One of the things that initially drew me to Italy was my love of bicycle racing. The area where I grew up in Oregon is actually a pretty good place for bicycles, with lots of nice roads and hills, but the Veneto here in Italy is the heartland of cycling; or one of them, at least. Even many of the little local roads near Padova have seen major races like the Giro d’Italia or the Giro del Veneto. Campagnolo are one of the leading bicycle component manufacturers. Bike saddles are made just north of here in Bassano, and some of the best shoes in the world are produced nearby as well. And of course there are many companies that manufacture clothes and bicycles throughout the entire region. The varied terrain and mild climate is great for riding too.
I was in pretty good shape that first year I was here, back in 1995/1996, and thanks to a tip from Mirco at the local bike shop, found out when the professional cyclists and others rolled out of town for their daily training rides. I started tagging along.
For a young cycling fan such as myself who had grown up in sleepy Eugene, Oregon, actually going on a ride with these guys was just about the coolest thing ever. And naturally, given how fast they were, by ‘ride’, I mean hang on to their slipstream for dear life on the occasions they’d crank things up and start riding fast. Most of the time though, the idea was just to get in a good ride, and stay out of their way: they were out training for their jobs, whereas for me it was just a hobby. So I stuck to the back of the group and was as unobtrusive as possible. What a great feeling to actually get to hang out with those at the pinnacle of the sport, though – I was more than a little awestruck, and could hardly believe my good fortune.
Gradually, after a number of rides, some of them started to recognize the skinny American kid and say hi and chat a bit. Most of them were really friendly and nice guys, and were kind of curious about what I was doing in Italy, and curious about the US. A few had been there for races, but it’s always interesting to talk directly with someone from far away.
The moment that will always be etched in my memory though, as one of the “movie scenes” from my life, was one hot summer day, when we were riding back towards Padova, stretched out in a big line. One of the riders at the front of the group popped open a can of coke and took a drink. He passed it back to the next guy, he takes a sip, and passes it along, and so on. And then the last one turns and hands it to me, and I had a swig too, and handed it back up the line.
I never amounted to much as a bike racer – and maybe it sounds corny, but that moment left me feeling about as good as the few times I managed to win a race.