Magic 3.5 - Italy Ultralight
It’s been a while. Working a 9:00-5:30 job means there’s not always as much opportunity as I’d like to escape what feels like the hurly-burly of stress and computer screens that constitute much of working life. But when that chance comes, I’d like to think I try with the best of them to make that escape interesting, for my own amusement if not for anyone else’s. I’ve noticed that many of the writers whose works I’ve read recently (Alastair Humphreys, Tim Cole, Leon McCarron, and of course, Mark Beaumont) write with a central conceit to their journey, around which their narrative ebbs and gravitates towards, like water down a plughole. So for this journey, I have a conceit of my own: ultralight. To cycle between Bologna and Rome, from the coastal plains of the northeast, across the Apennines, to what once was the imperial heart of Europe, is only a journey of around 350 miles, and easily feasible in a week. But trying to do this with less than 3.5kg of luggage, with no tent and minimal gear, makes things a little more interesting. I won’t try in this post to focus on the history and culture of Italy (nor of San Marino or the Vatican, to get geographically pedantic): I want to talk about this experience purely from a cyclist’s perspective, hopefully without being too moralising or self-conceited about it. And as always, if the words aren’t interesting, hopefully some of the pictures will be.
Ready to ride: my customised/bastardised Montague Urban, with ① tri-bars welded to the handlebars; ② stuffsack with clothes under the handlebars; ③ Topeak Road Morph pump; ④ 1l water bottle; ⑤ Specialized crossbar bag for my camera; ⑥ Ortlieb 2.7l saddle bag with electronics, toolkit, maps, documents, medicine, and whatever food I could fit in there.
If you’re not that interested in bikes, feel free to skip this part, but I’m going to go ahead and quickly run down this particular beast of burden. I’ve been cycling across London for over a year on my Montague Urban, a folding bike with a) full-size wheels and b) a far lower price tag than a Brompton (at least £300). Since purchasing this mid-range commuting bike, however, I have replaced several key parts (saddle, wheels tyres, pedals) and had a set of cheap Chinese tri-bars welded onto the original handlebars, doing everything I could to turn this bike you could ride for hundreds of miles instead of just to the shops and back. Removing the heavy luggage rack restricted the carrying capacity of the bike, but also forced me to think of what I really needed to bring, casting aside anything that would be unnecessary to the journey ahead, which, after some deliberation, included a tent. Pinning my hopes on some sunny Italian weather, I opted for a sleeping bag liner and minimal three-quarter-length inflatable mattress, knowing full well that if I was unlucky I would be facing what could be a damp and sleepless night.
After several weeks of deliberation, planning, and – much to my girlfriend’s chagrin – obsessively weighing everything on my kit list in a relentless attempt to cut down on unnecessary weight, I finally managed to whittle down my kit to 3.5kg of luggage, excluding any food and water I could conceivably fit in my bottles or jersey pockets. All that remained was the mad dash from the office to the airport on a Friday afternoon, and within a few hours I was assembling my bike in the concourse of Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport.
Having arrived late at night in Bologna, my first priority was finding somewhere to sleep. Foolishly, I chose a flowerbed in a quiet square in the middle of the city, where I lay fitfully and paranoid for an hour before a security guard evicted me, having seen my clumsy attempts to hide myself and my bike on a CCTV camera right above me. After another hour and a half of searching I cycled right out of the city on a winding and uphill road, until I came to a church and slumped next to its walled steps for a couple of hours, before waking just as the sun rose and setting off along the Via Emilia, the Roman road running from Piacenza to Rimini on the Adriatic coast. Having planned only to cycle to the edge of the coastal plain, I was surprised to find the miles slipping away on my folding bike, and decided to keep going until it got dark. I turned inland, and the hills began. My speed dropped from an average of over 20 mph to crawling up the steep gradients at 2 or 3 mph at best. The tri-bars which had been so useful as I had sped, streamlined, along the flats now bobbed uselessly in and out of my vision as I sweated and slogged my way uphill. I paused for an hour or so in the small hilltop town of Verucchio, reflecting the annoying reality that all the most interesting historical towns in Italy seemed to be on top of a hill, but that they were on top of a hill precisely because of all the interesting history (infighting between various noble families until the mid-nineteenth century and the Risorgimento).
Views from Monte Titano, San Marino – a name well earned, in the opinion of my exhausted legs
After an all-too-brief few miles of downhill, the next long climb began, into the tiny landlocked San Marino. Five miles, an hour and a half, and 1,800ft of climb later, I unclipped my feet from my pedals at the top of Monte Titano, a volcanic ridge piercing the skyline of the surrounding countryside. Was I done for the day? The sun was setting, but I was in the middle of a capital city with nowhere to sleep, so I simply rode on until I was back in the countryside, and bedded down under winking stars at the edge of a field.
When I awoke I realised I was fortunate enough to have slept next to a public tap, in my thirsty cyclist’s mind one of the crowning glories of Italian public life. I drank deep, and would do so again over the coming days, as the hills rose and fell under the baking sun, and my road took me through the shady alleys of crumbling towns, punctuated with flashes of gleaming white stone, out across golden fields of wheat and barley, and along rivers trickling, elsewhere gushing, as they pursued their course and our paths diverged.
The heat, rising from lows of 23 or 24oC, would by mid-afternoon make the air thick and heady with humidity, but every hill climbed yielded rewards in new sights of crumbling old towns like Bagnoregio, a tiny commune built 2,500 years ago on a slowly eroding volcanic plateau, and which experienced a period of abandonment in the nineteenth century after an earthquake, giving it the nickname ‘The City that Died’. Knowing that these incredible historical monuments and feats of architecture were on my route helped spur me on towards the capital.
The City that Died: Bagnoregio, VT
The only problem with all this excitement, combined with a lack of booked accommodation (and hence fewer limits on how far I could cycle each day) was that I had actually cycled the 350 miles from Bologna to Rome in four days instead of six, averaging nearly 80 miles a day. By spreading out the cycling over a period of ten to fourteen hours, I had covered a greater distance than I had anticipated, and felt remarkably less tired than I expected when I awoke from a night’s sleep on the floor.
I had been greatly anticipating my arrival in Rome, but found it was not the city for me. The lavishness and ostentation of the city, and especially of the Vatican, the world’s smallest country, was both astounding and somewhat off-putting, and the swarms of people made the heat and noise of the city all the more intense. The owner of the only hostel I had booked in advance baulked when he saw my bike, informed me that I had underpaid for my room, and led me to another hostel down the road, where I paid far more money than my daily food budget for a three-night stay in a windowless, four-person dorm in a crowded apartment block. Of course, it sounds petulant to criticise one of the most historic cities on the continent for these things, but after the freedom of the previous days I now felt inert, my bike trapped on a small internal balcony for the duration of my stay, leaving me to traipse across the city on foot. The scale and size of the architectural achievements impressed me, but the intensity of the city left me wearied just in the walks themselves, and I longed to be back on the road, on my bike, my energy being sapped in a different way. It's said that if you throw a coin into the famous Trevi Fountain, you will return to Rome. In retrospect, I'm lucky I couldn't even see the water in the fountain, let alone get close enough to throw my hard-earned money into it.
Flying home to the cooler climes of Essex felt perhaps more relieving than it should have, but I was glad to have achieved what I had worried was not possible – doing long-distance travel on a relatively cheap, modified folding bike. The ideas of all the travel I could do on this machine began whirring in my head as I sat staring out of the window as the Tuscan countryside dropped away below me, but for now, I thought as I closed my eyes, I can rest.
Dona eis requiem: St. Peter’s Basilica (left) and Square (right)
Why I Ride (with apologies to Eric Blair)
There are many reasons I choose to travel by bike, some of them more prosaic – such as my desperate attempts to counteract my seemingly suicidal subconscious desire to eat myself into an early grave – and some a little more pretentious. But I’ll cover a few of the more interesting ones, as I think it’s always important – at the risk of excessive navel-gazing – to examine why I do what I do, and the belief system underpinning my thoughts and actions. So, in no particular order, some reasons for riding:
The fear (for the coward) - I am terrified, more than anything, of death. Since a very young age, I have been petrified into involuntary cries of fear by the thought that I, along with everyone I have ever known and loved, will die.
S.P.Q.R: Column of Marcus Aurelius, Rome
My story will not be carven in stone. My story is not a story: it is a series of happenings, a blip that will be deleted along with these words as the internet dies and this planet is consumed by our dying sun. I have a fear of being overcome by my diabetes, of becoming less and less independent as my body begins to fail me and I cannot live without others to help me manage my condition. Which is why cycling has saved my life. Without it, I would likely be on the path to developing type 3 diabetes, eating far too much, and without much worldly ambition. When I’m cycling, I know I am nothing, and will be nothing, and yet I can throw myself into the music I listen to as I ride, the sensation of rising and falling with the curves of the road. If, as Kafka says, “the meaning of life is that it ends”, then I think this may be as close as I come to finding my meaning, and that’s enough for me. At least I’m not sitting around at my desk, in the office or at home, eating my feelings – at the very least, sweating my way up a hill in the baking heat, I’m distracted form my impending fate, from worry, from stress, from fear, from the sides of myself that I hate and wish I could leave behind. Put simply, cycling to me is like forgetting you have a shadow.
The mode (for the vain) - I have always loved the excitement and wonderment of seeing a new place with my own eyes, of smelling this new air, hearing these new sounds, tasting new foods, and feeling a sense of oneness with situations and locations that are so ‘other’ to my normal everyday life. Whilst trains, planes, and automobiles are indeed convenient ways to get from a to b quickly, and with a minimum of interruption, I believe cycling offers the optimum balance between gaining new experiences and actually engaging with those things and people you are experiencing. Whilst arguably freer in terms of access, and richer in terms of experience, I find walking simply too slow and limiting, and moreover painful, owing to my disgustingly flat goblin feet. There is no earthly comparison to the freedom of riding a bicycle, and despite the injuries I’ve sustained cycling over the years – countless skinned knees and palms, a couple of bumps on the head, a chipped tooth, two fractured elbows and a varicocele (I’ll leave you to look that one up) – I don’t regret a single second I have spent on my bike.
The perks of being a wanderer: finding a covered spot and trying to remain hidden within eyesight of a road near Bagnaia, VT
The ‘wild camping’ element of touring is also incredibly exhilarating if you can do it right. Finding somewhere suitable to sleep and then making sure you don’t get caught by anyone else is an adventure in itself when trying to find somewhere to sleep. I found out the hard way that there is a wrong way to do this, as I found out near Perguia, when I bedded down for the night in what I thought was a secluded park with my phone in my hand, and waking to find that both it and my cycling sunglasses had been stolen. Irate though I was as I forked out for a spare phone in the nearby town, I had learned a valuable lesson, and in retrospect I wouldn’t have traded losing my phone for another night out in the open, swabbing down my sweatiest parts with a bottle of Pits ‘n’ Bits, and tucking into a simple meal of crisps, fruit, and a ball of mozzarella as the sun went down.
The movement (for the introspect) - The people I’ve met whilst cycling have been fantastic. Among the many cyclists I saw in Italy, I had the great fortune of meeting a fellow touring cyclist in the small medieval town of Calcata. I recognised Sonia as a cyclist by her tired but lively eyes, the pedal bruises on her shins, and her profusely sweaty face. She was from Argentina, and had just embarked on the second day of a two-month tour (her first) from Rome to London via most of western Europe. Weighed down by a heavy mountain bike and several perhaps rather unnecessary items – a bone-handled cutlery set in leather pouch among them – she was struggling in the heat as temperatures rose into the high 30s, but still talked with enthusiasm of her plans, a broad smile punctuating her face.
Sonia the Argentine, resting in the shade in Calcata Vecchia
Sonia was a reminder of struggle that cycling seems to combat – one of dynamism versus inertia. Cycling not only fulfils the desire for but also requires movement and forward motion, and engagement with the change that perpetually swirls around our bodies and our lives. In Rome, stuck in an inner-city ‘camping village’ as I waited out the day having arrived in the city two days earlier than I had anticipated, I had been placed in a communal tent with a Tunisian called Mashriq, who would come back to his bed late every night, lecturing me on the evils of women and everybody else as he downed litre after litre of beer and chain-smoked half a pack of cigarettes, before falling into a drunken stupor, muttering himself to sleep as he cursed the world and everything in it. I was struck by his lack of perception of his own agency, his unwillingness to change, his mental inertia. Mashriq, among the many immigrants and workers in temporary accommodation situations in the camping village, seemed to epitomise a sedentary hopelessness, while Sonia embodied drive, and a sense of pleasure derived from the struggle of movement that made the rewards of her journey all the sweeter. Mashriq seemed to expect the world to move around him, forcefully offering me pieces of his food and then demanding in a drunken anger that I wake up at gone midnight to help him search for his misplaced phone, then falling back into his inebriated malaise. Sonia and I, however, shared a recognition that we are the ones who must move, that as far as the destination may be, as hot the sun, as steep the hill, it is the attempt at action, at motion, which brings the sense of reward. Simply the act of the struggle, of trying to keep moving in life – not just physically but mentally – is such an important thing, and one that I think can be helped by cycling. Even if it’s not entirely accurately transcribed, I like to think that these words, attributed to Albert Einstein, work well together: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
Perhaps these thoughts are a little overwrought. For something a little more immediate, here’s a list of ‘pros and cons of ultralight touring’ that I concocted as I sat in the shade of a cypress in Faleria, a small rural town about 30 miles from Rome:
- Never quite sure of what that smell is...
- No security of having booked accommodation
- At the mercy of the elements
- Risk of theft
- Feeling forced to follow the plan
- Doesn’t matter what the smell is: no-one’s around to be bothered by it anyway
- Cycle all day, stop whenever and wherever the hell you want
- Nice tan*
- Learn what you really need
- Learn when it’s ok to say FUCK THE PLAN
*Good weather not included
The rewards of plan fuckery: Urbino (left) and Gubbio (right) were towns I got to see a lot more of because I finally managed to be a little less precious about my rigid ideas of how the journey should go.
Though I'm as yet undecided on the idea of sponsorship, I do think that free endorsement of genuinely good and innovative products can be really helpful when researching what to take on a trip, be it a short tour or simply an afternoon’s ramble. I don’t want to give full gear reviews of everything I took with me, but below are three things I found utterly invaluable on my trip, and which I would heartily recommend to anyone looking to throw away small amounts of money on knick-knacks and faddery.
Swiss Tech Utilikey – A smaller and less eyebrow-raising alternative to a penknife, about the size of a large house key, which I wore on a chain for an entire week without even noticing it. Fewer functions than, say, a Swiss Army Knife (notably lacking a can opener), but with a small blade, saw, cross-head and blade screwdrivers, and a bottle opener, it’s still great for roadside fixes and even dissecting large cardboard bike boxes.
Mapswithme Pro – The best app you’ll ever download. It’s got full offline maps of anywhere you could conceivably want to go, with bookmarking and route-finding capabilities both on and off-road, showing features that Google Maps normally won’t, like barriers, toilets, and public drinking water. Just make sure your phone doesn’t get stolen…
Toilet paper – ‘Nuff said.
Without trying to be too academic about it, I think it’s always good to have a wrap-up, a release back into the real world, an outroduction, if you will. I hope this has been a quasi-interesting look at life on the road in an ultralight fashion. For philanthropic reasons, I would recommend this way of living wholeheartedly, but for very selfish reasons, I won’t. It is because not many people choose to travel this way that it works: it is why the fields are free to sleep in, the empty roads so gratifying, and the people are by turns suspicious and hostile, and by others surprised and generous. I don’t think that this form of travel is a pattern that will fit everyone, but if you want to, then do it, with everything you’ve got. Ride.
Something something something pattern. The Pantheon, Rome
Anyway, enough. You must have many better things to do than sit around reading this, and I realise that I’m writing this as much to myself as to anyone else. There are more adventures ahead, and many, many more miles to travel. However you travel them, I hope you find them interesting and enriching, and if not, I just hope that you find them.
For now, your friend,
"Five more minutes... just five more minutes...": Verucchio, RN