soon the road became a forest track, patchy tar and gravel. According to Google maps it is a twenty-one hour walk to cross over the mountain range. There is no bike option. The map showed a big green area, a regional park, with a couple of faint roads dotted here and there.
The mountainside was so steep I used battery “turbo” assist to go up the switchbacks. As I ascended, so the battery life descended. It is the most powerful Bosch battery made for e-bikes so far, so I didn’t worry too much.
My goal was to reach the “visitors centre” marked on the map where I could recharge my battery.
Two men with axes stopped hacking a tree to greet me.
There were no further signs of human activity for the next two hours of the journey. Heavy clouds came down and touched the bristling Spruce trees. Patches of mist cooled my face. Maybe I should have taken the road instead of a forest track.
The battery had another 10 kilometres of life left in it.
I phoned Simon who said“Sweetie, you can always turn around and freewheel back down”.
Suddenly I sensed a movement in the trees. There it was again. I saw something flash in the corner of my eye.
Instant reaction, I gulped down the energy bar and jumped on my bike, pedalling wildly onwards. The battery showed one kilometre of life remaining. Catastrophist voice yelled “wolves-wolves and bears!!!”
I turned off the turbo, and used the “eco” setting, standing up on my pedals and panting heavily for another forty minutes. Suddenly the road flipped downward, like a roller coaster, down I went – whizzing and blasting over mossy roots. The sooner I get over this mountain the better.
Over the sound of my gasping breath was the small sound of tinkling goat-bells which brought me to a quaint house squatting under the trees. Relief flooded over me. The visitor centre? There was no phone signal here, so I couldn’t check the map. The place looked a bit shabby, more like a farmhouse. I disembarked and knocked on the door – nothing. I called out – nobody answered – I knocked again – nothing – I yelled – nothing.
This couldn’t be the visitors center so I went on and on, the road was better, a smoother surface and bit wider. Still no phone signal so there was no way to find out where I was.
“What is this looming up now? Please not another mountain?”
“…oh YES MAM!” blurts the catastrophist.
There was nothing to do but go for it. No way to turn back now after that long downhill rush. I was trapped between mountains. Eventually signs for the visitor centre appeared. I started to hum, feeling strangely ecstatic, breathing huge puffs of the oxygen rich air.
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
The visitors centre was closed. Not a soul. No battery, no phone, no lunch.
Why didn’t I listen to my hosts Lina and Michele, they are locals and know these things. If the wolves get me, at least my fluorescent green jacket might be visible from a helicopter. What use are maps when you don’t know where you are to begin with.
The road gradually began to descend into a beautiful valley. It followed a cascading stream under the trees. After crossing the border between Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna a blue lake appeared far below in the widening valley at Suviano. I whizzed down to the water’s edge, happy to see people again, and pulling up to a kiosk with tables under the pines. The lady behind the counter allowed me plug in.
I ordered a large plate of pasta and a cup of wine.
The other guests watched me eating alone. Every time I looked up from my plate, they are all looking straight at me. Eventually someone came over and asked the question, and I replied ” yes, I cycled the forest alone”.
There was a little titter among the onlookers when she reported back.
I ordered desert.
Maybe it was the heat or the wine, but I made a decision which would change everything. I took the low road instead of the high road. It went a long way down the valley and at 17:00 I rode into Riola, a small village with no hotel. A lot of old men sat around at the bar playing briscola, a popular card game.
There are no rooms available in Riola, so I called Tyrone to help me search google for a B&B nearby. He suggested “Il mio refugio” a tranquil place with a spa. But there was a snag. The location was five kilometres up a sixty-degree mountainside.
With the little remaining oomph, I went zigzagging up the incredible slope, stopping to pick fresh cherries and catch my breath. Not realizing all the while that this is the wrong road, but nevertheless, after some confusion and a breakneck forest track I found “Il Mio Refugio”.
The big gate was chained shut and all the shutters were closed.
Lesson 2. Call before you go there.
I phoned the number written on the gate and a lady said “no, sorry, we are closed, you should have called.”
At that very moment both my phone battery died, and the bike battery followed with a final peep. A sob of exhausted despair made my throat tight. Two horses stood with their heads hanging over the fence, nodding at me. The catastrophist hissed “Don’t cry in front of the horses!”
A man with black teeth and a difficult face came huffing around the corner on his bicycle.
He said “you can go down this road to Marano, there is a bar where you can charge your batteries” … so with huge relief I let the wind blast my hair as I freewheeled down the mountain … but in Marano the bar was closed.
Luckily the owner arrived at that moment and allowed me charge up the phone for a short while. She told me “there is no hotel in this place, you must go back to Riola but there is no hotel there either. Someone may offer you a room. Go to the bar and ask the waitress”. It was a laborious pedal back to Riola town (Province of Pistoia).
I went into the card-players bar, and talked to an exotic looking, short skirted, scarlet-lipped barmaid. She looked down at me from her stiletto heels in disgust. Her nostrils flared.
“Do I stink that badly?”
The barmaid took me across the room to a pin-up board full of business cards and pointed out a random few. Feeling rather frantic, I chose the first one I saw, and called the number. Giuseppe answered, and happily offered to fetch me!
“But I have a heavy e-bike, and no way to ride it to your B&B!”
He sang “no problemo Signora, I am well organized, you will see!”
I took a photograph of his business card with my phone and sent it to Simon and Tyrone for a background check. Giuseppe soon arrived in his pickup towing a mega-trailer made to carry bicycles and hoisted the bike up singlehandedly. The bike with panniers weighs more than forty kilograms. Giuseppe drove me out of town and up yet another incredibly steep hill to the bed & breakfast. He says I’m lucky there are no road-workers staying there tonight.
He cooked a yummy Tortellini brodo especially for me, topped with grated cheese called Padano, the equivalent of Parmigiana Reggiano in this area. Plates of different salami and finely sliced prosciutto were laid out on the table, flat breads, ripe cherries, two plates of homemade cheeses, and his own Lambrusco fizzy wine. He sat across the table and watched me eat, pushing the platters of food closer when he noticed a gap on my plate, and refilled my cup when the wine level was low.
We talked about Italy and her many troubles, especially those facing the new generation. When he was satisfied that I had eaten enough, he drew a map of the road to take tomorrow and wished me goodnight, locking the main door behind him as he left.
There was no phone signal or WIFI. There was no hot water for my shower. There was no moon, just total blackness outside the window. I locked myself in the big bedroom and flopped into bed, completely exhausted after 10 hours of cycling. As I was dozing off, there was a sudden blood-curdling scream. I lay stok-still listening, not sure whether the scream came from inside the room or outside.
(Rode 50 km today, up 1000 m in one hour – to a height of 2500m )