It isn’t just cool that we’re a group of chicks on bikes, it’s phenomenal that we’re a team of women riding vintage bicycles in a historically male-dominated Tuscan race. We’re five Backroads Trip Leaders who have each led trips in Tuscany, and we’ve been planning to partake in the famed L’Eroica vintage bicycling race together for almost a year. This is my second experience racing L’Eroica in Tuscany, and this time I feel like I belong.
I feel fortunate to be here now. I feel fortunate to be working for Backroads, a company that doesn’t gloss over the realities of the world but instead offers its guests a closer, authentic and unfiltered look. Cuba and its people have now become something personal to me – more than news headlines and pages in a history book. It’s the taxi driver, the pigeon-flyer, the port foreman and all the others who have helped me paint this beautiful portrait in my mind of a vibrant country full of hopeful people marching toward an uncertain future.
In the weeks before the race, I spent a lot of time basking in the glory of telling my friends that I’d be riding a 12-speed steel-frame bicycle on gravel roads in Tuscany. I did not, however, spend a lot of time actually visualizing myself riding a 12-speed steel-frame bicycle on gravel roads in Tuscany. Ten minutes into the race, I found myself flying down a loose-gravel hill in predawn darkness with only dim candles lining the curving road, and it became apparent why this famous bicycle race is called L’Eroica, or “The Heroic” in English.
I’m not writing any new material by saying that Paris is a magical place. The amount of history, creativity, fine art and architecture in this ever-gray city is astonishing. In fact, deciding what to do with only 24 hours in such a culturally rich place can be overwhelming. Here’s my recommendation for a day well spent in the City of Love.
All right, I realize I’m not about to unleash a revolutionary statement here, but the fact is, Tuscany has some amazing bike routes. Even if you haven’t been there, I bet you’ve seen postcards. The real thing looks just like that! No—even better! It didn’t take me much time in Tuscany to realize this part of the world is a cyclist’s haven.
Before heading out to lead Backroads trips in Italy, I had already gathered that Italians have an ongoing love affair with olive oil. However, I was almost completely ignorant of the pepper to this salt: balsamic vinegar. “Italian dressing” in my household was a mix of spices shaken with olive oil and white vinegar–no balsamic included–and I wouldn’t consider putting the bitter stuff on ice cream. Not even in my dreams would I suppose that some balsamic vinegars cost hundreds of dollars for just a few ounces. I had a lot to learn.
I woke up toward the end of the drive from Salt Lake City to Southern Utah and realized the world had completely changed. The land was brilliantly red, and I could see across the sloping rocks for miles. It was unlike any landscape I had ever seen. The rocks there twist themselves into pillars, arches, giant craters and vibrating hoodoos as they reflect the brilliance of the sun. This land can be brutally hot during the summer, but it also invites you to participate in the world in a unique way. Since my first trip to St. George, Utah, I’ve never lost the awe I felt for the area’s interactive geography, myriad state parks, beautiful scenery and animal wildlife.
The first experience I had with the Italian fear of wind came after a gym workout with the host mom for whom I was au pairing. We both took showers, and she emerged with her hair dry. I knew we were tight for time, but I had a case of grease-head so I had done a thorough wash. I’m accustomed to walking outside while my hair air-dries, so I grabbed my stuff and met my mamma at the door. She looked at my wet hair with a horrified face. “Go blow-dry your hair, the wind will make you sick!” So I did.
It’s not unusual to gear up with new equipment before a Backroads trip; we all know how wonderful it feels to don a fresh pair of bike shorts with a brand new shammy. There are some things, however, that should be broken in before embarking on an active travel adventure.
Since April, I’ve been in five countries, met hundreds of new people, and slept on more than 50 different mattresses. A full season of leading with Backroads is a whirlwind of new places and faces. After seven plus months full of nonstop travel, what do leaders do when it all comes to an end?