I had visions. Beautiful visions of cycling through the Tuscan countryside, hair flying in the breeze, sun shining on my shoulders, a fresh picnic lunch tucked into my basket.
It’s such a nice vision, isn’t it? I had thought about it for so long I thought it actually might come true. But alas….cycling with the Brown family cannot be that easy.
It all started with a bang. “Up, let’s get up! It’s time to ride bikes!” I urged to my family. The weather was overcast and a little windy, but otherwise perfect for biking. Clearly, I wasn’t going to get my sunshine-y day with a picnic, but who cares? I’m in Tuscany in November for heaven’s sake!
Our villa we are renting comes with 4 bikes. What a coup! And yes, I said villa. At least I like to refer to it as my personal Tuscan villa. It is a large 3-bedroom, 4-bathroom home in Pugnano, smack dab in the middle between Pisa and Lucca. A 15-minute drive will land you in either town. But believe me when I say there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Pugnano. Which is why you must bike to get anywhere.
Arianna, who owns our villa, lives next door in her own villa with her family. Her parents live behind her. Her dad, who speaks no English, had fixed up the bikes for us and told us all about it. We understood nothing.
Not to worry. The bikes were fixed, and off we go. My bike had the baby carrying seat on the back. Everytime my pedal went around on the right side, it bumped into the baby seat. I adjusted my foot forward on the pedal to steer clear of this with every crank. Now we’re really ready.
I stuffed 2 apples, chocolate cookies and a big bottle of water in a small pack, and loaded up my front basket. How efficient a basket on a bike is!
Now in Italy, no one wears helmets, so neither did we. Only the super racing cyclists that speed by you at 90 mph every 5 minutes wear them, and believe me we do not fall into that camp. And FYI, Italy is loaded with cyclists — out here in the country they love to ride.
So here is my little tribe out on the narrow backroads of Tuscany, sticking as close to the white line on the right side of the road as possible without having their handlebars scrape against the building at the same time. There’s just not much space. It doesn’t help that Zack’s handlebars are vibrating and bugging his hands, so he has pulled his sweatshirt sleeves down and over his hands and is gripping the handlebards between a thick layer of bunched up sweatshirt.
But the Italians, they really know how to work around a cyclist. They seem to have unwavering confidence in the cyclist’s ability to keep their bike upright and not veer into the car’s path. And the cyclists seem to have unwavering confidence that the car will pass within 2 inches of their bike and yet not run them over.
Of course, coming from the shores of Lake Washington, this is a newfound realization for me. In Seattle, cars give cyclists about 6 feet of space and even then they are afraid to pass a cyclist.
We ride about 2 km on the town road before turning onto a dirt path that glides along the river. Perfect biking on a tree-lined path bursting with the colors of autumn. Finally, my long-awaited Tuscan bike ride!
“How long are we going to bike for?” Gracie asks. We’ve been going for all of 15 minutes. “For a while,” responds Curtis.
Fifteen minutes later Curtis realizes his back tire is getting flatter and flatter and flatter. We decide to keep riding anyway, just a little further. Another 15 minutes and we realize we need to turn around if Curtis is going to make it back home at all. It starts to rain, lightly.
I watch Zack turn around and bike towards me. He seems a little wobbly. I look down at his bike, and his handlebars are loose. I offer to switch bikes with him which he readily accepts. He races off down the trail with the baby seat.
I hop on his bike and start off. I quickly realize just how loose the handle bars are. They are swimming from side to side. By “swimming” I mean, if you took your handle bars and shoved them all to one side so that 80% of your handle bars are on the other side of your bike, and then you shoved them back to the other side again.
I looked like a total drunk trying to ride that bike.
Gracie, ahead of me, is having troubles with her bike too. It wants to veer right, which is a little dangerous since the river is on the right. If she doesn’t continually overcorrect, she’s going in. This doesn’t stop her from strapping her camera onto her right wrist, banging it against the handle bars as she rides along.
She decides that taking pictures while she is riding is a good idea. She puts the camera at eye level, veers right, overcorrects, loses her balance and falls down in the grass.
I don’t see this because I’m way behind Gracie. I’ve stopped to try and re-tighten the loose handlebar bolt. That’s when my chain falls off. I kneel in the damp dirt, grasping at the very, oily chain (newly oiled, apparently), dislodge it, re-position it, and get it working again. I grab a handful of gravel and rub it between my hands to try and get rid of some of the oil.
I zoom off again, all over the trail, and pray to God I don’t come across anyone, let alone someone walking their dog or their frail grandmother that I will assuredly run over.
This is because not only were my handle bars now moving side to side as though pig grease had been applied to them, but they also began to twirl around and around like a magical wand from Harry Potter. So you know how you hold onto your handle bars and can reach the brake? Well, that’s harder to do when your handle bars are upside down and moving side to side.
I somehow manage to weeble wobble my way back to almost the beginning of the trail. I ride up and down small hills without shifting gears since, well, I can’t reach them as they are twirling around.
I crest a small hill to find Curtis on the other side, at the bottom of it, waving his arms. “Don’t ride down this hill!” He’s right, it’s a straight shot into the river if I can’t turn at all, and if I turn only a little, I will crash into the cement tunnel holding up the bridge.
I walk my bike down the hill, under the bridge and try once again to re-adjust my handlebars. “Oh my God, no functione,” an Italian man running by says as he stares at my bike incredulously. He’s clearly panicked at my bike’s state of affairs. “No functione!” He gives me directions (I think) to go get it fixed in the nearby village. “Buono!” I say, “Good,” like I understand every word.
I look down at my bike. The chain has fallen off again. Down into the dirt and oil I go, reclaiming the chain and putting it back in place.
I hop on the bike, Gracie behind me. I balance very precariously and begin to ride. I promptly lose control, can’t reach my twirling brakes, and screaming, down I go, into the grass. All I can hear is Gracie laughing.
I stand up, dust myself off and pick up my bike. My handlebars fall off — completely.
I just laugh and laugh. The vision of my perfect Tuscan bike ride has long since vanished but the hilarity of the excursion has saved the day!
Curtis comes to my aid, and switches bikes with me. He “runs” my bike home, jogging alongside it while simultaneously trying to control it. We must look like a bunch of freaks out here.
“No functione!” Truer words were never spoken, about my bike or about my vision of a Tuscan bike ride.