The Sardinia Hill Story

We had tension for breakfast at the Eleonora B&B. We were in Oristano beginning the fifth day of our 10-day cycling trip along the western edge of Sardinia. As he served our warm bread, almond pastries, prosciutto and eggs Andre, the host, asked:  “Where will you ride this day?”

Six answered in unison “To Arbus”.

“How will you go? What road will you take?” Mike spread out the map and showed him our planned route.

“Oh that way will be terrible to cycle, lots of traffic and very boring—even dangerous,” he said. “You should take the road over the mountains and along the coast, the Costa Verde—it’s beautiful—molto bello e scenico!” !

Everyone reacted … talking all at once, straining to see the map. Mike immediately declared that he and Margaret would take the new route. Rich pulled his computer out to check the distance and elevations. Anne expressed irritation that Mike was willing to take a stranger’s advice and make a route change at the last minute. Gary went to pack. I was dismayed because it meant more climbing—another 1,300-foot elevation gain— a potentially “easy” day was morphing into a long, difficult one. I held onto the thought that we could always split up for the day—Rich and I and possibly Anne and Gary, taking the original route.

We wheeled our loaded bikes out the heavy medieval doors of the Eleonora and onto the town’s central piazza. After some testy back and forth about the merits of our alternatives we settled on a plan to ride to the turnoff point, the town of Arborea, and make our final route decision there. We left the lovely square a bit grumpy and negotiated our way through Oristano’s morning traffic. Our stress levels mounted as we took several wrong turns on our way out of town, lost before we’d even begun the day’s ride. Finally, Margaret approached  an older gentleman on a battered bicycle weighed down with bags of produce slung over his handlebars. She asked him in Italian for directions to Arborea. He motioned us to follow. After eight miles riding at a faster clip than we would have expected, he abruptly turned around, pointed toward the mountains, and waved good-bye. “Ciao!”

It was a busy, gritty highway, with fast cars and trucks. Sparse but flowering bushes and an occasional canal interrupted the flat plains. A pine forest lined the road as we approached Arborea. It was just before noon, we needed food for lunch and located a small market on the main street. “I’ll stay with the bikes; I’m fine with whatever you get.” I said, plopping down on the stone steps across from the market, “guarding” the bikes and considering my options. I knew that after the morning’s ride, everyone else, even Rich, would prefer the more scenic route. It was hard to argue for the alternative despite my growing trepidation about going over the mountains.

Sardinia was our eighth international self-planned bicycling tour. The trips are a highlight of every year. My husband, Rich and I bike with two other couples, Anne and Gary and Mike and Margaret—longtime friends, all in our sixties and then some. Each cycling trip is an intimate experience in a small area of an unfamiliar country, with no barriers or filters between the landscape, the people, the history and us. We share the adventures, road conditions, weather, exercise, and no-guilt indulgence in unlimited exploration of local cuisine. We negotiate, ignore or tolerate differences of opinion, style and idiosyncrasies. We know each other well but there are always new insights, challenges and surprises.

My friends are mountain goats in comparison to me. I try to start first, but despite this advantage , they pass me. They may struggle but they always make the summit before I do. They find it more difficult to stop and walk their bikes whereas I have pushed my loaded bike up a portion of many long, steeply graded hills. They wait at the top, taking advantage of the respite after a challenging ascent. Rich usually hangs back with me. On especially difficult climbs, he has been known to reach the crest then walk back and ride my bike to the top. Embarrassed? No. Frustrated? Yes. Only I am judging.

Every year I seek different strategies to conquer the hills—my mental and physical antagonist—counting pedal strokes, a different seat or pedal position, working out pre-ride to get in shape. I take spinning classes to improve my cardio performance and endurance. I was determined that Sardinia was going to be different and I amped up my preparation.

Lightening the weight of bicycle and gear is a typical practice to make “climbing” easier. Most cyclists focus on lightweight equipment, especially the bike, but my theory is that ten pounds is the same whether taken off the bicycle frame or the rider. And so, my first strategy was to lose pounds and maintain a lower weight. I lost almost fifteen pounds. I was pleased and hopeful that it would make a difference. I pared down my packing list— fewer clothes, just one pair of off-the-bike sandals—only the essentials. I went to spin class five times a week, sometimes twice a day. I didn’t train outside, partly due to weather and work, but mostly because I didn’t want to struggle or worse, not make it up a hill on a training ride and get discouraged before the ride began.

I googled “how to make biking hills easy.” I learned that although there were many theories about consumables that may have the potential to make cycling hills physically less difficult, “experts” seemed to agree that most don’t work. Only a few reportedly had some effect, like mega doses of caffeine (4-8 cups of coffee) and baking soda. Caffeine can improve stamina and endurance while stimulating the nervous system and the baking soda may decrease the burn or lactic acid buildup in your legs. I don’t drink coffee and my morning drink of choice, tea, doesn’t contain enough caffeine. I briefly considered, then decided against, caffeine tablets. I did pack a bag of baking soda; the recommended teaspoon per day weighed almost nothing. At about the same time, a friend emailed to wish me well on the trip and referencing my obsession with hill climbing, hoped that I would “…find a magical mantra to get me up those hills.”

I found a blog article titled, “Tuned In To Cycling—Hill Climbing 101” about the joys of biking hills. It suggested that hills were, in fact, the best thing about cycling. The author offered  techniques, tips and stories about his experiences. What caught my eye was a story about an AIDS ride that he supported. He was helping many inexperienced riders and in particular, a woman he described as “…very much overweight and out of shape…like maybe 100 pounds overweight.”

She was on a hybrid bike and struggled as she made her way up the longest and steepest hill on the 340-mile ride. Many riders dreaded this climb; crowds lined the road to encourage them and a  sound system blasted out Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” The woman didn’t think she’d make it and the author didn’t either, but he stayed with her and urged her on “…just 10 feet more.” She cried, she sweated. He couldn’t figure out how she stayed upright, she was going so slowly, but she did. With 30 feet to go, she realized that she would make it to the top. She was amazed and ecstatic, and so was her supporter. She had achieved what she thought was impossible and the writer/coach said that the look that came over her face at that instant was so beautiful and so pure that it made every moment worth it. I wanted to experience that feeling.

The decision made to go over the mountains to the Costa Verde (Green Coast), we rode through fallow fields lined with eucalyptus trees. The wind was strong enough to deliver the pungent scent of livestock although none was in sight. We entered a small, tattered fishing village then crossed a wide lagoon on a concrete bridge leaving the flat land behind us. A  small wooden shelter protecting a statue and shrine to the Virgin Mary provided a windscreen and a bench to prepare our lunch–Pecorino-Sardo cheese, tomatoes, strawberries and bread. We lingered in the warming sun, until storm clouds gathered in the west. We quickly re-packed our bags and continued.

Soon enough the climb began. It was gradual at first and then steepened. The wind was fierce at times and coming head on. As the afternoon and the climb wore on, we rode into a torrential downpour. The driving rain pelted us,  made more dramatic by wind gusts as we rounded each turn. The storm lasted only 20 minutes or so, but by then  we were drenched. We stopped to shed our rain gear and kept riding. The climb continued. The wind became a menacing distraction. I barely noticed the hills dotted with goats grazing, or the cliffs and “molto bello” seacoast far below. The aroma of an herbal potpourri from the wet maquis, a foam green, wild, shrub climbing up from the sea, filled the air. Now at each turn I encountered another steep ascent. I was drained. My lungs felt like they might burst. I tried to remember to loosen my death grip on the handlebars, to relax and to breathe. My thighs screamed, quads burned, smoldering with every pedal stroke. The teaspoon of baking soda had no appreciable effect.

But I found my “magic mantra”. When I thought that I couldn’t go another inch, when I thought I couldn’t pedal one more stroke, when I thought I was going so slowly that the bike would topple I said:

“If the fat lady could make it, I can too.”

“If she could push one more pedal stroke, I can too.”

“If she stayed upright on her bike I can too.”

I said this over and over again as I made my way up every rise, each steep, never ending grade.

Finally, through the oak trees, I glimpsed my friends waiting, recovering at the high point, a cross roads in the deserted mining town of Montevecchio. I was going to make it! Riding all the way, no walking — something I didn’t think possible earlier in the day. At the crossroad, I stopped to chat and high five. I took in the view, the sun glistening on the treetops and the crumbling buildings of a once vibrant mining complex, and savored my success. I caught my breath, drank some water and refastened my helmet. Then the “fat lady” and I flew down the shimmering, winding road.


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