2007 Race Report #2: A brief tour of Italy

Tuesday, May 15, 2007: -------------------

Row 48, seat A, Air France flight 051 to Paris, France with a connection to Milan Italy.  Staring out the tiny etched plexiglass window, tiny droplets of condensation navigate randomly upward, backward as we streak through the sky. I watch another jet and its corresponding trail of tiny icicles disappear to my left through the oval porthole.

“What the hell am I doing here?” I think as I watch the navy blue suited airline attendants move briskly up and down the aisles bringing out champagne and freshly baked bread and a plastic tray containing dinner. “Who goes to Italy  for 3 ½ days to ride their bike?” someone asked.

I guess now the answer is, “I do.”

I leaned back and thought about the last 24 hours. “What a nightmare – why can’t I go to a cycling event without having a major logistical snafu?” Last year it was the RV, yesterday it was the BMW…


Monday morning – the day before my flight, and I was preparing to head to Chicago for work – and also bringing all the accoutrements needed for the trip to Italy. Given my track record of vehicle problems when heading to bike races, I decided to check the oil in the BMW, and found it a touch low. I put in a little extra oil just “to make sure,” capped it off, closed the hood and headed off out of Stoughton, Wisconsin at 6:15am passing through town, heading out to highway 90 and making good time toward Rockford, settling in at 85mph in the early parts of the 130 mile trip to Chicago.

It was only a quarter of an hour after my departure that I first began to notice the grey/blue shadowy haze trailing my vehicle. Sure enough, the car was burning oil like an old jalopy. I assumed that the slight overfill I had put in the oil reservoir the night before was burning off, so I continued on my way, and the car seemed to be responding normally and not overheating. However the smoke continued to cast a darkened haze onto my rear view mirror and did not quickly abate as I expected…

As I entered the usual constrictions at Randall Rd. near Elgin, my worries grew as the oil pressure light began fluttering on and off, and the smoke began drifting all around the car. Stopped dead for minutes at a time in the worst traffic of the year, I began to watch the temperature gauge climb… Visions of a car fire, or just being stranded, blocking traffic, hitchhiking or walking to the next exit, taxis, tow trucks, dealerships – all of this flashed through my head even as I realized I was leaving the country the next day… My stress levels rose further…

But, I couldn’t actually do anything about it… so I continued on, inching my way forward through traffic and 3 hours after starting my “regular” Monday morning commute I made it into the office, swirling into the parking garage like Pig Pen with wheels. When I stopped the car and took a look underneath, I was rather astonished to discover that oil wasn’t dripping out of the engine block…It was actually raining from two dozen spots – from the struts, chassis, drivetrain – everywhere.

Late now for a meeting, I didn’t have time to check the oil and it wasn’t until that evening, when I pulled the dipstick and found it bone dry that I realized I had lost almost 6 quarts of oil on the road to Chicago. Even worse, and more embarrassing, was how...

No, no major engine malfunction here. I had lost all that oil through the same hole it had entered the engine – right out of the top of the block. When I lifted the hood, I found the oil cap conveniently wedged between the block and some cables and in the yawning circular mouth just in front of it I could see the shiny mechanical bowels of the engine. And there, angled above it, I could see the deftly curved splashguard the hood had become – distributing those quarts of oil liberally over the entire engine compartment.

I had failed to properly seal the oil cap back onto the engine block… and apparently that little disk of black plastic serves an important purpose.

So I put in two quarts, and then two more, and then two more and finally the oil level registered on the dipstick and I roared away back to hotel to begin packing for the trip the next morning. If I had thought, at the time, that my troubles were behind me, I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

I wheeled my bike, bike box, tools, and clothing for my trip up to my hotel room and proceeded to dismantle my bike for international shipping in the hard plastic case I had rented for the trip. Nominally the operation was quite simple – remove the seat and seatpost, remove the wheels, remove the pedals and “voila” into the box it goes.

I unpacked my pedal wrench for the pedals, allen wrenches for the seatpost, and at around 10pm, after some room service, began the process. It was then that I realized that my new pedals didn’t use a pedal wrench – instead they required a gigantic allen wrench the size of a hammer. 10pm – no bike shops are open, and I have meetings all day tomorrow. Damn! I’m going to have to cancel a meeting and travel to a bike shop prior to leaving for the airport at 3pm. Wait – I call hotel maintenance, and Ignacio just happens to have a full set of allen keys and at 11pm I have the pedals off.

Next step – remove the seat and seatpost. Easy enough – loosen the seatpost clamp, twist the seat a bit, and off it comes – right?


My Colnago C40 frame is carbon fiber. My seatpost is carbon fiber. I have raced in the rain, and all kinds of silt and sand have apparently made their way into those tiny gaps between these two composite surfaces. Net result? Friction - significant friction.

The next full hour I spent straddling my rear wheel, knees gripping the frame and rear triangle, as I wrenched the seat back and forth with a twisting motion in attempts to remove the seat and seatpost from the frame. Each twist and pull required my knees to dig into the frame, my forearms and hands, shoulders and biceps to strain to their max, and all of this was accompanied not only by my grunts and profanities, but by a hair raising squeal of carbon on carbon as I tried to un-mate two surfaces welded by thousands of tiny particles of grit. “Eeee-er! Eeee-er!” – shrieked the carbon. It was so loud my ears rang and I really expected hotel security at any second.

After a half hour I had moved the seat up about 2 inches, 45 minutes got me 2 ½. And hour got me 2 ¾ inches. It was then that I felt the heat rising from the frame below – all my efforts twisting and creating sheer forces were heating up the carbon fiber potentially making matters worse. It really was this factor that ultimately led to the solution. But meanwhile I was physically and mentally exhausted – It was now after midnight and there was no way to get my bike into the box it needed to be in. A quick internet search worsened my mood as it began to mention hack saws and milling machines.

I sat on the bed quivering and sweating from the exertion and started thinking about the basic physical properties of materials – heat expands them, cold shrinks them. I grabbed a towel and walked, shirtless and dripping sweat out into the hotel hallway, passing two guys in suits and ties without a second glance and walked to the ice machine and proceeded to fill the towel with ice. I then returned to the room, past the same two guys, trailing a few runaway ice cubes as they stared, and then put the bulging bundle under cold water for a second. I then tied the whole works around my seatpost. I proceeded to pack other essentials and 15 minutes later began to tug at the seat again.

It moved quite easily up another couple of inches, but wedged again. Trying a different tack I was able to make it go down quite easily, so I moved the seatpost all the way down, and then removed the seat, leaving only ½ inch of seatpost sticking above the carbon frame. Sure enough, the frame and fork and seatpost now barely fit into the bike box, and by 1am I had managed to complete packing all my materials for the trip.

I set my alarm for 6:30 am and then, on Tuesday attended my usual, but never-ending series of meetings before rushing to the airport in the rain at 3pm for my 5:30pm overnight flight to Paris…

 Why did I do it? Why did I go? I was in a critical phase of a major project at work. I was moving in less than a month. I was behind on a dozen things.

To be honest it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. “How could it be hard to decide to take a vacation to Italy?” one might ask… 

We are all driven to achieve, to meet expectations, to cover all our bases, to only feed our souls when all of life’s mundane demands are met. Every intuitive bone in my body was screaming “cancel!” “You can’t go right now!”, “There’s so much to do!” But in reality all those things stacking up were stacking up because I had lost my perspective. What did it all mean? What was truly important? Why was I working 14, 16, sometimes 18 hours a day?

I was (as usual) overestimating my importance in the grand scheme of things at work, and under-delivering against some of life’s basics such as sleep, exercise, nutrition & relationships. It felt noble to rob myself of some of these elements – I was “sacrificing” – but really, was it effective? No. 

I have some history of overworking and overtraining, though not nearly as bad as some... In some sense it is easy to do – because you can clearly show how you “did all you could.” It provides a safe layer of CYA.  But as I agonized over and over about it, I finally decided to ignore all my natural alarm systems and to listen to my rational mind that said, “John – you need a break – you need to just get away and think of nothing other than turning the pedals.” 

I’m glad I listened…


Wed, May 16, 2007: Monferrato Hills, Italy

How can I describe the pastoral setting in which I, by luck, found myself? Bordered on the North by the river Po, the Monferrato hills are a relatively unknown slice of northern Italy. Characterized by rolling hills filled with open expanses of vineyards and orchards, the region is laced with single lane paved country roads, these delicate iron gray balustrades framing the intricate leafwork of the vineyards and sprinkled with small villages cresting each significant hill, each of these ancient stone and tile layer cakes having at its apex the requisite castle and cathedral as decorations.


Even as I arrived to my farmhouse-come-bed-&-breakfast, my senses were awakening. Instead of bumper to bumper traffic and tollways, I found myself zipping up switchbacks in my tiny rental car eagerly anticipating the next vista. This pattern – of climbing, followed by an extravagant view, characterized the next 3 ½ days of my visit.

I could describe each day in detail – how I overslept the first day, how I rode until sunset each day because I woke so late, how I rode a total of 19 hours, and climbed over 10,000 feet, but I won’t bother. The statistics are meaningless compared to the experience.

The region is really quite sparsely populated – so I really had the tiny bike path width roads to myself.


Getting lost – originally a major concern – went out the window once I realized the nature of the territory: each village is on top of a hill. The hills are about 2 – 5 miles apart. There is only 1 road between each village. From each village, at the cathedral and castle at its summit, you can see 360 degrees to all the neighboring villages.


Using that simple logic, it became quite simple to navigate my way, village by village through the landscape. But roads, villages, cathedrals, castles – this is all still logistics. What was it really like?

Like always, I sat on my narrow seat and my legs and feet turned the pedals. Like always, I drank water from my water bottle, ate energy foods from my back pocket, and listened to music on my ipod. I created a 6 hour long playlist on the flight over that seemed to perfectly catch the moods of the day. I started slow and just followed the flowing hilltops and rows of the vineyards. I suffered a lot, climbing steep switchbacks up into the golden heights and was rewarded with the next vista flowing to my eyes even as the sun heated the cobbles and stones behind me. I descended each hill in a manic streak of speed into the cool gray greenery of the next valley, drinking in the sudden humidity.


Unlike always it was like being in love.

Jasmine, jasmine and more jasmine – the scent hung heavy in the air, and as the sinking sun veined the green vistas with gold, I could see the golden pollen of its scent and others floating above the fields in the brilliant chiaroscuro light of the evening.


I navigated the curving valleys, listening to that hollow thrumming of my tires – that sound they only make when there is no wind, and then the tune would change as decline became incline and I would hear the gentle tinkling of the mechanicals: the ratcheting chain on well oiled gears and I would climb to the next dusty heights of stone and cobbles. The repetition of the smells had a pattern too – damp rich earthy loam in the valleys, and then the aristocratic and dry herbs at the heights. And always, jasmine.


 Right outside my apartment was a huge climbing vine of jasmine and every evening I collected a dozen sprigs of the tiny white perfumed flowers and placed them in a cup of water next to the bed.

The climbs, for me, were hard. Averaging between 300 and 1000 feet vertical to reach the crest of the next town, I had to try to find a rhythm to climbing – something I’ve never been good at. For 10 or 15 minutes I would be out of the saddle, with relatively low rpms making my way up the next set of switchbacks, passing through vineyards and orchards, then the stone fences marking the village boundaries, and finally with washes of radiant heat even in the shadow, entering the echoing stone surrounds of the narrow village streets – mostly unchanged for 100’s of years.


Throughout the day I would stop sometimes at the top – for a Panini, an espresso, or just to take pictures or let the light of the surrounds enter my corneas. Gold, copper, yellow and a millions shades in between – these colors somehow quickly breathed life into my graying mindset. Few people were around – after all it was a weekday – but I was happy to have the villages to myself and rode without a care for cars or people, taking corners at breakneak speed.

My 2nd day, and each day thereafter, I managed my route to land me at the small village of Oliveria around 7pm. Bathed in the warm light of the setting sun, the tiny village centered evenly on a relatively small hill, allowing 360 degree views of the area. In the small square at the top of the hill, next to the Cathedral there was a small café and wine bar.


The first time I arrived, I allowed myself my first glass of Barolo and found it accompanied by a large wooden cutting board platter with an assortment of local cheeses, sausages, grapes, walnuts, olives and chunks of homemade breads, all drizzled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a bit of honey.


It was heaven. All fresh, all locally made. Seemingly heavy, these foods never once gave me a single physical discomfort.  I returned every day thereafter.


Each evening I seemed to have a pinnacle moment – where the scents and the sights, the mood, and the colors, the music, and my own efforts brought about a renewed sense of clarity – of hope, and of happiness. It recurred always as the sun was starting to set and the fields were set ablaze and I was beginning yet another curvy descent to the next valley.


The superlight but stable carbon fiber of the Italian made Colnago between my knees, the still, but perfumed air of the Italian countryside filling my lungs, the smooth narrow roads filling my sights, I would inevitably raise my arms exactly perpendicular and float down the side of the hill, wheels whispering as my speed built, flying down the mountain.

Was this it? I wondered… What speed did the Wright brothers require for flight at Kittyhawk? With my arms wide and my bike traveling 35+ mph leaning down the curving roads it felt exactly like flight. I would grip the bars and inevitably put in a sprint to take the speed up to 40, 50. Wide bends arcing through the fields and with utmost confidence my bicycle and body would lean in, rubber gripping the asphalt, and then smoothly rotate up and over the other way for the next curve…


Each night I pulled in just as it was getting too dark to ride safely, and I would plunge quickly into the cool waters of the pool before heading back to my room to change, shower and head to town for dinner.  I was inevitably so exhausted that I had very few thoughts other than a complete present tense focus on my current activity. I had to actually coach myself through basic activities – “lift arms, now slide t-shirt down over head”. “Put on shoes.” “Don’t forget the keys.”


This same present focus really lent itself to my dinners and I savored my salmon rigatoni in vodka sauce, my veal and “tartufo” raviolis, my bread and oil and sausages and cheeses and wine with a single minded discipline.

As I would climb into the old four poster bed each night, the cool evening air pouring slowly into the room and chilling the stone floor, I was lulled to sleep with thoughts of nothingness and the scent of jasmine.


Next issue: the first race report – the exciting Giro d’Grafton