Day 3, Near Montefalco to Perugia 70km: On the Up & Up.

Good morning robot shower! As the host collected my payment he replied, “Sconto,” and handed me an *extra* 5 euro with the change. This brought the total amount paid for the room exactly to the advertised price with annoyance free of charge. Nice guy.

Anywho, I took off and since the starting point was remote and fallow farmland nothing much of note happened. Until about an hour in when I came across this sign: IMG_1989
A bike path!?

No way! This place seemed pretty poor on infrastructure and they have a paved riparian path for over 20km. Wow! I ran into half a dozen other cyclists and many more stroller pushers and granny walkers. The path took me foggily along the river and intermittently switched to crushed limestone. The fat tires rolling beneath me reminded me that I used the right bike.

The path spat me out at the historic Bevagna town center. There’s a cool dam here.IMG_1993 On my way out of town, I lost the path but eh, I had fun while it lasted. I tried to recapture il Ciclabile by intuiting its nearness to the river. But unforch, this led me to a dead end. Whoops! It was a beautiful detour that got me stuck behind a flock of sheep. Worth it!

On to Spello, where I had a lunch of well dressed pizza and gelato. I ate it in the historic square with a triple arch and a bell tower with an olive tree growing from the top.
IMG_2000On my way through another small town I found a bike shop for some air.

While there, I asked if the mechanic could look at the nut holding my saddle level. In the past two days every bump slowly tilted my seat until it was set at a hilariously jaunty (painful) angle and I had to pull over to cajole it back into position. He frowned at this goofy bike, reached into his shop apron for the wrong tool, touched it to the nut and with a tone of doomed finality, said something I didn’t understand. Thanks.

All morning I had time to decide whether or not to visit Assisi.IMG_2035
It’s known as a well preserved example of some very old architecture and reputedly stunning views. It’s also a kilometer higher than the main road. In the spirit of a man I encountered in Kentucky who said, “If you’re in a hurry, you should’ve taken a plane,” I chose to climb Assisi.

It wasn’t that bad.IMG_2006
I took the back road with more curves and less tour buses. In an hour or so I made it around all the switchbacks and surmounted the peak. I drank in the view,IMG_2008
and gasped in the air.

Great, now it’s just a straight shot down into the valley and up again into Perugia. The hour climb was a ten minute descent. Whoo!

The valley proved to be heavily industrial and considering I passed through during rush hour the traffic was predictably ensnaring. The road I chose ran parallel to the Autostradale or expressway where motorists roared by at over 130km per hour. I guess my path can’t always be shockingly beautiful.

Assessing my map where the valley began to ascend I made a decision to climb with Via San Girolamo. It looked simple and direct into Perugia’s city center. This straight shot proved to be too straight. No turns while climbing means the road is steeper. I climbed back up nearly a kilometer vertically within a five km distance. Hnng!

Perugia is not only the biggest city in the region, but also host to a few colleges, cultural centers and UNESCO sites. There were plenty of stunning vistas for my oxygen deprived brain. This higher population density also meant that for the first night, I had arranged a stay with a host within the cycling community. Awesome. We arranged to meet in the main piazza at 5:30.IMG_2033 I’m wearing red pants and reading a book. I’ll be easy to find, right? Nah. There are thousands of other people swarming the square and plenty of them have trousers of various red shades. I don’t know what my host looks like. My communication is dependent on spotty public wifi.

Two relaxing hours pass with people watching, book reading, and wine drinking. But I never connect with my host. Oh well, I check in at a cheap hostel for the night and have a great dinner of pasta al Cinghiale (wild boar), orzo salad, and truffle gelato. Mmm-mmm, good! IMG_2012‘Round bedtime I’m checking emails and connecting with the folks back home when I see a message from my host. Where Are YOu!

Sorry, dude. I tried.
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I stayed two nights in Perugia and took the opportunity to really explore the town. Although the twisting streets appear to date from the 1300s, the entire city was redesigned by M.C. Escher in the 1959.
IMG_2014 Or at least it felt that way to my belabored legs. Every surface was slightly tilted, wet, or crumbling. To walk the distance of a city block I often had to scale the equivalent of two flights of stairs. No wonder everybody here is in such great shape!

I soundly asleep in my hostel that night.

Day 2, Otricoli to near Montefalco 70km: Misty Mountain Hop

Map of the day.

I stumbled from my shuttered bedroom to the advertised breakfast. Standard Italian fare of coffee and individually wrapped sweet pastries (euro twinkies) met me along with my host, Antonio. He stepped out for a smoke while I ate. I checked out the view shortly after he came back. Whoa! It was dark when I arrived so I couldn’t see the Tevere Valley yawning before me until now. Fog swam amidst the valley floor. This was the first of many scenic moments of the day that caused me to outburst an unintelligible sound. This time I said “Augh!” I startled this cat. IMG_1944

I rode gallantly Northward with supremely upright posture. I unknowingly passed near the town of Moricone, but if I had known then my soundtrack of the moment would have been obvious:

Instead, I probably had some junk like Uptown Girl stuck in my head.

The sun burned through the fog in an impressive display of soupy depth. Days like these reminded me of my singular privilege to be an Earthling. Venusians got nothing on this view.
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Onward to Narni. Yep, Narni, the ancient picturesque mountain town whose name inspired the location of goat-men and talking lions. “Lewis had underscored the name of a little town in the Atlas called Narnia, simply because he liked the sound of it.” Dude didn’t even see the place. I would have sat gobsmacked in the square if every ancient picturesque mountain town preceding this one were less amazing. But they weren’t. They were all amazing. I was desensitized to splendor. Narnipiazza

Between towns was my favorite part. I rode parallel to the railroad on my way out of Narni on the flattish cutout from the hillside. This hillside had magnificent views of rocky cliffs. Again with the scenic outbursts.
IMG_1971 Although olive harvest time is in the winter, the trees still waved to me encouragingly with silvery leaves. “You can do it!” “Eat more olives!” Etc. Hazelnut trees were increasingly cultivated here also. Of course grapevines were ubiquitous.
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Speaking of trees, this was the morning I saw a curbside fig tree with numerous purple ripe fruits on the branch. They shone with dew, and beseeched me, “come on nobody owns me, take a bite”. I took their advice.

Acquasparta, however dramatically named had little in the way of services. I had a lunch of Bianchi pizza and apples in the shade. Most Americans would call this pizza a slice of bread with rosemary rubbed on it. I agree and would feel scorned if it didn’t cost me a pithy $.80 for the pleasure.

More North to Massa Marana and beyond, I decided to take a picture of the bike I was riding.
IMG_1984 He’s much lighter than The Stud and differently balanced. I wasn’t prepared for how much the front wheel would lose traction on flats and ascents. Luckily it was a stable ride downhill.

By around 6PM I reached the front door of my B&B. I knocked. My host peeked out the upstairs window not unlike the subject of a cuckoo clock. He had his (grand?)daughter translate English for us. “The room is 58 Euro.” Funny, I reserved it at 25. I was too worn out to haggle. I had another couple hours of daylight, plenty of time to get to Montefalco and get a room there at non-gouging prices. As I walked frowning out the door he called “Trenta!” Whatever, sure. He proceeded to show me the extravagant facilities including an automatic window shade and a combination phone/shower. What a goof. At least he has a nice view.
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But his advice on dinner was on point. There was an agriturismo a couple km down the way.
Agriturismi are kinda a combo of farm to table dining with rustic lodging. A hipster resort. As I rolled up a man stood over a wood burning grill. I asked in crooked Italian if I could eat there tonight. Certo, dove sei? Um, American. Ha! Sono cinque Americani! He led me over and it was true I met five Americans sipping wine and chatting at the table. I asked, Di dove sei? New York said three, Chicago said the other couple. Hey me too! Over the next four hours of gustatory delight I had wine, cheese stuffed truffle gnocchi, salumi, prosciutto, e meloni, wine, vitello, wine, frittata de asparagus, wine, and a cake with apples and hazelnuts from the farm.

I rode home on serotonin and moonbeams.

Day 1, Viterbo to Otricoli 45km: Humble Beginnings.

Good morning Roma! It’s been a lovely few days with family. Today we will part ways. My brother to his first day of classes this semester, and my parents to Firenze to catch a big fat boat. I strolled up the hill about 1km to the San Pietro train station. There I caught a regionale train North.

I think this is a good time to discuss the tangled rail options available in Italy. The regionale looks like a commuter rail similar to Chicago’s Metra Rail. Except it covers the entire country. They accept bikes onboard. That’s why I’m here. City connector trains do what they say on the tin.

Then there’s the Frecce, high speed trains that go up to 360km/hour. Riding the FrecciaRosa helped me understand that despite its clear superiority here, high speed rail isn’t optimal for the United States with our lack of density. It would still take 4-5 hours to go from Chicago to New York and only after subsidies that our congress is totally not into these days would it approach the same price as airfare.
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Sorry for the rant. My local train went North to Viterbo, a charming town that retains medieval architecture all over the place. I rode weirdly to the East out of town. Weirdly because I’m in a foreign place doing a familiar thing with strange equipment. I borrowed my brother’s city bike. I spent today getting accustomed to the feel of such a different ride. Anyone who’s familiar with a typical bikeshare like Bixi, Divvy, or Citibike would find my riding position familiar. That upright posture isn’t only good for 8-80 year old accessibility but also for low impact long distance riding. Maybe I looked like a doofus, but my wrists felt great doing it.

As I climbed the hills from train station and out of town, I gradually shed layers and resembled the other lycra-clad recreational cyclists I saw. Viterbo is a small town, within moments I was in postcard bucolic splendor. IMG_1925 Olive gardens seemed to grow wild roadside, so I picked up some breadsticks for carbs.

There’s a slight incline at the border from Lazio to Umbria. The secondary and tertiary roads were light on traffic and heavy on scenery. Plenty of twists and not very steep switchbacks. This was the first ride I used absolutely no paper maps. My GPS enabled mobile device asserted all my navigation. This proved to be fantastic 95% of the time. Roads almost always went where they were indicated to, and bridges were always bridges. Except when they weren’t.

My directions took me to a crossing of the Tiber river that could shave a solid 10km off the highway route. It took me through a fallow field turning golden in the evening light. IMG_1930Then a peaceful embankment where a father bounced his young daughter on the handlebars of his bike. We rang our bells in convivial joy. A serene canal was my first water crossing then I’d take a left and cross the actual Tevere. But in fact it wasn’t really a bridge. It was a hydroelectric dam. :/ I turned around and grumbled past that beautiful evening light. tevere

Another 10-15km down to the next bridge, darkness had already settled in. I lit my lamps and rode the last uphill section in the dark. When I arrived at my host’s place I knocked the front door, unannounced. They were supremely friendly despite our lack of shared language. They sent me to the only restaurant open at this hour in town where I had some Gnocchi al agniello, and spinach swimming in hazelnut oil. Very rich. Lucky for me the ride back was downhill. I slept soundly that night even though it was a short day.

Ruota Volante: Tour of Umbria

Hey guys, you’ll never guess what I just did. I went on a tour beyond the North American biome of maples, squirrels, and cornfields.

A couple weeks ago I had a chance to go to Europe for my brother’s diaconate ordination. Awesome! I haven’t been to the continent since 2001. I spent some needed family time in Rome for the ceremony then took off with the same brother’s bike on a local train to start something I’ve never done before.

Here’s the logo for this ride, the flag of Umbria with some little guys riding down some abstract hillsides.
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It was a wine/hazelnut/sheep/fig/wheat country dream. More to follow.

Refrigerated Katy Trail. About 320 miles

Hey guys. It’s been a while, huh? I’m glad that I had time this last spring for one last ride before beginning a new job. What a milesy year it’s been!

I looked at the map and my wallet trying to decide where to spend the last five days and scant fun-funds. Florida? not enough travel time. Michigan? Too cold. California? Not enough dolla dolla bill, yo. I settled on Amtrak accessible and slightly warmer St. Louis. 

I boarded a train to fair Mound city on Monday morning. By the time I made it to the arrival station, a chilly downpour inspired weak confidence in me. After confirming lodging with a host closer to my route head near the Missouri River, I hopped on a city bus to meander my way Northwest out the city. 

Lemme splain my route a bit more. The Katy Trail is the country’s longest rails-to-trails conversion, snaking alongside the great Mizzurah, amidst bogs, woods, prairie, cities and farms, it’s 240 miles of crushed limestone, therefore very vulnerable to the weather, and for the next four days it would be my home. 

I met with my host near his suburban home and he gave great advice on routes and brekkie for tomorrow. This evening temperatures that had hovered around 45 dipped below freezing and that chilly rain from earlier turned to mushy snowflakes. Quite the inauspicious start to a wilderness tour! I set out anyway and found a magical diner where I consumed a formidable base of calories and coffee. Given the cold weather the server didn’t think twice about filling my insulated water bottle with even more hot coffee. Sweet!

Off I rode, and caught the trail soon enough on the other side of the river. Woohoo! I’m doing it! It’s cold. Most of the trees are still barren except for the tiny buds that you could expect this time of year. I’ll keep the description of this trip simple. Just cold enough for it to be uncomfortable, still beautiful geological features, tasty wild onions, nice people, good trail conditions, friendly dogs.

Well I think that last note deserves a more detailed note. A farm dog decided to play chase with me. Usually when this happens the pup is pretty hostile in a “Get off my turf” sort of way. This guy kept pace with me even when I stopped. And when he revved up he’d peek over his shoulder to check if I still had the pepper to keep up. We kept this game up for a few miles. Then as we approached a neighbor’s lot where a different dog stood watch, my companion stopped abruptly. A line separated us, even though I couldn’t see it. I waved farewell and kept rolling on. 

I spent a night in the woods. The next day I kept riding West. About midday I encountered a great reason for a river crossing. Jefferson City, the Capitol, where I could surely find great food and cultural attractions. I wasn’t wrong (mostly). In Jeff City I was immediately confronted by a procession of newly whitecoated doctors. It was lunchtime, surely anywhere near this throng will soon be infested. I found my oasis, that transcended both my ample caloric needs and service that wouldn’t mind an extra hundred customers at the local pizza buffet. Hell yes. 

After lunch I explored the state capitol building in a food-coma daze along with hundreds of school children and senators. I gotta hand it to those lawmakers, if someone looking like me stumbled into my workplace, I’d probably find out what their deal was. But non’em batted an eye. Such professionalism.

After Jeff City, home of Jeff Tran, either the local bus system, or a prominent local Vietnamese guy, I headed farther West to Columbia. There I met with some hosts that were running a very cool college town housing thing. Collective gardening, and cooking in a rambling victorian relic. I wish I could’ve hung out more but I got places to be! I decided that due to lame weather and nothing much more interesting to the West to turn around here. 

This morning starting Eastbound was a figurative turning point also. I now had better tailwind, ambient temperatures were higher, and I had stronger legs. It’s on like Tron. I made quick work of the return riding all the way back to the hoods of STL by early afternoon two days later. There I met some new friends and shared suds with old buds. We spent a lovely weekend together at the Botanic Gardens, park strollin’, and some outdoor dinnin’. 

Look at all these pictures!
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Day 6: Finish Line. Brodhead WI to Chicago IL. 53(120) miles

Good morning Brodhead! My hosts were charming as peaches. We chatted long after breakfast and as a result I had a late start. That’s fine, I reasoned. I had a relaxing schedule for today’s mileage. At this time I will address the weird notation for the mileage 53(120)?! What’s dat? Today I would cheat. I would only ride as far as the end of the Union Pacific Northwestern Metra line in Harvard IL. It’s only 53 miles to the station where I planned to catch the 1:35 inbound train. What a cheater.
I hit the road out the South side of Brodhead with aplomb. Because of my relaxing morning with the hosts and a little too much (is that possible?) quality time with their pet rabbit, it was already late morning when I rolled into Beloit. Here I serendipitously encountered the Beloit farmers market. The hour was late as farmer’s markets go, but there was still plenty of corn, melons and squash to be had. Folk renditions of Hall & Oates covers were the soundtrack supplied by a local band. I ducked into a bagel-centric cafe and cleaned ‘em out. I will have one all of them, please. In my spandex, I turned some heads among the couth locals. But I wasn’t the only anatomically suggestive weirdo. There was a mom trying to wrangle a toddler while carrying two cantaloupes in the easiest way to carry unbagged melons. Right up next to her own melons. What is this a Benny Hill skit?
After Beloit I quickly crossed the border into Illinois! Here the calm highways become a trail that magically leads to the Metra station’s doorstop. The trail wasn’t like the green shrouded tunnels I had seen in the past few days. Wild flowers exploded amidst the grassier prairie. I was conflicted. My thoughts went, Pro:These flowers are great, I love flowers, I will only pick like seven out of 50,000 along this mile of path. Con: I will probably destroy them on my way home, I’d rather not disturb natural beauty like that, they also kind of look like weeds, it’s already 12:32, no time! I didn’t pick flowers. Big regrets, guys.
I missed the 1:35 train anyway and chilled in Harvard for a minute over snacks while I waited for the next ride at 3:35. I boarded as the only cyclist and one of only a handful of people at all. Good, I thought. Less people to smell my backwoods perfume. However, as the law of Metraphysics dictates, commutes abhor a vacuum. By Crystal Lake, the three other passengers and I began exchanging “WHY GOD, WHY?” glances as a dozen  bachelorette partiers clamored onto our train car. Within another stop a flotilla of frat boys 10 years beyond their prime clogged the entryway. The contrast in auditory input from this moment to the previous hour could be only slightly more disparate. A well intentioned conductor tried to direct the goat/men to a less crowded car, but his efforts were in vain. Did he not speak satyr? Thankfully the rowdiest passengers either detrained or moved to other cars by the Arlington stop. Those horses aren’t going to spook themselves.
Calm resettled amidst the passengers as the sober among us lowered our hackles. The rest of the train passage was smooth and even uneventful. By the time Clybourn stop arrived, I was almost asleep. Trying to carry 90 pounds of bike woke me up quick. It felt good to navigate these familiar streets again. ‘Round suppertime I rolled into my own house and completed another successful tour. Thank you everyone who helped make this possible, amazing, and memorable.

Where to next?

Day 5: Bucky’s Bike. Baraboo to Brodhead WI. 85 miles.

Good morning Baraboo! Camping can be beautiful, but it’s never as restful for me as a warm bed is. I slogged onward to the Broadway Diner in town and had a heroic breakfast of Southwest Benedict Scramble. I’m directly quoting the Broadway Diner website for this; Tender pork carnitas, sliced avocado, scrambled eggs, pepper jack cheese, smothered with our zesty green chili hollandaise atop our homemade potato pancakes. Served with fresh fruit. It was a revelation. I also had like four cups of coffee, and a slice of pie.
My ride out of town started a bit late, but I made up for that with my end-of-tour mega strong legs. I was pushing 15mph much of the morning and reached the ferry crossing at Merrimac by mid-morning. P1140655I like ferry crossings. They do the work for me. They also ensure that traffic will be suspended for 15 minutes once I get to the other side. P1140656
I guessed at the best route on main highways all morning. It was hot, loud, and high traffic. Not until I reached the far outskirts of Madison around noon did I pick up some routes parallel to the highway. Now it was just hot. A roadie passed me with an abrupt “On your left!” She gave a contemptuous sneer over her shoulder. Thirty minutes later she passed me going the other direction. She must have forgotten her keys.
More cyclists appeared the closer I got to Madison with decreasing levels of intensity. After her, I saw some college kids kitted up in UW Madison jerseys, some dads coming from mountain biking, a greybeard or two, then like a light-switch traffic on the path exploded. Five sorority girls strolling abreast in matching red sweatpants. A tricycling granny. Joggers. Pigeon feeders. Gardeners. Orientation groups. Joggers! And then I figured it out, It’s the weekend after labor day. Kids moving into the dorms, tearful parents and baby siblings. It was also a beautiful day, the people couldn’t be blamed for taking advantage.
I navigated the throngs and at times was spat out from the path into beltline traffic. Oops! By early afternoon I found a lunch spot for mediterranean food. I found the one lunch option in Madison that had sensible portions. As a cyclist I wanted more than sensible portions, I wanted a Wisconsin sized meal. I might’ve still been feeling this morning’s carnitas. It’s hard to say. I sat and enjoyed my meal al fresco on State Street where motorist traffic ceded to pedestrians. It reminded me of my last trip to Montreal and the many walking streets there. A man interrupted my lunch to ask how I did in the triathlon. What? Oh right, I’m wearing spandex. Uh, I did great! Personal record!
By the time I finished lunch it was almost 3pm. And I still had 40ish miles to ride to my host’s place tonight. Without delay I remounted and found my way to the southbound path out of town. The traffic density reversed, and by the time I hit the overpass for the beltline it was just me and a couple other folks.
At this time I’d like to offer a toast to my well conditioned legs. Without realizing it I rode about 20 miles in an hour. That’s 20mph average while hauling 60+lbs of camping gear and cheese. My speedy streak continued as the paved path turned to gravel and the roadies turned tail and left. I maintained 18mph average. These numbers may seem trivial to folks not accustomed to all-day biking. Imagine instead of driving down the freeway at 65 you could cruise all day at 130. That’s what it felt like to me. I also derive a great deal of endorfuns (intentional misspelling for added effect) from riding on gravel or loose dirt. Maybe it’s that feeling of tonka truck freedom intersecting with unquestionable play. If I was doing anything useful I would be on pavement. Or as a guy in Kentucky once told me, “If you were in a hurry, you’d have flown.”
Well I was flying this evening. The gravel path eventually gave way to county highways. Golden corn stalks rose for miles, and I could tell it was getting late, because my shadow reached across the road and into the fields.Picture 1 Signs popped up saying Detour. No Thru Traffic. Bridge Out Ahead. I usually ignore detour signs because my feet can go places cars can’t. I’ve even had construction workers wave me through a dormant site. But the phrase Bridge out ahead gave me pause. I consulted the map. The bridge crossed a small river flowing southeast. I could cross it at the next bridge over and add like six miles or gamble and see how “out” this bridge really was. I gambled. After the last intersection to try a different route, the road descended into the river valley. It was steep enough for me to hope I didn’t have to climb this back up. No traffic and miles of downhill means real quik rides. Within a few minutes I covered almost two miles and faced the thoroughly forewarned. Barricades and road cones and flashing lights. Picture-1Heavy equipment, materials and tools made the path impassable as I could see. Even though it was a Friday night, there were workers present. I managed to catch the attention of one a hundred yards away. He guessed the question on my mind and resolutely shook his head; No.
Dismayed, I pulled over to reconsider my map. There I saw strangely mowed grass. Was there a residence here? With no idea of my intention, stepped into the thick grass and surmounted the highway fence. The maintained grass was a recreational path which wasn’t indicated on any of my maps. And what’s this? A bridge built for snowmobiles, horses, cross-country skiers and yes, even me. P1140657I waved to the workers and made a quick exit since I was only 15 or so miles from my hosts’ place.
By this time, 6ish in the evening my host was calling for status updates. I said probably 7 I would get in. I zoomed on the gravel path outside Brodhead more than 15mph and pulled up to his house at almost exactly 7pm. They generously offered a shower, and even a nice dinner out. It’s Friday, it’s Wisconsin, I have spent 5000ish calories today, I will have the endless Fish Fry! We chatted about previous rides, school system politics, and music. The next morning they introduced me to their pet rabbit, Floppy. P1140660Good folks. THANK YOU! I slept well that final night.