My love of cycling started in a bizarre way. I'd raced motocross for several years, from my early 30's and it had taught me about the reality of being a 'cocky guy that thought I could do anything' then entering an aggressive sport and realising that I was actually not as good as I had thought!
The ongoing injuries and the ravages of age meant that motocross had to be stopped at some point and the plans I had with Louisa all led to me becoming a respectable retired rider.
Unfortunately, that meant that, at 35, I'd put on a kilogram a month if I stopped doing any active sport. So, I went out and bought an entry level £400 racer bicycle. Back then, Mark Cavendish was a track racer and had a skinhead and chubby, boyish cheeks. Lance Armstrong had entered World Hall of Real Life Heroes and cycling was very much a niche, minor sport with a couple of household names.
I'd ridden my entry level Muddy Fox Road Glide a few times and enjoyed it. At that point, we had bought our derelict house in Italy and the rebuild was soon to start. Our dreams and aspirations would be very different at that time, we thought we'd be childless (due to a health reason) and a comfortable life together in Abruzzo was on the cards and a stress-free 40 years to death would follow as we dreamed of 'la dolce vita'.
Some documents needed signing, in order to start our rebuild, and I'd found an English couple running a bed and breakfast that offered free collection from Pescara airport. Suddenly, the cost of a rental car could be offset against the cost of taking a bike in a bag. It would be a new adventure and all I needed to do was ride up some mountains, into Pescara. It would be easy for a hero like me!
The days leading up to the trip passed and I had watched some stages of the Giro d'Italia, which was the Italian version of the Tour d'France and the second biggest of the grand tours.
Then came the day of my trip. I packed my bike, arrived in Pescara and was met by Ian, from the b&b, who told me that a race called the Giro d'Italia was passing through the mountain that day. We got to the b&b, I assembled my bike and decided to go for a test ride on these little mountains that could be no more than the shallow inclined hills of East Anglia.
How wrong could I be! The 'hills' were steep and went on for more than a mile, like 5 or 6, maybe even 10 miles, all uphill! This was a shock, although at a certain point I came across painted names on the road. By now it was late afternoon, more painted on names appeared. Then, a brightly coloured team Skoda car came down, leaving the end of the race that had finished that afternoon. I waved and they beeped, then another, I waved and they beeped. More cyclists appeared and a wave of enthusiasm engulfed me as I carried on, uphill, as the multi-coloured cavalcade came downhill, beeping enthusiastically. A professional sport un-encountered by Brits was unfolding in-front of me. As I waved at more and more team cars, I was aware that I was becoming enchanted by the Giro and this new, weird, exclusive sport.
|The green 'hills' of Abruzzo|
|Beautiful landscape of Abruzzo|
During that visit, I rode from Serramonacesca to Pescara, then Pescara to Pretoro. All of it was an incredible struggle, but all journeys I'd thought impossible without a car not a few months earlier.
I got back to Britain and the rain and joined a cycling club (VC Barrachi). We'd ride 60 miles every Sunday. Heroes we were, weirdos in lycra in the corner of the cafe. Coolness in our own eyes. Exclusive, rarities, skinny tyres and self acknowledged notoriety. Life was good and I was fit.
More and more cycling trips followed in Abruzzo and the Majelletta became 'my' mountain, a challenging 'bitch' of a climb, graced by pros and determined amateurs alike. Always tough, incredibly testing. The challenge that makes you dig deep inside yourself to make it to 'that next switchback' and then the next.
The first time I cycled all the way to Passo Lanciano was two days after Louisa and I married, in 2006. The relief of finally getting married and the house being completed was worthy of doing something. I met a nice Italian cyclist on the way, who encouraged me to carry on uphill, suffering like a cyclist enjoys when a mountain confronts them. The air was thin, the sun came close and the scenery became ever more expansive. There are a great many glorious mountain ascents in the cycling world, many are revered in books. The eastern side of the Passo Lanciano is one of the most unexplored, secret, unspoilt that there are. Alpe D'Huez, the Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux, all grab the limelight, but Passo Lanciano is a match for them all.
The Giro was a regular holiday excursion for us and we met many people and visited strange mountain top villages we would never had seen, had it not been for the race. I had sold the Muddy Fox and bought a Specialized Tarmac, which I used to disassemble and put in the boot of the car on our driving trips, then fit our luggage around it!
|My Specialized Tarmac|
The Giro trips always included me bringing my bike and I'd soon racked up many thousands of metres of climbing during my visits. On mountainous cycling trips, climbing metres is more important than miles covered. Many of my cyclist friends came over to stay and enjoyed the mountains with me. All was good. Abruzzo fitted in my life even more now as a cyclist.
|Giro d'Italia, 2007 - L'Aquila Province|
|Louisa (on the right), with her friend Rachel - Giro 2007|
|On my Specialized, a few hours before the Giro 2008 would pass through|
Soon, I realised that transporting bikes over on Ryanair was getting silly and had cost more than a decent bike would have. So I decided to take a bike over to leave there. I already had my Specialized, but wanted that in the UK and as money has been tight since having children, I refurbished an old 80's Raleigh. I fitted a modern chainset, some leftover wheels and then it was ready. My friend Nick was interested in coming over, so I decided to take another of my 80's steel-frame refurbed bikes over.
Soon we were on a plane, with the the two bikes in cardboard boxes in the hold. We assembled the bikes at Pescara airport (to the amusement of watching Italians), disposed of the cardboard and then set about riding up the mountain to the house.
|Nick with our bikes at Stansted airport|
|Assembling bikes at Pescara Airport|
It was surreal to ride two British-made bikes around in the Italian sunshine and many bystanders admired them at various cafes. We spent four days cycling around and up and down the peaks of the Majella. By now, I was a seasoned cyclist and firmly believed in one of the few statements Lance Armstrong made that was true, "it's not about the bike". An old steel relic can go up (and down) a massive mountain, just a bit slower than a modern lightweight.
|Passo Lanciano. One of many switchbacks!|
|At the wolf sanctuary on the Passo Lanciano|
|Nick descending on the Passo Lanciano|
|On Pescara's cycle and pedestrian bridge|
It wasn't long after that I bought one of these bikes back and sold it. I rationalised my growing collection down to three bikes; one in Italy, two in England. My old Raleigh is fine for the mountains, forgiving and stable on the descents, with modern brakes whilst having a 34 x 28 gear ratio for the steepest bits like the North side into Bucchianico where the gradient is 18-20% for a while!
One one of my more recent trips (June 2015) my friend Pete came along, bringing his very nice carbon fibre Specialized Roubaix. Pete is a new(ish) cyclist and has progressed to a good level very quickly. He has a penchant for carbon fibre, but is also a fan of the many gels and recovery drinks, all the things I had dismissed before. During the five days of riding we did together, I learned about the benefits of this expensive and sickly nutrition. The trip was brilliant, although marred a bit when somebody stole Pete's Garmin during a lunch in Pescara.
Then, last Summer, we took our main family holiday in August. Nick and his family came also and followed us in their car, with Nick's bike in the trunk. They stayed at Kokopelli Camping, near us and the dynamic worked well as Nick and I could cycle, whilst the girls drove with the children in the car and met us at various points, usually cafes. It was 38 degrees most days so I made sure I took a recovery drink when cycling up the Passo Lanciano for the last time on this holiday and it made all the difference. Nick, did not want to drink the recovery drink and ended up ill for two days because he had flushed all the minerals out of his body from drinking too much water. I had learned a valuable lesson from Pete during our trip in June.
I hope to spend many more years cycling in Abruzzo. We are planning on returning to mountain biking when our youngest son (now three) is old enough, as there are some superb trails in Abruzzo. Our eldest son went to his first Giro d'Italia when he was 9 months old.
|Our eldest son at the Giro 2010|
I hope my sons join me cycling to Blockhaus one day. It's in their blood.
|Our boys - in Caramanico Terme|