Prosecco tour – day 6

Read what happened before: Day 5

I lay in bed, another triple room, another cheap hotel. This time I was on a childs bed, tucked away in the corner of a room that if you had to describe in one word, you’d describe as “borstal”. I could hear roadworks on the motorway. They seemed very loud. Then I realised that is wasn’t roadworks, it was Al snoring. What a start to the day. We showered and dropped our stuff in the van, before going to a nearby McDonalds for breakfast. Slightly embarrassed admission: McDonalds breakfast is actually not that bad.

Back on the road at 8am, and finally we were out of Germany and into Belgium. We discovered that Liege had yet another name, though by this point I really couldn’t have cared less. We powered on, stopping at a service station with revolving toilet seats and an aisle full of waffles in the shop. The miles (or kilometres) were ticking down. We passed Brussels, just as much a shithole as on the way out. Finally we crossed back into Frogland, and to Calais.

Calais is crap. We chatted with the eurotunnel staff and visited the duty free shop, which was populated by the worst kind of english people. I wanted to run away and live somewhere – anywhere – in Europe and be all cultured and European and stuff. Okay, maybe not anywhere. I wouldn’t live in Brussels. Eventually we got to leave, and shuffled onto the eurotunnel, and back to the UK.

After a whole 6 days abroad, we had forgotten which side of the road to drive on, and it felt weird to be back on the correct side. Still, we followed some faceless motorway back to London, realising that we were close to home when we saw a Morley’s chicken shop.

Bernie had prepared soup for us, and on arrival, we emptied and swept the van, then tucked in to the soup while Bernie returned the van. Amazingly, and despite crashing it 4 times, we got the full deposit back. All that was left was to try to get ourselves, plus bikes, bags and copious duty free booze back to our respective homes.

The duty free booze didn’t make it past that evening.

Prosecco tour – day 5

Read what happened before: Day 4

We were heading home! So soon! But not before Bernie had lost his passport (eventually located in the van). Some of the group went on a tour of the prosecco cellar, however not me, as I still hadn’t packed and I had quite a lot of cake to get through for breakfast.

After paying (inordinately cheap, considering all the prosecco we drank) and buying lots of prosecco to take home, we loaded up the van, took some final photos and, with lots of hugs, the van crew got back on the road.

We retraced our steps through Valdobbiadene and north towards Austria, stopping near Bolzano for petrol and snacks. We were keen to buy petrol at its cheapest, rather than in the Brenner Pass, as it was quite expensive there. Austria, once again, was lovely and we stopped near where we’d stopped before for lunch, though this time managed to avoid crashing the van into anything.

Southern Germany was, once again, grey and dull though this changed to slightly nicer rolling hills after some time. As we approached Stuttgart we felt a pang of nostalgia, and that nostalgia manifested itself in lots of traffic and contraflow systems. We decided that once we’d passed Stuttgart we’d stop for coffee. The service station we chose had a nice outdoor balcony with countryside views, and we stared at the scenery in the fading light.

We got back in the van and tried to get out of the car park. This was impossible due to a lorry having been parked across the exit to the car park. Lots of lorry drivers jumped out of their cabs and started berating each other. One came over to our van, stuck his head through the window and, in the heavily accented german, told us his expansive views about the inconsiderate driver. By the time we eventually extricated ourselves from the car park, it was dark.

We drove on in the dark. While we hadn’t had any music on the way to Italy, I had borrowed an ipod dock, meaning that everyone had to listen to my music of choice. Initially this was Queen’s Greatest Hits, and later I put it onto shuffle. “I like your music” said Stu, “there’s not been any Britney Spears or any of that crap”. I realised I’d have to stay awake so that I didn’t accidentally play something uncool and blow my cover.

Although earlier we’d been quite conscientious about petrol, we realised we were running quite low. Service stations aren’t hugely frequent on German motorways, and after missing one turning, we spent an anxious time driving towards the next one, nearly getting hit by a lorry as we darted in front of it onto the Rhine bridge. We decided that as we were stopped, we may as well eat. The service station had a restaurant serving hearty german food in american sized portions. Stu ordered something that came with an extremely phallic sausage but he was undeterred and polished it off.

The final portion of our drive for the evening was fairly unpleasant, as it was raining heavily and visibility was poor. We sat in silence, staring at the road, watching the lights of the contraflow systems refract into raindrop shapes, and onwards to Cologne.

Read what happens next: Day 6

Prosecco tour – day 4

Read what happened before: Day 3

The alarm went off at 7am and true to form, I snoozed it. Eventually I got out of bed at 7.40, which was a little problematic as we were meant to leave at 8am. We didn’t end up leaving the farm until 8.40, which left us precisely 5 minutes to get to the start line, about 5km away. Stu was left behind and had to ride to the start line with his race number hanging on by a thread and his jersey in his mouth.

We arrived at the start to find the race was underway. Women were meant to start at the front, but they were long gone and I started at the back. This was fine as I got to chat to my friends from the day before. We rolled slowly forward, picking up speed until we crossed the line, riding over confetti that had been fired at the actual start. And we were off!

A few kilometers in and we were all still bunched together. I was chatting to Bernie and feeling a little apprehensive. Suddenly in front of us we saw a man who had come off his bike, blood dripping from his face, his bike propped up by the side and his worried friends standing around. Paramedics were already in attendance, which reassured me a lot as I rode over a wet patch on the ground. Hang on, that’s not water… that’s blood. From his face.

I avoided slipping on the pool of blood and rode on. I heard a dreadful racket behind me. Metal scraped metal in a way that sounded like it was doing the bike quite a lot of damage. I turned to give the culprit a disapproving look, only to see that the culprit was Stu. “It’s my bottom bracket! It’s fucked” he told me, cheerfully. I could only really laugh. We posed for some photographers and sped on our way.

Ascending was tough but fine and I wasn’t as slow as I thought I might be, but I got dropped on the descents as I am scared of descending, post-accident. I’d been told that these were “rolling hills” but 15% is not what I’d call a rolling hill! I trundled on, forever alone, overtaking on hills and humming to myself. I got chatting to a man called Andy (what a nice solid traditional Italian name!). We played ‘guess the gradient’ for a while, as I was convinced that we were on the flat, whereas his garmin said we were on a 2% incline, and had a nice chat. I told him about the adventures of the day before, and he told me that two of his group had had accidents yesterday – one was in a hospital in Trento with a broken collarbone and the other had torn a massive hole in their hand. Luckily a member of the group was a doctor and had stitched the hand back together and they were riding today.

Going into some woods, some boy racer decided that it was a good time to try to overtake, almost causing a crash, and I came across one of my friends from the day before. I heard him before I saw him as he had ridiculously deep carbon wheels and his bike made a “wooom wooom wooom” noise. He was a lovely man but much faster than me so we didn’t get to chat for long.

After a brief refuelling stop (cake!) I set off, alone once more. I kind of wished I had my ipod with me. There were some big ups and some big downs, but then I rounded a corner and saw the most ridiculous hill. From all around there were cries of “fuck OFF”, “no way!” and “I’m turning back!” in various different languages. At first it was tough. Then it was tougher. A man shouted “you’re nearly there!” and a wave of relief rushed over me… followed by a wave of anger, as we weren’t nearly there at all!! I stopped at the top and took some painkillers as my back was pretty sore, then limped to another food stop. Andy showed up again and we grimaced at each other.

I clipped back in and carried on. There were loudspeakers in the trees, announcing in four languages that the route was splitting: the longer route (120km) to the left, the shorter (80km) route to the right. There were signposts and arrows and people signalling which way to go. I’d always said I’d do the shorter route, though I’d secretly been toying with the idea of the longer route. When it came to it there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation: I was going for the shorter route.

I got chatting to an american guy, who kept drafting me. An italian roadie was out too and he was pretty fond of drafting me too. This was fine (not really) until inevitably my hand went numb and I had to ride with it outstretched, looking like I was doing some strange interpretive dance.

By now I was starting to feel a little bit tired, and a bit sick of beautiful picturesque italian villages. There was another food stop, and two extremely jovial italian men force fed me bits of melon. I told them that I didn’t speak italian but I don’t think they believed me as they kept speaking to me. Eventually I figured out that they were telling me that the finish was only 5km away! I told one of the men that I loved him then decided I’d better leave before he took me seriously and set off, forever alone once again.

I started to recognise things, and managed a cheery wave at an elderly man shouting “brava!” at me. The cheer dissolved as a coach nearly swiped me off the road, and I had to jump into a ditch, still clipped in to my pedals. I emerged, covered in chain oil and general dirt from the ditch, and got back on the bike.

Although I’d been told that the end wasn’t far off, I didn’t completely believe it until I saw a sign saying 3km to go. I really recognised the route now as it was part of the way from our farm into town. I passed the 2km sign. Then the 1km sign. A car pulled out in front of me, nearly scuppering my race 800 metres from the finish line. I turned a corner and there was the finish… up hill? I was pretty sure it hadn’t been uphill earlier. Never mind – pedal pedal pedal and then cheers from the crowd near the line, and as I crossed the line, more cheers and someone shouting my name! It was Elle, camera in hand, cheering me! I grinned, sat back on my saddle and took my (poor, numb) hands of the handlebars.

Just back from the line there were people handing out medals and flowers – I was given both as I’d finished within the time for the sportive. The man handing out the flowers had no teeth and was quite insistent on wanting to kiss me. I spotted Bernie and after handing back my chip timer, we went to find Elle, and had a conversation like this.

Me: Bernie, I’m surprised that you did the shorter route, you said you were going to do the long route!
Bernie: I did do the long route! I absolutely smashed it!
Me: Wow, it’s 120km and you’re back already! What time did you do it in?
Bernie: 2 hours 25. It was great, I found a big group of Italian roadies and hung onto the back of them.
Me: Gosh. That’s amazing. I feel pretty slow now.
Elle: Bernie, you can’t have done the long route!
Bernie: I did!
Elle: But Bernie, here comes the winner of the long route now!

And sure enough, over the line came the winners of the long route, with a time of 3 hours 20 minutes.

Elle and I took up residence on the railings by the finish line, and kept our eyes open for the rest of the riders. She thought that Alistair would do a good time and we kept an anxious eye out for him – finally we saw his team jersey and he came over the line. Hollie and Katy followed, and joined us for cheering. The crowds had really thinned out so I was trying to cheer anyone who looked either tired or particular attractive.

We were all starting to feel hungry, and decided to decamp to a cafe and wait for Stu and Al, the last remaining riders of our group. “Pizza Darling”, a fairly unfriendly but completely functional pizzeria, fit the bill and was conveniently located around the corner. We ordered beer and pizza, and as if on cue, Stu and Al turned up. The pizzas disappeared very quickly and the beer seemed to evaporate.

Once we had suitably stuffed our faces, we went to the square to find our times. I’d done it in 2 hours 56 minutes, which I thought was probably alright. We then started riding home, via the supermarket and on to the gelateria. I think the only reason I ride bikes is so that I can eat lots!

That evening we lounged about, drinking prosecco and eating pasta. I made a valiant attempt to consume an entire bag of biscotti, and later managed to get myself stuck on some flypaper.

Read what happens next: Day 5

Prosecco tour – day 3

Read what happened before this: Day 2

It was the middle of the night and silence reigned. Eight heads lay on eight pillows, dreaming peacefully. Then a racket broke out: Al’s snoring. Bernie was forced to wake him up and get him to stop sleeping on his back, prompting a little confusion as Al thought Bernie wanted to get into the bed. We laughed about it over breakfast as we ate our five different types of cake. I could certainly be a pro cyclist if it meant having cake for breakfast.

After filling up with coffee and cake, we rode into town, hoping to find out some information about the next day’s race. While it may seem like a bit of a cultural stereotype, the Italians don’t seem all that fond of organisation. Registering for the race, in the first place, involved navigating through a website that made Ryanair’s look user-friendly. None of us were completely convinced we were in fact registered, or whether our medical certificates were any good. We expected there to be some clues in the town centre, though of course, we were completely wrong on this. While Bernie starting chatting up a man on a bike, who may or may not have actually had anything to do with the race, but who was definitely called Massimo, the rest of us retreated to a cafe for more coffee.

Eventually we figured out where we had to go to register: a farm on the outskirts of the town. No problem. We rolled out there with a minimum of fuss, and at the entrance to the farm we found large noticeboards with names of riders. Ours were on there! It was really happening!

We went inside and filled in some forms, the final part of the registration process. As I was handed an envelope with my race number, I was informed that if I exchanged a coupon at the desk at the end of the room, I would receive “a small present for registering”. Great, I thought. I clip-clopped (cycling shoes!) down to the end of the room and handed over my voucher. “Man or woman?” I was asked. After ascertaining that I wasn’t about to be handed a hunky italian man and that I was indeed a woman, I was handed a bag containing: a pair of “prosecco cycling” socks (brilliant!), a bag of pasta (always welcome) and a bottle of prosecco! What a win.

Outside there was some food laid on for all the registering cyclists. I assumed – as I am from Britain, and more specifically London, where every hope you ever have is dashed and you learn not to get your hopes up – that it’d be rubbish. But it was freshly cooked risotto, massive chunks of mozzarella on tasty homemade bread and gallons of prosecco. I got stuck in.

Quite surreally, there were helicopter rides going on, and a display of old bicycles, so there was plenty to do while drinking prosecco and “making friends” with lots of middle aged men from London. I took photos of bikes, ate lots and drank more quite contently for about an hour.

We reluctantly decided that we couldn’t stay at the farm all day, and there was talk of going up Monte Grappa. We had one fairly rubbish map between all of us, so it was always going to be a challenge. Al rode back to our farm to get the van, for reasons that are now a mystery to me, and we killed time waiting for him by pretending to do dressage around the farmyard. We arranged to meet in the piazza at Pederobba, just across the river, and Al set off in the van.

I consulted the map. Pederobba didn’t look far off. “Put that away!” said Bernie, “I’ve asked a man where Pederobba is, and he says that it’s straight down this road, across the bridge, and it’s right there!” We didn’t argue, though in retrospect, we should have asked who Bernie had asked. We followed the directions and ended up at a roundabout. After trying all the possible exits, it became clear that we were nowhere near Pederobba, a fact backed up by a man that we asked. In fact, Pederobba was nearly 10km north of where we were. So we headed on to the main road and headed north, passing a warehouse called “sexy shop” and taking a detour through an industrial estate.

On arriving in Pederobba, we found the piazza. It was full of motorbikes. No van, no Al. We rode about a bit aimlessly, feeling a little like the Marie Celeste. Stu eventually spotted the van, but Al wasn’t there. We assumed that he’d got bored waiting and had decided to ride up to Monte Grappa, so headed that way. On the way we passed a bike shop and Katy and I decided to have a look inside, partly because we wanted to see what it was like, and partly because we were both keen to buy some sunglasses, having packed pretty much the kitchen sink and yet no sunglasses. This was the final straw, and the group splintered.

So from 8 intrepid cyclists, 5 of us remained on our trek up to Monte Grappa. We rode through villages and laughed at the reckless driving from pretty much everyone on the road. We traipsed up and down some hills, and when we stopped to ask some local youths whether they knew this was the way to Monte Grappa, we got a bemused look, like they’d never heard of it. After one final close shave with some nocciola in a sports car, I decided that I’d had enough riding for the day, and that what I wanted was an ice cream. After all, despite quite a lot of evidence to the contrary, I was on holiday.

Katy decided to join me, and we rode back towards our farm. We stopped in the piazza of Bigolino, our nearest village, and asked a passing lady if she knew of anywhere we might be able to find icecream. She pointed out some directions and grinned at us. And when we turned the corner and saw the gelateria that awaited us, we saw why she was grinning. My. God. Icecream like no other. Two enormous scoops, sort of skull sized scoops, for 2 euro. Katy and I sat in the sunshine, eating icecream and having an incredibly civilised time.

About an hour of icecream eating later, we returned to the farm, where Elle was sitting in the sunshine. She told us that Al had come back to the farm in the van but had since gone out again, and that she hadn’t heard from anyone since. Katy and I joined her in the sunshine, and we waited for the others to return. And waited. And waited.

Eventually Al called me. He’d found the others and they were at a cafe in the centre of Pederobba. The reason they were there, rather than heading back, was because Bernie had dropped his phone on Monte Grappa and had ridden off back up the mountain to find it. Fair enough. A little while later Stu called and confirmed that they were indeed all there, and that Bernie had returned on his bike, without his phone, and so had taken the van up the mountain, leaving the others at the cafe. What Stu didn’t tell me, and what I found out later, is that in doing so Bernie reversed the van into a table at the cafe, got into an argument with a driver who was “giving it the hands” and later got stopped by the police.

While Bernie terrorised the Italian countryside with his weapon of choice, a Fiat Ducati, the others drank beer at the cafe, and we opened up some prosecco. Finally Bernie returned with his phone, and the others piled into the van and back home. The phone was smashed into pieces – it must have fallen out of his jersey pocket.

Katy and Elle got on with the important business of cooking, while Bernie prowled about trying to eat all the cheese destined for dinner. After sneaking a not insubstantial amount of cheese into his mouth, he headed outside to do some work on the bikes. Now, most people would ask before taking someone elses bike apart and pouring oil into the bottom bracket. But no. “Stu,” I said, “is that your bike?” Sure enough, Stu’s bike was in pieces, the clicking in the bottom bracket clearly too much for Bernie to bear. It’s amazing just how much oil fits into a bottom bracket.

The rest of the evening was relatively uneventful: we smashed a wine glass, ate loads of pasta, drank amaretto and headed to bed at a reasonable hour.
Read what happens next: Day 4

Prosecco tour – day 2

Read what happened before this: Day 1

Day 2 got off to a storming start as I turned off the alarm in my sleep and we nearly missed breakfast (which finished at 7.15!). Stu went on a hunt and found the pink sinks – a whole pink three piece suite! – promised to us on the booking website. By 8am, we were back on the road.

South of Stuttgart, the scenery is quite pretty. Lots of viaducts, woods and sunshine. However, this didn’t last, and the very south of Germany is grey and uninteresting, so I went to sleep for a bit.

The disappointment of southern Germany was soon forgotten when we crossed into Austria. My god, Austria is beautiful! Wooden chalets, grassy slopes, cowbells… all very stereotypical stuff (apart from the alpaca farm). We went up and up through a mountain pass, then stopped by a lake for coffee. This was one of the more interesting stops, as not only was there an amazing lake and awesome scenery, but the cafe had a stuffed marmot and we managed to crash the van again, reversing into a German campervan, which didn’t go down well with the owners.

Onwards we drove, past Innsbruck and its ski jump, following signs “to Italy”. Finally, through the Brenner Pass and into Italy itself, and we received a text from the others to say that they had landed in Italy. Pah, who’d do a 2 hour flight when they could drive 1000 miles?! Italian motorways had no discernable features to make them stand out from any other country we’d been through, except that the lorry drivers seemed less predictable than their German counterparts (generalisation much?!). We got to experience another ring road, and after stopping for pizza by a lake (despite Taj Mahal pizza being on the menu, the pizzas were actually very nice), we were so nearly there.

We passed through some comedy towns, such as Anus and Arsie, then got lost right outside Valdobbiadene. Finally we found the entrance to the farm and bumped our way up the drive. Margie, the owner showed us to where we’d be staying. WOW. Was it the pool, the vineyards stretching up the sides of Monte Cesan, the spacious bedrooms, the huge living area with fridge full of prosecco… whatever it was, we were extremely excited!

We unloaded the van, and I tried not to laugh too much when the hosts asked us if we had any special breakfast requirements, what with being pro cyclists and all that. The others were due to arrive at a nearby train station, and after we figured out exactly which station (this was not in any way clear), Al went off to fetch them, while Stu and I ran about like excited children.

The others were just as excited to see the farm and Bernie headed straight to the pool, where he almost lost his trunks jumping in. There was a lengthy discussion about who would have which room, and I managed to have my first injury of the trip, running over my foot with my suitcase.

While I patched up my foot, Al got directions to a restaurant from the owners of the farm, and we piled onto our bikes and followed Al’s directions. The sun was setting and we rolled through quiet roads along the outskirts of the town. There was a completely unnecessary hill at the end, prompting some fairly bad language from me, but at the top, a lovely restaurant, where we feasted on amazing italian food and washed it all down with plenty of prosecco. Bernie was feeling extra hungry and told the waitress that his invisible friend would also be needing some food. The invisible friend proceeded to flirt OUTRAGEOUSLY with the waitress. After some more prosecco, Bernie’s birthday present was handed over (a bicycle shaped pizza cutter), and while I think Bernie enjoyed his present, he also enjoyed putting it down his top and pretending to be a hunchback. A win all round.

We left the restaurant, slightly tipsy, and realised that between the 8 of us we had two rear lights and one front light. Unperturbed, we rode home in the darkness, drank some flash toilet cleaner (limoncello) and headed to bed.

Read what happened next: Day 3

Prosecco tour – day 1

To set the scene: several months ago, I was asked if I’d like to take part in a road race in Italy, in the prosecco region. A resounding YES was my answer. And so it was that in October I drove, with 2 others, 1,000 miles to Italy in a van. There, the other 5 met us, and we took part in the Prosecco Classico Gran Fondo.

Here’s how it all played out…

9am in Norbury, I arrived at Bernie’s house to discover him leaping about in the road. “Did you see the Merc, crashed in the road, down by the station?!” he asked. Sure enough, a Merc was wedged between the kerb and a bollard, surrounded by firemen scratching their heads. Ignoring this fantastic omen, we picked up our gleaming white van from the hire shop. No ipod jack, but the cab looked so spacious! This was going to be a breeze.

After filling ourselves with coffee and the van with bikes, bags and assorted tools and spares, we took some cheesy photos and hit the road – on schedule!

We headed down the motorway to Folkestone, arriving with plenty of time, allowing us to stop at a services and get Subway for lunch. Did you know that Subway have unlimited drinks refills? I wouldn’t recommend this for van journeys – too many wee stops. We managed to spend so much time at the services that we were 5 minutes late checking in for the Eurotunnel and missed our crossing… And then I got so overexcited at passport control that I accidentally threw all the passports at the very bemused guard.

Our arrival in France was heralded by the discovery that our road atlas was almost impossible to use for navigating as every town’s name was plastered over the entire town. We also went over the most aggressive rumble strips, which we decided were the French way of telling us we’re not welcome. Al, it turns out, isn’t all that fond of the French. We discovered this about three minutes into France, as he announced, “I like the Belgians, but I can’t stand the French. They can fuck right off!”

Luckily we were soon to leave Frogland and pass into Belgique. We liked the look of Belgium. Near Gent we took a bit of a wrong turning and ended up at an Aldi, where we marvelled at the cheap booze and then wandered about the car park. A fixie skidder rode past: “DO A SKID!!” He appeared initially to have obliged but it turns out he was sending a text.

Trouble hit at Brussels. Now, I’ve never been to Brussels itself. But from what I’ve seen of its frankly ridiculous ring road, I have no inclination to ever go back. It seems to have been designed by someone with no concept of traffic flow, as we crawled along at a snail’s pace, merging and unmerging and remerging repeatedly. In fact, I think it was designed by a team of people, all with no idea about traffic, but with some working in Flemish and others working in French. Because that’s the other thing about Belgium. Everything has two names. For example, Liege, commonly known as Liege, is known in the Flemish bit of Belgium as Luik. WHO KNEW? We certainly didn’t when we were looking for signs to Liege.

The other thing I didn’t realise about Belgium is that it’s a lot bigger than you think. We were going across the widest bit, and by the time we got to a service station (we lost count of the number of services) near the border it was getting dark. Unperturbed, we stopped for coffee and awesome Belgian waffles, having a quick chat with someone with the same van as us. Yeah, van buddies.

We’d noticed that there were no lights on Belgian motorways, and assumed that Germany would be different, being super efficient and all that. Sure enough, at the border, some lights! For about half a kilometre. Then dark, as we drove past factory after factory, windfarm after windfarm, joined by ever more lorries as it got later.

The novelty of being in the van was starting to wear off, and Stuttgart, our destination for the evening, didn’t seem to get any closer. We made several abortive attempts to go to a services near Frankfurt before finally stopping for dinner at a Burger King. German Burger King’s don’t have any veggie options. It was cold and we crashed the van for the first time, reversing into the barriers at the edge of the BK car park.

Finally, the signs to Stuttgart looked a little more sensible. 150km? Walk in the park. 60km? Stroll to the shops! We pulled off the motorway and found our lodgings, the slightly scary Gastehaus Wolf. As it was by now 1am the owner had left our keys in a very clever pin-entry device, and we crawled gratefully into our plastic-sheeted beds.

Read what happened next: Day 2