MARINA DI ASCEA, Italy (VN) — A morning of Italian switchback serenity is interrupted by sinister hissing, the slow release of air from two places I most dearly wish it had stayed. Pothole; front flat, rear flat.
Despite the long ferry and late return from the island of Ischea following the Giro’s second stage, I decided Sunday night to ride early Monday morning. I have to ride. It’s been a week since I clipped foot into pedal, a week with only the dreaded running shoes for company, a week of only driving, working, and walking. No lack of sleep will stop me.
I rise and eat, eyeing but ultimately ignoring the storm clouds building over Napoli, and then clip in and set off through the small town of Castellamare, up its fiendishly steep cobbled streets, still damp from overnight rain, and toward the day’s objective: a set of 38 tiny switchbacks I spotted on the map the previous evening. They had an untouched look about them; a melodic flow that will be most welcome after a few nights in Napoli, where an amphitheater-shaped valley compresses the normally quiet hustle and bustle of daily Italian life into a ceaseless roar.
The climb is as I hoped, and expected. Narrow enough for a single car, poorly paved but in an adventurous sort of way, so old that each switchbacked corner is still cobbled. Potholes litter the surface, but are easily avoided as I tick upwards, past one final agriturismo and into utter solitude.
For 40 minutes I climb, dodging holes and looking out over each coming cliff, staring down at the urban hum below and Napoli in the distance, reveling in our separation. There is something about riding alone, I think to myself; something to tapping out pedal strokes to an internal tempo, with effort and direction solely in your own hands. It’s meditative.
But I’m behind schedule; this climb is longer than expected by a fair bit, and I don’t have time to go over the top and around the back, as planned. I got what I came for anyway; there is no shame or sadness in turning around here.
With gravity-fed speed, the potholes I so daintily avoided while climbing now rear their tire-eating jaws thick and fast; I hop a few, steer around others, avoiding all.
Until I don’t.
A shallow gravel section, a small lip at its end, begets the hiss of two limp tires encircling my wheels. It takes but a moment to make a short ride much longer.
Panic hits first. I am on the side of a mountain, in Italy, two hours before a Giro start, with the key to our car in my pocket and thus no hope of rescue. My eyes dart up and down the road, as though sheer willpower could bring a tube-wielding handyman out of the trees. The solitude I was so enjoying just moments before now seems an unbearable affliction.
The math is bad. Two flats, one tube. Five kilometers from town, 15 from the hotel. I have 45 minutes before I need to be showered and ready to go to the start in Sorrento. The roads are bumpy, and I’m on carbon rims. I’m sure as hell not walking.
My usual tool kit — two tubes, pump, tools, patches — was packed in my luggage that morning. I grabbed a single tube and a pump, out of overconfidence and more than a hint of stupidity. The solitude I was seeking placed fate squarely in my own hands, and they let me down.
There’s nothing to do but try and ride. I replace and fill the front tube — that tire keeps you from crashing, so it deserves the air — and begin to pick my way down the slope, at a snail’s pace, with one full tire and one sad limp one. It bounces and clacks off rocks and cobbles but keeps me upright and moving.
The agriturismo, I recall, is only a few switchbacks down. Maybe two kilometers. I can make it there. Time to find myself some strangers.
I roll into a quiet driveway cut into the mountainside, the last building on the way up and the first I see on the way down. A black Audi, probably not a proprietor’s car, indicates the place is open. Leaning my bike against an ivy-laden wall, I click-clack towards the front door. A woman comes out, “buon giorno,” I say, followed by “inglese?” She smiles, shakes her head, and calls for her son.
Giuseppe’s English is as good as my Italian, and so in broken words and gestures I explain my problem. Can I call a taxi? “No,” he says, offering no explanation.
I’m in your hands now, Giuseppe.
We head to his garage, where he shows me a set of screwdrivers. “To take the tire off?” he says with his hands. No, I have that part covered. It’s the tube — I point to the tube — that is bad. He nods, and ponders for a moment, then walks me back to my bike before disappearing into the darker recesses of the garage. I wait, standing alone in the middle of the driveway in an awkward duck-footed, cycling-shoe-induced pose.
He comes out holding two helmets. Not bike helmets. Two scooter helmets, one for each of us. He hands me one and says “Ok, we go.” For a brief moment, I can only stare at him.
But what choice do I have?
I jump on the back and put my hands on his shoulders; “no, no” he says, moving them to his sides. I’m a full-grown man, clothed in nothing but black spandex and white riding shoes and a blue mushroom of a moto helmet, sitting on the back of a scooter behind a stranger, who I am now hugging.
“What you do?” he asks as we fly down to town. “Sono giornalisti per Giro d’Italia. Americano.” I respond, with the full extent of my Italian language skills. The grammar is wrong, but he understands, and seems to approve.
We cut up cars, dart up side streets and through gridlocked city traffic, ending up at a motorcycle shop. No bike tubes here, they say after I tap my way up to the counter, so we continue on. A bike shop, on the right, “là-bas!” I yell. Whoops, that’s French. But no matter, he has seen it, too.
Tubes procured, I hop back on and repeat the journey. Back up the same cobbled road I climbed earlier in the day, through a long tunnel, choking on acrid diesel fumes, and up the two sharp switchbacks to Agritourismo Quisisana. Back to my hapless bike and, hopefully, onto my hotel and the Giro.
It’s now 9:15. I have 15 minutes. My minipump is pumped like my life depends on it; Gieseppe, the hero of my hour, watches, lights up, and laughs. A minipump can always be counted on to bring a little levity to dire situations.
Tire inflated, I stand up and try to give him the forty Euros in my pocket. He won’t take them. A handshake, transferring my fortunes from his hands back into my own, is all he will accept as I roll off down the hill.
Next time, two tubes.