My epic ride from Scotland to Italy
The dawn of the idea
Several years ago I had the idea of cycling on my own to Italy from Scotland, however when I first mentioned my dream to family and friends it was met with disbelief and laughter as they knew me well. I was unfit, my knowledge of bike mechanics was negligible, as were my map reading skills, AND I have a poor sense of direction! Plus the idea of doing it on my own was dismissed so at this point I put the idea on the back burner as it did seem a bit ludicrous. But time marched on, I was going to too many funerals, I wanted to prove there was still life in the old dog yet. I wanted to be an inspiration to my children and grandchildren, to my family and friends and to anyone who knew me. To show them that dreams can come true. I wanted them to know that Italy means so much to me that I would even cycle all the way to get there!
Growing up, every summer my dad used to drive us to Italy from Scotland to visit my grandparents. The seven of us would be packed into the car and it took us three long days to arrive. The roads and cars weren't as good as they are now but the journey had to be done. In a way, we were like homing pigeons going back to our roots. When my mum was laid to rest in the little cemetery in Castelvecchio next to my dad and grandparents and great grandparents, I missed her so my cycle to Italy for me was a bit like a pilgrimage. It was also a good opportunity to raise money for the charity Children 1st.
I loved it! They were a friendly bunch and many of the members were an inspiration so I signed up. This was a pivotal point for me. From doing the ladies' rides, I progressed and eventually attempted the main rides too. "
Linda Edge, Cycling UK member and novice cycle tourist
So I started to get fit and, as my fitness level grew, so did my confidence. My friend Joyce and I completed the 10-mile free public event cycle ride with the CTC and duly received our certificate, which in turn gave me the confidence to try doing some of the rides with the club. I loved it! They were a friendly bunch and many of the members were an inspiration so I signed up. This was a pivotal point for me. From doing the ladies' rides, I progressed and eventually attempted the main rides too. As I got more serious about my trip, I had the courage to voice my dream again and this time was spurred on. I cycled to Penrith on my own, which was a great learning experience, cycling 156 miles! My son had Google-mapped the directions for me, I was very naive. I had set off not knowing how to change a tyre, believing that if I got a puncture some kind person would be there to help me. I followed the road signs and only occasionally took the wrong road but fortunately I was puncture-free! I realised how lucky I had been and vowed to go to cycle maintenance classes.
So my fitness was steadily improving and I wasn't quite as useless when it came to changing a tyre but what route should I take to get to Italy? There were so many to choose from! For me, not knowing which roads to take was my biggest stumbling block and I kept procrastinating about the route planning. I could hear my mother's words in my ear saying: "Domandando si arriva a Roma", meaning "by asking one gets to Rome" but I felt that wouldn't suffice. A few weeks before my departure date, I bought myself a satnav and hastily input a route with the help of family and my dear friends Joyce and Denis, who were going to be cycling part of the way with me.
April Fool's Day was the date I had in mind for setting off; my daughter Francesca was going to cycle with me to Reims where Joyce and Denis were going to meet me and accompany me on the rest of my journey. I felt excited and apprehensive. The most I had ever cycled before in a week was about 200 miles, would my body be able to keep going? I was still getting used to my cleats and really wasn't confident with my new satnav. Still I felt it was now or never, as my daughter had kindly informed me - my window of opportunity was only going to get smaller. So I went for it. I could hardly believe that my dream was actually becoming a reality.......!
Looking back on my cycle to Italy, I realise that my poor route planning had a huge impact on the whole experience. Francesca and I set off without any maps and she soon took control of my new sat nav as she didn't trust my navigational skills! On three consecutive days, we found ourselves going off-road, through forest tracks and up to our ankles in mud! On the day we cycled from Michelen to Andaluz, our first challenge was when the sat nav was navigating us up the wrong side of a very busy junction which was the entrance to the motorway. We eventually got onto a B road and cycled through the countryside but were soon confronted with a no entry sign AND we found ourselves on the wrong side of the dual carriageway!
At this point we considered running across the dual carriageway with our bikes and panniers and going over the barrier in the middle but this did not seem like a wise choice! We had no option but to do an about turn. An alternative route in the sat nav took us along what seemed to be a nightmare of a mountain bike track. Our lovely clean bikes sank into the mud as did our feet. After many expletives, we had to push our bikes through the forest as the terrain proved impossible to cycle on. I tried to point out the beautiful bluebells to Francesca but she was having none of it. When we eventually got to Andaluz, it was nearly 9pm and night was falling. We still hadn't eaten and we were exhausted. We were so glad to get to our beds that night!
When Joyce, Denis and I set off from Chaumont to Dijon, the sun was shining, there was hardly any wind and it was not too hot - a perfect cycling day. I asked for directions to get to the canal route to Dijon and the shop assistant exclaimed: "C'est magnifique! C'est tres, tres belle!" so off I set with high hopes. And it was beautiful! The countryside was so green, the sprawling fields seemed to go on forever, the cattle were grazing. We continued cycling along the canal until the route became grassier and wetter underfoot, making it impossible to cycle, but we persevered, our feet sodden, hoping the path would improve when it suddenly came to an abrupt stop! We had to turn back, which made us lose about 50 minutes and it meant we had to do a much longer route. We didn't know which way to go. I continually stopped to ask people for directions. The fact that everyone was so kind and helpful encouraged me to keep going.
When I told them we were going to Dijon, they were all saying: "Ah mais c'est loin! Bon courage!". I lost count of the number of times people said that to me. One wee man actually put his hands to his head in horror! Both of our Garmins had run out of battery. We cycled over the rolling hills appreciating the beauty around us until we began to weary. Luckily, we found a little patisserie just before it was closing and the wee lady made us up a baguette with some pork pate', delicious! That and a big bar of chocolate did the trick. It was getting dark and there were no street lights, Denis was aware that we had to get to Dijon as fast as we could. We arrived in Dijon at 9.50pm exhausted but also delighted that we had made it. 90 miles done, 12 hours on the road! It had been a long day but a lovely one. It was by asking that we finally got to Dijon!
The day we aimed to get to Aix-en-Provence was an eventful one. The sat nav took us off-road along a rough track which was full of potholes. We had to back track! Poor Joyce got five punctures, one in her front tyre and four in her back. By the time Denis was wearily repairing the fifth puncture, the heavens opened and we got drenched. It was getting late and I was starving (yet again!) Further along when we thought we hadn't far to go, we were abruptly stopped by the police as we were heading for the motorway! After another about turn, we stumbled across a lovely hotel which turned out to be the best accommodation of the trip, it was a suitable reward for our disastrous day. We didn't quite make it to Aix that day but we didn't care!
In hindsight, perhaps I would have got to Italy a lot quicker if I had had a better idea of how to get there! However, being unsure of the route made it more of an adventure and I did get to meet a lot of lovely people along the way.
I made it happen!
If you have a dream and you really want it to come true, I'd say to you: "Make it happen". Don't let fear stop you. My journey to Italy has to be my journey of a lifetime. There were challenges but the highs I experienced far outweighed them. It's difficult to say which part of the trip was the most beautiful as there were so many ‘wow’ moments but cycling along the Cote d'Azur from Frejus to Nice has to rank up there. The sun was shining and there was a lovely breeze. Seeing the ochre hills and the incredible blue of the sea was spectacular. Cycling close to the mighty Highland cattle that were roaming freely in the national park in Holland, seeing all the beautiful scenery, freewheeling with the wind behind us to Le Luc, crossing that narrow bridge on the Rhone with the water visible down below, getting to the top of all those hills or simple things like arriving at our "planned" destination for the night, eating when I was ravenous, having a warm shower and getting into bed when I was exhausted, the camaraderie of Francesca, Joyce and Denis who kindly navigated, the almost wetting myself with laughter moments, the wonderful people I met en route, the unexpected praise and disbelief from everyone who asked "and where have you cycled from?" A guy I stopped in Lyon to ask where we could sleep for the night, when hearing I was cycling from Scotland to Italy, looked me in the eye and exclaimed: "Do you realise that what you're doing is 'merveilleux?'" The texts of support and hearing my friends cheer down the phone . . . . the list goes on.
Stopping at traffic lights, a good-looking Alessandro in his Lycra cycled up next to me and asked where we were heading. When I told him, he said the road ahead was closed due to a landslide and we would have to take the train if we wanted to continue. This was a definite low. To have cycled over a thousand miles and to be given this blow! I explained I had to cycle all the way, the train wasn't an option for me. He could see the look of despair on my face and he then explained there was a possible alternative route which the police had blocked and which was up a very steep incline and gravelly path. ‘Yes we would try it!’ He kindly accompanied us as far as the barricade. What a high I felt getting to the other side of the landslide. Alessandro saved the day! The whole journey was like that - if difficulties/challenges appeared they always resolved themselves.
Another great high was when I saw the sign which read Italy 1000 meters. I started to cry! I couldn't believe I was almost there! I felt so happy when I crossed the border and was cycling in the streets of Italy with the crazy drivers and the sound of the 'motorini' speeding by. When I opened the bedroom door of the little family run hotel in Bordighera, I could smell the familiar Italian smells of my past. Joyce bought a bottle of Prosecco and after tea we had a celebratory drink.
But the greatest high had to be arriving at Castelvecchio. I'll never forget cycling up the incline as fast as I could. My first stop had to be at the little cemetery to say "Hello" to my Mum and Dad, "I'm here! I've made it! Thanks for watching over me".
Friends had come running down to tell me to hurry up the road as everyone was waiting. I started crying again. I hadn't expected my friends and neighbours in Italy to be there since I didn’t know myself when I'd arrive. They had been waiting all afternoon! The warm welcome with clapping and cheering, the banners and Italian flag were flying, there was Champagne, sandwiches and cakes - I hadn't expected any of it!
I'm so lucky and privileged to have had this experience. I am well aware of the kindness and love of my family and friends both here and in Italy and I'll always be grateful to them and to all who helped, encouraged, inspired, and donated. I couldn't have done it without you! I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
(Originally published over three issues of Saddlebag, the newsletter of Cycling UK Member Group Cycle Ayrshire, in 2016/17)