A sickly drizzle of freezing rain patiently waited to receive us this morning. As we stuffed ourselves during our last continental breakfast at the Grand Hotel in Potenza, we were blissfully unaware of this fact. Another detail pleasantly among the unknowns of the day: the miserable trickle would follow us for our entire ride, matching every pedal stroke with thousands of frigid droplets, courtesy of the mountains of southern Italy in January.
Upon checking out, we carefully coasted away from Potenza, sharply descending some 200 meters in less than ten minutes of riding. The task required a good deal of caution on the slippery, heavily trafficked roads leaving the city. We made it out safely, found the highway we intended to follow, put on our music, and had a really nice ride. At first.
Our GPS basemaps do not include elevation data so it is always a bit of a mystery what the terrain will be like. We sometimes check online, but for the most part when it comes to elevation, we just wing it. For some reason we both thought we'd be out of the mountains today, reaching the valley between us and the eastern coast. Instead, the moment we finished our descent out of Potenza, the climbing began.
Well rested and even more well fed, we spun our legs slowly up the mountains, feeling capable. The climbs turned out to be two mountain passes, both at 920 meters. It was slow going, but all in all, the climbing was a blessing. The work kept us warm. To be more specific, it kept our hands warm. One of the only pieces of equipment we are lacking is good wet/cold weather gloves. This has never bothered me much, but Tara hates it.
After our first pass, we stopped for lunch in an abandoned building (not the one shown below). We ate our bread, butter, meat and cheese feast in good spirits, thankful for our rain jackets and the admirable job they were doing keeping our core dry. We don't have rain pants (and this has never bothered us); almost everything else was soaked, saturated, heavy, and dripping —except our humor.
"Looks like it's lettin' up!" I remarked to Tara, completely deadpan. For the briefest of moments, there was the intended glimmer of hope in her eyes. Then we both burst into laughter.
Following our lunch, the rain continued but it was the cold more than the watery onslaught that began to erode our spirits.
As we finally reached the outskirts of the mountains, a series of chilling descents began. By this time, our useless gloves were so thoroughly soaked that we opted to ride without them. Cruising down switchbacks bare handed in 4°C (about 40°F) weather complete with sleet and rain was truly an exercise in masochism.
When it comes to extended bouts of pain, I am skilled at controlling my focus, either directly on the discomfort until it becomes a meaningless sensation, or completely elsewhere until it fades away. I tried in vain to explain how to do this to Tara. She hates being cold OR wet (nevermind a wretched combination of the two) and was, understandably, having a hard time.
We are not equipped for late winter riding. This would have been a non-event with better gloves. Lacking the proper protective gear or a way "out", I took the lead, stopping frequently to give Tara pep talks, helping her maintain focus so she wouldn't descend into madness or shock about the fierce tingling and pounding in her extremities.
When she couldn't take it anymore, yelling in pain as she sped down the mountain, we stopped so she could use me as a hand warmer. Her increasingly invasive methods enabled her to regain some modicum of comfort during our breaks. First, it was her ice claws inside my jacket, then under my shirt, and finally in my pants. This particular method netted us several hilarious looks as cars passed by.
Eventually, we shivered our way into to the town Tricarico and stiffly walked our bikes to the nearest cafe to warm up. To our relief, the cafe itself was also a hotel! While we sipped our piping hot cappuccinos, Tara comically re-enacted her version of the descent for me:
No matter how many times I revised my entry, Tara wanted to add more details about her suffering. I didn't think it was that bad, but I've set aside the space below for her to add what she feels is missing!
I woke up with a sick feeling in the back of my throat. As the day progressed, I felt sicker and sicker. It was horrible, and it wasn't just my cold hands. I could barely feel my feet. Sleet collected on my hat, making my head wet and cold too. My pants were sopping wet, heavy and clinging to my legs. This would have been great had I needed an ICEPACK.
My hands were the worst. The pain was indescribable. My gloves only made them feel colder, so I rode glove-less. Every hundred meters the cold would get so bad that I'd start to yelp in pain. I could barely squeeze my brakes, which needed to be squeezed HARD to slow down in the rain.
When I used Tyler to thaw my hands the process was just as painful as being cold. It felt like people were smashing my fingers repeatedly with hammers. The powerful combo of freezing cold + sopping wet + sick is probably my worst nightmare. Though it was supposedly 40°F, as far as I was concerned, we may as well have been in Siberia.
By the time we made it to the cafe, I felt like death on wheels. Once inside, I was still cold and wet and only very marginally more comfortable. I didn't feel warm again until hours later, in ALL of my dry clothes, under tons of blankets with Tyler's body against mine. I was really sick all night, complete with body aches and fever and hocking up all kinds of green snot.
Cycle touring can be really rewarding, but when it sucks, it sucks hard.Tara
Here is Tara in our hotel room after we checked in, shivering under a pile of covers, knitting a hat for me. I have the best wife on the planet.