Bella Italia by Wilbert Bonné

The Giro d’Italia started Saturday May 10th with a time trial of 28,5 kilometres in and around Palermo. One day later another group of cyclists left Palermo for their own Giro, called “La Bella Italia”. Cyclists from France, Denmark, Switzerland, Australia, Qatar, Brazil, United Kingdom and the Netherlands found their way to the Sicilian capital, male and female. None of them were professionals or well-trained amateurs. It was not a peloton of 200 cyclists riding at speeds above 40 or 50. The males and females were relaxed, determined cyclists, who love to cycle and were looking for a new challenge. And it was definitely a challenge:3.000 kilometres with the volcanoes of the Etna and Vesuvius in the first part of the tour, the Apennine Mountains in the middle, the Dolomites in the far north and the Passo dello Stelvio one day before the finish in Como. In between were continual rolling hills and stunning coastal roads.


It was not only a physical challenge, it was also a bicycle tour were the cyclists got a full taste of the Italian countryside and cities. When you think about Italy, you think about the gondolas in Venice, the eternal city of Rome, the art in Florence, the beautiful landscapes of “La Dolce Vita” in Tuscany, and the world famous ruins of Pompeii. It was all part of “La Bella Italia.” They only forgot the leaning tower of Pisa. For the rest all highlights of Italy had been included in the tour and the chosen route showed the beauty of the country in all her facets. So, a real “Bella Italia”.


To complete such a demanding tour, with daily averages of 100 kilometres, you need to eat… A LOT!! The cyclists’ engines must keep on running. In a country like Italy that’s not a problem. Everywhere fresh vegetables, exotic fruits and all kinds of herbs grow next to the road. The cooks, Jaap and Kirsten, prepared delicious meals with local fresh ingredients. Every day the riders were looking forward to the lunch spot half-way, or to arrive in camp where the soup was waiting. Jaap’s dinner was always a feast, nutritious and very tasteful. The stomachs were filled and bottles of local wine passed round to relax the muscles and to fall asleep smoothly. Normally that wasn’t a problem after a best day in the saddle, nor even when the rain drops were falling on the tents. That was the only little drawback. The tour was characterized by quite some rain showers, more than usual. One of the camp owners told us that it hadn’t been such a bad weather in Italy in 40 years. None of the cyclists started to complain, and the spirit kept very positive all the way. Putting on wet cycling shoes every morning wasn’t a real problem. You feel it only the first few seconds.
All participants arrived after a wonderful journey at a sunny Madonna del Ghisallo, the pilgrim site for cyclists in the middle of Lake Como. It was impressive to see how all participants overcame in the last week the stunning Dolomites and the 48 hairpins of the majestic Passo dello Stelvio. Even non-experienced cyclists made it to the top of the second highest pass in Europe. How? Determination, inspiring surroundings and close friendships, which started 33 days before. Everyone enjoyed the tour through Italy very much and arrived happy, healthy and with a lot of sweet memories. Next year another
“La Bella Italia,” hopefully, without wet cycling shoes!



Some Details of our Fabulous Ride:


The first day…
In the early Sunday morning of May 11th we were standing in front of the swimming pool at the beautiful situated Florio Park Hotel. Pictures were taken before the group could start their journey. Theresa was still dressed in the same clothes she arrived in, meaning that the luggage didn’t arrive on time. We could not stay any longer to wait for a pack that would come the same day, the next day or maybe one week later. We hit the road, and Jaap and Kirsten went back with Theresa to the airport to try to get any news of her belongings. Fortunately, Theresa’s luggage arrived very soon, and she could start cycling from the lunch spot. Finally, everyone and everything was there to make it a wonderful bicycle tour.


We stayed the first kilometres together and formed a homogeneous group with all the same magenta “La Bella Italia” jerseys. We were overtaken by well-trained Italian cyclists, who were doing their regular Sunday morning loop. They were totally surprised when I told them that we just started a ride with final destination Como in the North of Italy, 3000 kilometre away.


When the road started to roll – which didn’t stop for the rest of the day – it was clear that not everyone had the same level of fitness. The mixed company spread out over the rolling Sicilian country roads, which were filled with millions of flowers in all colours of the rainbow. The cycling conditions were pleasant and the training kilometres back home in rain and wind were forgotten soon. At that time we didn’t know what we would get later in the day.


About half-way the stage, and almost at the highest point of the day at 750 meters above sea level, we passed the town of Corleone. The name of the town is world-famous due to Mario Puzo’s book and Francis Ford Coppola’s film, “The Godfather.” Mafia-clans had ( or have ) their headquarters in this laidback place in the middle of the peaceful Sicilian hills. At first sight it looks like a normal Italian town, but you don’t know what happens behind the closed shutters or hidden cellars. You don’t expect that the little town is the birthplace of a world-wide network of extortion and criminals.


I cycled with Liani, Bill, Kim and Theresa from the lunch stop. The route was still attractive with picturesque villages and beautiful views, but the weather conditions were changing. Dark clouds packed above us and soon we got the first rain drops. When we passed the town of Ribera it was pouring and an inch of water was floating through the streets. The complete bike rims disappeared in the water ,and the temperature dropped dramatically in the downhill to the coast line. Liani from Brazil was shivering on her bike and hadn’t expected that chill on a tour in the south of Europe.



“Not so bella”
We had an early start planned for day number three: start cycling 7.30 AM. The distance was 149 kilometres, a serious climb in the first part of the day, and a destination on the slopes of Mount Etna in Nicolosi at about 800 meters above sea level. Also the navigating could be a problem due to the number of junctions and the confusing villages closer to the Etna. It was planned to be a difficult stage, but also a beautiful stage on a day with clear skies. We were cycling in the direction of the Etna and the summit of 3340 meters was still covered in snow.

I started as one of the last people and just before the town of Gela I had overtaken several cyclists who had an earlier start. We formed a line of 10 cyclists through the busy town of Gela with a lot of market stalls full of fresh fruit. After we turned inland, the road started to climb slightly and a few couldn’t catch up. The rest of the day I cycled in a group with Trudie from The Netherlands, Christian and Jean Marc from France, Jørgen from Denmark and Beat from Switzerland. The morning was sunny, but during the day the sky became more and more cloudy. The lunch spot was next to the road in a field of poppies. Marco got help from Madeleine and Hélène and they had prepared the basic, but delicious, Italian tricolore : cherry tomatoes ( red ), mozzarella ( white ) and basil ( green ). Bread and fruit filled the stomachs for the second part of the day.


We took rain jackets and extra clothes out of the van because the sky turned darker and darker. The promised beautiful views of the Etna were an illusion this day. The closer we came to the Etna, the worse the weather turned. We passed thousands of orange trees but couldn’t get a glimpse of the Etna. The only way we could mention that we were close to the Etna was the fact the road went up and up. The higher we came, the worse the conditions became. It started to rain and we were cycling between old lava fields and dense misty clouds. We couldn’t look further than 25 meters, and it was hard to navigate. The road went up and up. We definitely didn’t want to miss the correct road and make extra kilometres. It was 13 degrees centigrade, raining, misty and the day was already tough enough. Finally, we reached Nicolosi and a hundred meters before the campsite. I almost took the wrong road due to the thick mist.


We were surprised that we came in first and that Erik hadn’t arrived yet. He left the lunch stop half an hour earlier and he is normally the faster cyclist. He showed up more than an hour after us, completely upset and exhausted. He had missed a junction, continued a bit stubborn, arrived in the big and hectic town of Catania, and had finally had a total of 189 kilometres on his odometer before he arrived. We could all shelter in the building of the campsite. We overtook the whole site, including kitchen and the old friendly owner agreed on everything we asked for. In the meantime the weather was getting worse and worse. Darkness was falling soon. The rain was coming down in bucketfuls when Philip from England arrived one hour after Erik. He was completely soaked, but could still laugh after he had cycled almost the whole afternoon alone in these heroic conditions. Bill was wise and took the support van to the campsite Theresa and Kim were still on the road. We tried to reach them by mobile phones, but messages didn’t get through… ( they were received one day later ). Marco tried to pick them up somewhere along the road, but returned in darkness just before nine o’clock without completing his mission successfully. He tried to explain his story to the rest of the people and two minutes later the door opened once again; it was Theresa and Kim after more than 13 hours on the road. The Australians were brought by a friendly Italian man in a car after they couldn’t reach us. They drew up a chair at the dinner table where the paella Jaap and Kirsten had made tasted wonderful. Everyone had another story of the day and with a glass of wine the rain, mist and cold was forgotten soon. The atmosphere in “La Bella Italia” was getting better and better, despite the not so “bella” weather conditions.


Rumbling Etna
The weather forecast was not really optimistic. Especially not for a rest day in Nicolosi at the slopes of the Etna. The forecast was rain and 19 degrees at sea level, which meant 14 degrees at an altitude of 800 meters. I decided to skip the rest day in Nicolosi and continue cycling one more day. It’s a stage of 65 kilometres which brings us down to sea level where the weather is at least warmer, and hopefully also drier.


We planned a later start in the morning after the exhausting day the day before. We cycled the first 15 kilometres “en groupe” and I navigated the group though a range of towns which are full of one way roads and unclear directions. When we left the urban area behind we cycled through lava fields and heard the rumbling Etna. The weather was not as bad as expected, but we still needed a rain jacket for a few kilometres. It was just a little shower because the sky was clearing when we slowly dropped down the Etna. We could even catch a glimpse of the snow covered top. Further down we cycled on the road along the sea and enjoyed the superb views of rocks in a turquoise sea. We passed typical Italian villages with nice boulevards before we made camp a few kilometres north of Taormina, a town which is really worth visiting during a rest day. The decision to move on and to skip the rest day for one day, turned out to be good. The weather is perfect and the campsite is okay. With an aperitif organized by Madeleine and Hélène and great food by Jaap and Kirsten, it turned out to be wonderful day. Beautiful cycling, good food and pleasant company. All ingredients for “La Bella Italia”.



Tuscan landscapes
Everyone had enjoyed the two rest days in Rome. For some it was the first time, some came back after decades or years and others had been in Rome several times. The eternal always intrigues and almost every street corner is worth to stop. The drawback is that the number of tourists seems to increase every time you come back. But what are we ? Exactly : also tourists ( but on bicycles ). Everyone returned to camp with different stories, but we were all a bit jealous of Bill : he saw the Pope standing in his Popemobil within a distance of 2 meters!! Bill visited Rome ten years ago in his student time; and indeed, he saw the Pope at that time as well. 100 per cent score!!!


After two days of wandering around in Rome – many times more weary than 100 kilometres cycling, especially with temperatures of 30+ degrees centegrade – it was time to hit the road again. The campsite was 4 kilometres from the city centre and located in the north. We cycled a few kilometres “en groupe” and left Rome soon behind us. All roads lead out of Rome… The route was rolling once more and past a few lakes. The heat of Rome was gone, thick clouds were filling the sky and the temperature dropped more than 10 degrees. It stayed dry for the most of us till lunch, but afterwards… Yes… Indeed, the rain came down in buckets. We found our way over slippery downhills and through the busy town of Viterbo to the campsite at the beautiful Lake Bolsena. Beautiful when it’s dry and sunny. Now it was raining. And when the rain stopped, the wind came. The wind gained force above the lake, like a mistral, and we needed all manpower to secure the tents and other belongings. The rain and the wind were gone before the seven o’clock dinner. Lake Bolsena showed us her pretty side afterwards when we were enjoying the view with a glass of wine.


The weather was similar the next day : heavy rain in the morning and dry in the late afternoon. The stage was short with a distance of 75 kilometres, so that everyone arrived in Castel del Piano with wet cycling clothes. We noticed along the road that we entered another part of Italy : Tuscany. The Tuscan roads are not filled with ugly billboards, all kind of coloured houses, trash and other stuff that disturb the landscape. Tuscany is world famous for its beautiful scenery with rolling hills, cypresses and grain fields. The local authorities do everything to keep the landscape intact and do not allow ugly commercial billboards. The landscape is not extremely spectacular, but the Tuscan countryside is just the superlative of simple Beauty ( with capital “B” ). Everything is in harmony : the colours, the fields, the farms, the trees, the bushes, everything. And as an extra : well paved roads over rolling hills. An eldorado for cyclists; but unfortunately also for fast motorists.


We could enjoy the full charm of Tuscany one day later when we cycled 108 kilometres from Castel del Piano to Sovicille. The sun was shining and everyone was in a good mood. I cycled together with Liani, Jorgen and Theresa as last and let sink in the beauty of the surroundings. The campsite was located 12 kilometres12 kilometres west of Siena; the little brother of Florence. It’s probably one of the nicest cities in Italy and it wouldn’t be a shame not to visit. When everyone had had a shower, pitched the tent and got Kirsten’s soup, we drove with the two vans and Defender to Siena. Everyone strolled around in the old town of Siena with its little streets, magnificent cathedral and the pretty Piazza del Campo. We had all a pizza together before we drove back to the campsite. Most people were “late” in bed; it was just after ten o’clock.
One “short” day of cycling till the rest day in Florence. It was only 80 kilometres over gentle hills filled with hundreds of vineyards. The world famous Chianti wines are produced in this area between Siena and Florence. It was Sunday and the roads were also packed with motorists and many other cyclists. I can’t blame them, because the views were once more fabulous.


The campsite in Florence is close to the city centre ( I am typing this story when I overlook the dome of Florence ) and not for everyone easy to find. Marco drove around in the van for an hour, because there were two streets with the same name. Yes, that’s a problem when you name a street after Michelangelo. Probably you can end up in tens of places in Florence when you type into your groups “Michelangelo”. The city is full of Michelangelo and other artisans with century’s old statues, paintings, sculptures and other kind of art. The city deserves a rest day. It’s not the art, it’s more to wash the wet cycling clothes.



The first few seconds
Sunday June 8th was said to be the most difficult stage of the tour.120 kilometres to Cortina d’Ampezzo and three serious passes with in total 3.250 altitude meters. We planned an early start at 7.30 in the morning because it would be a long day for the most of us. 7.30 AM was actually too early; the barriers of the campsite were still closed ( we thought ). We organized a way out with a few ladders . When almost everyone had climbed the improvised exit, the owner of the campsite just arrived. She shoved the barrier with a bit more strength open. Yes, thank you; we already risked our limbs with bicycle shoes on the slippery ladders. The first climb was already done before the stage even started.
The real first climb was the Passo Rest. Countless short hairpins leaded us through a forest from 400 meters to an altitude of 1150 meters. On the whole climb no car passed me or met me. Only the hum of rolling bicycle tyres on good tarmac and little waterfalls on the side of the road. After a tricky downhill the second climb started; the Sella di Razzo, altitude 1760 meters began. Once more quiet roads, wonderful scenery, poorly-lighted tunnels, a beautiful reservoir, and as a “nice” surprise : the last kilometre an ascent of 18 per cent !! And I already was using my smallest gear since the last 10 kilometres. It was struggling and fighting to the top. Luckily Marco, Madeleine and Kirsten were waiting with the lunch. Great views despite the dark clouds and a few drops of rain.


I dropped 25 kilometres down to Auronzo together with Christian where the last climb started : Passo Tre Croci, 20 kilometres uphill. The sun was shining and the views superb. The legs didn’t spin around easily anymore, but with a bit of determination I reached the top at 1805 meters. Erik, Phillip, Christian and Jorgen managed also to cycle the full distance. The others took the van for a bit, but they were also full of persistence. Chapeau!!!


As a welcome in Cortina d’Ampezzo we got once more a “little” shower. Let me say it like this : We have seen more rain the last couple of weeks. The camp owner told me that it hasn’t been since 40 years such a bad weather in Italy. The country is used to rain, but not almost every day in May and June. It’s hard to call a better tour than “La Bella Italia”. No one in the group really complains and the spirit is very positive. Putting on wet cycling shoes every morning isn’t a real problem. Only the first few seconds!!!



Passo dello Stelvio
We have seen already quite a lot of Italy in the last 31 days. We got a full menu which existed of many courses: Sicily, Amalfi, Pompei, Roma, Tuscany, Florence,Venice, the Dolomites and a lot of unknown side dishes. The dessert of “La Bella Italia” is called the “Passo dello Stelvio”. 48 hairpins lead through the top at 2758 meter. Incredible! Unbelievable! The road zigzagged almost vertically through dark pine forest, between fresh green grassland and along giant rocks and snowfields. Who built this road? And why? And how? For whon? For some shepherds hundred of years ago? For Fausti Coppi in the fifties ? For Marco Pantani a decade ago? For Bike-Dreams? Yes, for Bike-Dreams.


The scenery is hard to describe or to catch in a picture. Probably you’ll need a panorama camera in horizontal and vertical direction. And even than you don’t get it. It’s better to come here, especially by bicycle. Brilliant. 25 kilometres of climbing from the peaceful Adige valley to the snow at the top, 2000 meters higher.


In the early morning everyone started out of Latsch in the valley and didn’t know what to expect. Yes, another mountain. It was struggling and fighting a way to the top of the Passo dello Stelvio. Erik made it in just over two hours; others needed longer, a lot, a lot longer. But, most important : everyone ( including Liani from Brasil ). Very impressive!!! Congratulations. What a dessert !! Painful, but sweet and ice cold.
A bike trip of a lifetime! Bella Italia!