It was my second puncture halfway through the day and I had used up my spare tube. This came shortly after managing to find water at a creepy abandoned train station with rusty trams and cars scattered halphazardly around a derelict building with a caretaker who could not figure out how I got there. “You should get out of here, it’s dangerous”, he advised, while filling up my bottles from his own water supply.
After walking a couple of miles under the scorching sun, I stuck out my hand and eventually a battered, white transport van pulled up a few meters ahead. An old local from a nearby town and two Moroccans got out and invited me to squeeze my grubby self between the three of them in the front of the van. Bumping sweaty elbows and shoulders, the four of us then hurdled 30 km back in the direction I had just come. When we reached the town, they stopped in front of a car garage, closed for the customary Mediterranean midday two-hour siesta.
“Do you know anywhere I can get something to eat while I wait?” I asked the old man after he had dismissed the two workers for lunch. I had not yet eaten that day and was famished.
“Nothing for miles”, was his answer, followed by an offer to drive me somewhere. I agreed as long as he joined me, so I left my bike, the Beast, at his nearby office and we jumped into a dusty, dented Panda parked outside.
“I never pick anyone up.” He told me, his foot on the accelarator the whole way down the road. “You’re the first.”
“We cyclists have a name for people like you.” I said. “You’re called Road Angels.”
He was quiet for a moment. “That’s funny. Most people in the area call me a devil.”
He shrugged. “Probably because of the job I do.” Which translated into the equivalent of a tax collector.
“Well, one person’s devil is another’s angel,” I said.
His phone rang. It was the wife of the Moroccan who had been driving the van. Apparently word had already spread through the entire village that the crabby old tax collector had picked up a cyclist and taken her for lunch. “We just saw her walking in the sun and decided to help her.” He was explaining into the phone. “Because I’m a road angel, you understand?”
The taverna we pulled up to was one of those fabulous little local joints in the middle of Italy where you eat like a king and pay like a pauper. As we ate, he a pasta and me some chicken with wild vegetables, the sky grew dark and heavy with clouds. He dropped me back to the garage, where the mechanics had no clue what I meant when I tried explaining I was after a patch for my tube. The Moroccan driver opportunely turned up just then to once again save the day. “I have found a shop that sells bike tubes and tires. I can take you there if you want.” I jumped into his car at the same moment a deluge of rain, lightning and thunderclaps exploded overhead.
Two new tubes and a tire later, the bulk of the storm had rolled over. I thanked the mechanics and my Moroccan angel, pulled on my rain jacket, wrapped a plastic bag around my saddlebag and headed out into the wet and wind. They watched me pedal away chuckling and shaking their heads in disbelief. I was most certainly the town’s dinner conversation that evening.
The last 60 km of the day was under rain and a second lightning storm which I tried and failed to outride. The bolts were striking rather close, but I was in the middle of open country, with nowhere to stop for shelter. There was nothing to do but pedal hard. The rain washed all the debree onto the side of the road, and the Beast’s back tire blew for the third and final time about 6 km from the next city. I wanted to cry but I laughed instead. What else could possibly go wrong? It was only the second day on a 1,100 kilometer journey from my home in Positano on the west Italian coast, down to Battipaglia and over the Alpine mountain range in the Avellino region to the east coast. From there I would continue north, ending up in the Dolomites where I had volunteered to help man the checkpoint in Alleghe for the Transcontinental Race from Belgium to Turkey.
A week in the mountains would be just what the doctor ordered.
Recent news reports were a never ending stream of terrorist attacks, shootings, stabbings and random acts of violence. I was starting to feel the world had become a hard, hateful planet, that civilization and human goodness seemed to be taking two steps backward for every step forward. I set out on my bike journey in a dark mood. I would ride to escape from humanity, I had decided, but so far, my recent difficulties on the road were forcing me to interact with people at every turn.
The next day’s ride continued to be eventful. Cycling up the east coast into a headwind the entire day was the smallest part of my troubles. The troublesome back wheel deflated again just an hour after setting off. I had taken it to a bike mechanic the previous night after the third puncture, and asked him to change the rim lining in case that was part of the problem. He ended up making it part of the problem by doing such a bad job that the tube was rubbing the tape, causing it to deflate. As changing the tube would not help and use up my spare for nothing, I rode 185 km on the same knicked tube, stopping every 10 km to re-inflate the tire. By the time I reached a good bike shop in Pescara, I was inflating every 2km. That day seemed to drag on forever.
The mechanics in the Bevilacqua Sport shop grilled me about my journey, where I was going, where I had started.
“Alone?” “Aren’t you afraid?”
“Nah, this is what I do for fun.”
The owner laughed. “You’re going to Passo Giau in the Dolomites?” He asked. “I love it there. I rode it twice in the Giro d’Italia.” It turned out he was a former 6-time Giro d’Italia racer in his glory days. He knew what I needed and sorted the Beast out with new rims, tubes and tires for a minimal cost. “Have a fun ride.” He waved as I rode away, eager to get in a few more miles on my new tires before dinner.
The morning of the fourth day, I passed another cyclist riding along the coast. At first he tried passing me, by speeding through a red light when I stopped. I caught up to him a couple minutes later, and asked where he was headed.
“Oh just riding around.” He said. He was in the area with his family on holiday, the in-laws included.
“Ahah, you’ve taken off on a bit of an escape then.” I joked and he confessed that is exactly what he was doing. He joined me for around 20 kilometers, grilling me with the usual questions. Where was I going? Dolomites.
Where had I started? Napoli.
“Uhuh.” This was getting old.
“But…aren’t you afraid?” I fought the urge to roll my eyes and answered with the question I give anyone who ask me this.
“Afraid of what?” This momentarily stumped him, as it does almost everyone I ask. It is a subconscious conclusion that is deeply rooted in our social psyche: Woman+bike+alone=dangerous . And naturally when anything involves danger, we are supposed to be afraid.
I told him that fearing what is not there is illogical. “If I lived afraid of everything, I would never really live.”
“You’re right.” He agreed. He had to turn around to get back to the family for lunch, and offered me a cold drink at a bar we pulled up to, before parting company.
“Good luck and safe travels.” He said pedaling back in the opposite direction. They were hot travels as it turned out, nearly 40 degrees celesius. I thought of all the riders racing the Transcontinental across Europe as we made our way from different directions to the same checkpoint, and hoped they were not suffering under the same heat. As I stopped to eat something that evening near Padua, I heard a commotion outside the bar. Three Africans and an unshaven straggly Italian were in some kind of struggle around my bicycle. It appeared the Africans had just stopped the bum from trying to steal my poor Beast. “What are you doing with that bike? That bike is not yours.” They were telling him. When the thief saw me coming over, he let go of the handlebars and ran.
“Thank you my friends.” I told the Beast’s rescuers. They just shook their heads and laughed and I wondered if they were thinking the same thing I was, “And Italians call the immigrants thieves?” Once again I felt grateful for the kindness of strangers. Throughout the entire ride, I had found only goodness and generosity everywhere, people who went out of their way to help whenever I needed assistance, eager to offer me a drink, a smile and a wave. I hoped I would be able to pass on a little of the same kindness to the Transcontinental racers as they passed through the checkpoint, hungry, exhausted and sleep-deprived. The words of a poem I had recently read, poignant and resonant, kept running through my head as I rode the last miles to Alleghe.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters
and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.