Cycling ‘The Wall’

There is a certain ominous tone to Day 5 of Backroads cycling trips: the most challenging course is on the docket. That means, should you choose it on our trip, a 42-mile ride with 4,400′ of uphill climbing. A day of suffering and potential exhilaration.

On the route, there is a four-mile long hill with a steep 10% to 14% grade. The trip leaders call it The Wall. They warn us that it will be the most strenuous stretch amidst an already strenuous week of cycling.

I decide to go for it.

Maybe because it is Day 5 and the cycling already has been challenging, but I notice the group of riders is unusually quiet as we start to cycle.

It is absolutely brutal. There are quite a few hills, and the Tuscan heat wave and humidity suck life from my legs. But, I press on. I bike only during Backroads trips, and the day really challenges me.

A lunch break is a welcome reprieve from the sun and dehydration. Afterwards, most riders jump into a van for a shuttle ride to the hotel.

A smaller group of us elects to keep going. The Wall is next.

We find it soon enough: a very long and very steep hill that just goes on and on. Progress is very slow.

Midway up The Wall, some of the other riders around me throw in the white towel and jump in a van. I do not want to stop and use a strategy that helped me during prior rides in the Pyrenees and Italian Alps: emptying my mind.

It is hard to explain, but my mind goes quiet, and I ignore my pain and discomfort. The idea of quitting is a temptation. The more I think of quitting, the stronger my urge to do so. So, I just ignore my thoughts, all thoughts.

Soon, it is someone else’s legs driving the pedals and someone else’s sweat dripping into someone else’s eyes. I just look down at the wheel, and my life becomes just a narrow three-foot visual cone.

Eventually, that strategy starts to fail. After almost four miles, I am so close to the top but feel utterly and completely gassed.

As if in a movie, a gentle rain begins to fall. I cannot tell you how delicious the cool water drops, though few, feel to my body. I feel enough energy to go on.

The sky darkens, the rain increases, and steam rises from the road. I hear the rumbles of thunder and see lightning.

A wind starts to blow fiercely, and the rain soon comes down in torrents. A very hard downpour pounds down on me as cars pull over to stay off the very slick and windy road.

When the lightning is nearly on top of me, I decide to find shelter. I spot a winery’s storage area. Some workers there see me, wave me in with smiles and offer me paper towels to dry off. I am drenched and feel cold.

The workers do not speak English. Since my Italian is quite elementary, we just stand around and smile. I am grateful for the hospitality, and it made me think that the smallest gesture of kindness goes a long way.

After a while, the rain stops, and I again am on my way, exhausted and cold but happy. The toughest section is now behind me.

I take a photo of my view en route. I hope it shows you a glimpse of what is, and always will be, a very magical moment in my life.

As I admire the scenery, one of the Backroads leaders comes up in a van. “Do you want a photo of yourself?” she asks.

“No, that’s ok.”

“You sure?”

“Yes,” I say. I don’t know why, but it seems appropriate to feature the Tuscan hills and not me. I’m just a visitor, passing by. The hills will always be there. They should be the subject of the photo.

There is something very cathartic, no, purifying, about such a long and brutal ride. You feel emptied and cleansed. You have been baptized in torrents of summer rain. Your body is completely  drained of physical energy, but your soul feels electric. You have given everything you have to the mountain, and, at the end, she gives back more than you have taken. You feel complete joy.

In the end, I make it. Four of us, out of the 23 cyclists, have biked the full 42 miles.

It feels great to finish.

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