Day Five: Varese Ligure – Genoa

Saturday 20th September

What a beautiful village Varese Ligure is and how wonderful our hotel. Everyone was so relieved to be off the mountain, out of the rain and to have the chance for a sit down and drink, that it took a while to realize just how pleasant our surroundings were. The hotel is totally eclectic, obviously family run and a very fun, uplifting place to be. The village is equally lovely with interesting architecture and buildings (many with painted facades). It also has some interesting plazas with boutique type shops and bars, the latter of which soon had green-shirted cyclists sat on their frontage.

The previous days ride had been hard and it had not given the normal pay back in the sense that the downhill was so hard in the rain and mist. It was therefore a bit daunting to be told over dinner that the two climbs tomorrow were much the same as the previous day but with the later one being two kilometers shorter and correspondingly steeper. There were some very nervous people as a result, a feeling probably not helped with torrential rainfall overnight and great claps of thunder.

Morning came with grey skies and wet roads, but with a promise of better weather to come. The nerves were still on edge as we left the hotel, but I think that as everyone was aware of what was ahead, they all dug deep as we started the days climbing, just minutes after we left the hotel. The scenery was definitely a great boost to morale and it really was quite stunning, getting more and more dramatic as we climbed higher and higher. The reward, after a tough climb of 1013m, was a great coffee stop and a chance for a caffeine boost before we started on the most wonderful downhill run of 1040m. Life at this point also began to look up for Sylvana, as an old Italian gentleman presented her with a rose (and got a kiss on the cheek, in return) and it was good to note that her swollen eye was now more or less back to normal. Meanwhile Andy’s woes continue as he now has a sore bum to add to his sore elbow (but he’s putting on a very brave face).

At the base of the valley, we followed the river for about 20 miles and although the road was busy and there was some manic driving (can they really see around corners, as they overtake on blind bends around here?) it was pretty exhilarating and by noon we were at the ‘light lunch’ stop with the promise of a ‘proper lunch’ and soup, when we reached the peak of the second summit. Ben Warner, keen to impress with his cycling prowess, decided to do a few extra miles and had to be tracked down by phone a guided back to the lunch stop. He’d clearly missed the orange arrow (a Discover Adventure aid to navigation, which they place at convenient junctions, along the route) and will hold the record for the longest overall ride, as a result.

Well full marks to DA for their summary of the afternoons climb – 860 metres of pretty stunning mountain scenery, but with quite a few 12% climbs and one section of road that more resembled a ramp than a road. It was very, very tough, but with everyone now getting a bit more street wise and employing all the tactics of preserving energy and riding smart, they all made it and were rewarded with an stunning view of Genoa and the Med. Result !!!

The run down from the top was simply amazing, not least as it was dry and bright and there were stretches when the road was sufficiently well maintained that we could let go and enjoy a wonderful ride that just seemed to go on and on. I should say that this is my interpretation of the descending; I do know that some in the Group are really nervous on the downhill and find it as worrying and tiring as the uphill. The further towards Genoa we got, the more narrow the road as we passed mansions and settlements and latterly cafes, restaurants and roadside houses. There was a traffic jam on a bend where a wedding party was holding up a bus. We were sorely tempted to try to gate crash, but our hotel and a shower won over the day and we continued on down, dodging pot holes, dogs, traffic and scooters. What a buzz!

The trip through the City was done at an impressively high speed, not least as we used the bus lane for most of it, all the while looking out for orange arrows pointing us left, right or straight ahead. There was only one main gaff where we missed a left turn, a bit of a hassle, as it was four lanes to our left, although the traffic rather good-naturedly let our group of five cross over, without any hassle. On and on we went through the heavy traffic, until we finally made the hotel, after what must have been a four-mile run through the town.

We were thrilled to have finished our ride, but then began to fret (over a beer of course) on the fate of the remainder, although they were with our DA guides as back markers and by now well versed in the art of following the orange posters. In the event, there was not a single soul who didn’t cycle the entire way and there was not a single soul who didn’t enter the hotel without a great big grin and a wonderful sense of achievement.

The hotel (The Grand Hotel Savoia) was a really pleasant surprise as it really is a splendid place and the rooms quite luxurious. The evenings dining and breakfast this morning was the best thus far and a really great way to finish our stay in Italy.

From the very outset of this ride the constant comment, after every meeting of the participants has been ‘what a great bunch they seem’, ‘what an interesting group have signed up etc etc’. As we finish the ride today, that is still the feeling of us all. What a great bunch, what a diverse lot and how well the seasoned cyclists and new cyclists alike have all got on. It’s also incredible that those less experienced cyclists (quite a few only bought their first road bike around April/May time) have trained sufficiently hard and have used every ounce of physical and mental energy to cover large distances and climb heights they would have thought impossible just a very short while ago. What a privilege to be a part of such a great group on such a fantastic ride. Thanks to everyone involved and to our wonderful sponsors.

Particular thanks must also go to Marcus, Andy’s mate, who along with Andy drove the Jersey Post van from Jersey to Venice and then helped at every stage of the ride with food, encouragement and support: a real star who added so much to the success of this trip.

The van itself needs a special mention also. It’s been such an eye catcher throughout the whole trip and has attracted so much attention and positive comment. It was also the most welcome of sights for the riders, at the water stops and lunch breaks. We are so grateful to Jersey Post for their incredibly generous support and help.

At dinner last night, Michelle predicted that we should raise close to £70k for this challenge, which is a stunning total and which will pay for the majority of the renovation to our drop in centre. Those renovations are the key to ‘future proofing’ our charity and enabling us to work in a cost effective way, to support those people in Jersey, affected by cancer. Thanks so much to everyone who, over these past weeks and months, but particularly over these last few days has made this possible.

Vital Statistics for the day;
59.9 miles
12.0 mph average
4hrs 59mins time in saddle
1873m of climbing
1913m of descending
4228 calories used

311.3 miles
4455m of climbing
4136m of descending

Day Four: Monticelli – Varese Ligure

Friday 19th September (Scotland stays part of the Union – thank goodness for that)

The hotel last night was very pleasant and the rooms very comfortable and although the meal was plentiful and good, it still didn’t give us that Italian experience we’re all so much craving. However the mood remains upbeat and positive, there’s a lot of laughter and there were a lot of cyclists, very proud to have covered the distances they have today.

I’ll start by saying it’s not been a good week for Sylvana. Our Mother of two, 47 year old (looks 32 at a push) ran into a van on a little pre-trip ride on Monday, so has legs that are startlingly bruised and battered and to add to that trauma, has been bitten by a mosquito on the right eye, which has swollen to the point she’s being referred to as Elephant Woman. Well, they say it comes in three, so we were not surprised when she got herself locked into the toilet at the first coffee stop this morning. The café owner, in trying to rescue her, tugged at the handle and in came off in her hand. It took Paul to climb up the outside wall, get the key through a grill, before we could rescue the poor girl who promptly got her own back by beating all of us up the mountain.

It wasn’t the best of days for Andy too. His second fall and albeit just a bit of a scraped elbow he seems to be suffering a disproportionate amount of p*&^ taking. Apart from that, the team is intacto (as we say in Italy) and apart from a few tears (read later), we have a wonderful, up beat group.

The road to the first water stop was a pretty straightforward and the group made good speed prior to the days first climb. I must say that it did go on a bit and seemed pretty unending but the weather was pleasantly cool, the scenery not bad (forest/farming/rather grey rocks and scree and a dry river bed that is probably spectacular in flood). All the huffing and puffing up the hill became worth while, as there was a lovely downhill, just prior to lunch, which was organized on a pretty, mountain top location albeit next to the cemetery.

There was a also a café, just up the road, which served excellent coffee and quite a few went off there whilst lunch was being served. The owner’s daughter came to speak with us whilst we were all gathered around a table and said ‘may I ask a question?’ ‘Of course’ said we. ‘Why are you here?’ she said. We couldn’t really think of an immediate answer, but did eventually get over our Macmillan Jersey story, although I think she still thinks we’re pretty balmy. Later that day, we were beginning to think she had a point!

After lunch we were told we had to climb a little more, then a great, long descent (wonderful!) some flat road and then a hilly section described as steeper than the morning, but not as long. Well!!! It was a nightmare!

Long, steep, thunder at 62 miles, rain and mist a little while later and a road with more twists, bends and false summits than a United Nations resolution. There were tears, there were traumas, sore legs, threats and pleas, but everyone did make it, to be royally greeted and encouraged by the wonderful, ever present & up beat Marcus and our two Macmillan groupies, Michelle & Judith. To see them, as one rose out of the mist, was like manna from heaven! And that wasn’t the end of it – there was then a long downhill of about 7km that had to be taken at a slow speed as it was wet and slippery, so what should have been a fast, invigorating ride through wonderful scenery turned into an ordeal that made neck, arms, wrists and elbows scream out as brakes were applied for 90% of the entire ride down.

Eventually we entered Varese Ligure and what a gem it is. The most beautiful of towns, with buildings, squares, cafés and shops to die for and all dressed up in Italian finery that can’t help but make you smile. The hotel is similarly gorgeous and has just served us the food we have been waiting for. Fresh pasta to start, veal to follow and a sort of tiramisu with almonds to finish – gorgeous and the wine thrown in too. Heavenly stuff, which along with a few uplifting and flattering words from our DA leader Chris had most people feeling very good about their day’s achievement. Good that is until he said that tomorrow’s two main climbs are similar or harder than the second climb today. Oops – that’s a few night’s slumbers destroyed, but more of that tomorrow and our ride to destination Genoa and the Mediterranean Sea.

My Garmin ran out of power late afternoon so I have had to ‘borrow’ statistics from others in the group so here they are, somewhat abbreviated from previous reports. Note the ‘up’ bit!!

Vital Statistics for the day;
75.6 miles
563m of climbing
479m of descending

Day Three: Occhiobello to Monticelli

Thursday 18th September (The Vote day in Scotland)

The meal in the hotel last night improved on previous in so far as it had a vaguely Italian theme i.e. lasagna for starters, pork for main and a non-descript dessert. Ah well, there was also some good Italian red wine to help it all down so the mood was a happy one and everyone was pleased to have enjoyed a good day’s ride and to have survived and thrived in the process. For quite a number in the group, it was the longest single day’s ride ever.

So onto day three and the ride to Monticelli. It was described as an approximate 92 mile day ride, so we had a bunch of very happy riders at the 25 mile mark where we had our first water stop. The roads had been flat, the wind, if any, was in favour and the scenery, much of it along the river, was scenic and uplifting. There was also a café right next to the water stop which was a most welcome sight as yesterday had no evident such stops and we were all associating Italy with wonderful village squares and fine coffee.

Slight blip downwards as we left the café however as it had started to rain, but hey ho we’re used to that and on went the waterproofs and off we set for lunch at around the 50 mile mark. The rain was intermittent, the scenery changed from ordinary to quite smart residential, to industrial and then all the way back through the cycle again by the time we made lunch. Spirits were still high and lunch was a good spread, with great variety and once again a coffee shop right next door which did a roaring trade in espressos/lattes and cappuccinos. We all agree we could afford to take it pretty easy during the afternoon as we had just over 40 miles to go, plus a stop at the Ferrari museum, which was bound to re-energize everyone.

This certainly proved the case and the car park alone gave enough petrol head thrills to last a year. There were also a couple of 1950’s Messerschmitt 3-wheeler cars in the car park (one of which had a trailer), which attracted enormous interest, probably more so than some of the Lamborghini’s and Ferraris. I’ll try to post some pictures.

With only 40+ miles to go, everyone was pretty chilled about the home run. Unfortunately there had been some miscalculations (miles for kilometers on one section or was it a change of hotel) – not sure, but the result was an extra 8-10 miles, some of it now quite hilly and physiologically it makes a big difference when you’re tired and your legs and water begin to run dry. However, everyone made it, everyone came in with a smile and there was no lack of pride in everyone managing a ‘ton’, not least as it was a first for many in the group.

A funny incident as we approached the hotel when a snake shot across the road and very nearly became a victim of the bike in front, ridden by Craig.

Lest we imagine that this part of Italy is quite devoid of the sort of culture we associate with this country, Judith & Michelle (my wife and Michelle Fielding, who is Finance Director of Macmillan and whose husband Mike is doing the ride) are along on the trip, self funded and in a hire car & helping where they can, but taking a few side trips when they are able. Today, they went off to Parma (as in ‘Ham’) and visited a cathedral, which Judith describes as more impressive than the Sistine Chapel and it certainly looks so from the pictures. I suppose a bunch of cyclists riding through such a town is hardly practical, so we must leave that sort of entertainment until another day and concentrate on eating up those miles.

Tomorrow is a climbing day and quite unlike what has come before. Something over 90 miles, a couple of biggish and steep climbs and the weather deteriorating. I’ll let you know how we get on tomorrow, but in the meantime I’m thrilled to report everyone is in fine spirits and despite a few sore and tender bits, up for day four!

Vital Statistics for the day;
100 miles exactly!
16.5mph average (17.4 at mid way stage
5 hrs 6 mins time in saddle
547m of climbing
457m of descending
5655 calories used

Day Two: Venice to Occhiobello

Wednesday 17th September

For many of the Group it would be a case of ‘I’ve been to Venice, but never saw a canal or gondola’. Arriving late at night as most did (a few came some days before, to play tourist) and leaving at 8.30am the following morning, there was not time to do any sightseeing. Also, as Discover Adventure Representative Chris explained, unless we used pedaloes, it’s impossible to cycle out from the centre of Venice, so we had been lodged as close as possible, in order to get a sensible start. Chris also warned that the first few miles would be fraught with traffic (which it was) but that would give way to lighter traffic and more open roads (which it did). DA had also amended the first half of the route given; to try and avoid some of the busier roads although the after lunch section remained the same.

And so, after lots of buzz and excitement in the lobby and a good breakfast, after a chat from Andy on what Macmillan Jersey was all about and up to, after lots of photos and admiration for our van, it was ‘Genoa, here we come’.

So all in all, a successful day, warm and sunny and a good atmosphere, although the scenery was pretty dull for the most part although more pleasantly rural in the afternoon and with some pleasant riding alongside the rather splendid River Po. As the statistics and contour maps will illustrate, almost the entire route was flat, which may seem like a bit of a doddle day and in many ways it was a fairly easy start for most. However flat means you have to keep cycling (downhill’s are always welcome for a little breeze and respite) and also means you catch any wind that’s roundabout, so there were some weary legs by the time lunchtime came around and the pace had been pretty swift, despite the fact we all said we would conserve energy for the mountains to come.

Lunch, even in a car park, is always welcome, after 45 miles in the saddle and we all enjoyed the good spread that DA had prepared. Some more enterprising souls also found a source of very good (and very cheap) coffee, with loo attached, albeit in a shopping centre, just around the corner.

Thus far there has been a marked lack of pretty little village squares with chairs in the sunshine and latte’s on offer, but we live in hope!

The afternoon was hot, but the scenery much improved and I believe as I write this that everyone is safely into the Hotel Una in the rather quaintly named Occhiobello.

Vital Statistics for the day;
75.8 miles
16.5mph average
4hrs 36mins time in saddle
187m of climbing
195m of descending
4195 calories used

2014 Venice to Genoa – Day One

Tuesday 16th September

Well, we’re all here in Venice – 23 riders and full supporting crew from Discover Adventure and Macmillan Jersey. Apparently we had one late drop out due to medical reasons, which is a great shame, but very much par for the course on this type of trip and don’t you always dread that someone being you.

Andy and Marcus had arrived in Venice the day before, having driven our Jersey Post vehicle, along with its cargo of bikes, all the way from Jersey. It looks quite magnificent in full Macmillan colours with all the riders’ names on the side (very professional & I must make sure to get a picture onto the site). However, their noble efforts were very nearly doomed before they’d even left St Helier, when a Condor Ferry staff member decided the vehicle was ‘too big’. ‘But we gave you the exact dimensions’ stated Andy, to no avail. Our team vehicle was barred from entry. Our epic cycle looked like turning into a walking holiday, but as luck would have it, the freight boat was making its once a week run to St Malo just two hours later & our lads were allowed on board. Not just that but, as the only non-crew passengers, they were treated to a full ‘English’ & hit the road in St Malo in rude health and good spirits. The long journey South & East was not without its incidents we understand (off road/lost passports/13 hour days) but they eventually arrived with their precious load intact and were there to greet the others with a smile and the knowledge that their bikes were in the garage & set to ride.

Meanwhile, back in Gatwick, the main party was all set for a teatime arrival into Venice. Unfortunately their inbound aircraft had managed to pick up a bird into one of its engines on the way into Gatwick (‘shredded tweet’). This unfortunate bird was then to be the cause of confusion and delay, an aborted outbound flight which returned, a change of plane and an arrival into Venice at the rather unsociable hour of around 9.00pm. However, by 09.30 everyone was assembled, a seriously mediocre meal was made the best of (whoever heard of a turkey dinner in Italy?) and everyone was heartened to hear that the following day promised sunshine, flat roads and wonderful scenery (after the first 5 miles of trucks and city chaos we’re told). So that’s it – a good nights kip & then we’re off to see the real Italy. Can’t wait!