There are so many reasons that I like to cycle tour, so numerous it would be futile to list them all off in one blog post. So instead I thought it would be good to explain each one as a reason and my thinking behind the reason including stories from my travels. The second reason I love to cycle-tour is the fact that on a bike when people see you they do not see you as a threat. In that sense you can meet new people, new friends, and often get help wherever you need it. Receiving help from others whilst on the road is one of the most humbling and kind gestures that gives long-lasting memories. I find that whilst on the road this promotes optimism and enjoyment, and always provides a nice story to tell…
Finally after what had been the hardest climb of my life we reached the top of the Col de Tende and the Italian border. My legs felt like they were about to fall off. We looked back down into the valley, shocked at how far we had come. I looked at the GPS and it said we were standing at 1777 metres above sea level, by far the highest we had ever cycled. The air was noticeably thinner, and so were we after that climb. Our lungs strained to replenish our oxygen deficit and get rid of the lactate that had built up in our bodies. We were spent. Hopefully that would be it for the climbing. It was now 11 and getting, not surprisingly for a sunny day near the Med, very hot. When we reached the top we were met with a peculiar sight. Not a hill top finish but a tunnel. Up to this point we had really liked the Italian tunnels they were all extremely well lit and were safe to cycle through. However this one boasted no cycling signs on its entrance, oh no! We decided it couldn’t be that far so we would just sprint through it. It was our only option, we could not turn back, there was no other way! However we could not just cycle through, there was only one lane so the tunnel operated via traffic lights letting traffic through from opposite sides of the mountain alternately. This was going to make it quite difficult; we didn’t want to get hit on by a truck coming the opposite direction because we were too slow getting through. We were stuck.
Luckily Antonio answered our prayers. He ran up to us from the long line of cars waiting to go through the tunnel and told us what we knew, it was not possible to cycle through. We asked him if there was another way, he pointed back down the mountain and then pointed up, signalling that there was another, steeper road, which passed over the top. We tried to convey that this was not an option. We were dead from the cycling, the possibility of going back down to only go back up again was not an option. We tried to thank him but told him we were just going to cycle through the tunnel. He then motioned us to follow him. Intrigued, and not with much of an option, we followed. He was running and shouted us to hurry; with confused looks on our faces we reached his pickup truck. He moved about some stuff in the back and then told us to lift our bikes into the back of it. What a nice gesture. Tom and I quickly conversed and decided to take Antonio up on his kind offer. We hoisted up the bikes into the truck and not a moment too soon. The lights had gone green. Antonio could not afford to wait around and needed to make this set of lights. He guided me forward to the car in front and put me in a couple’s back seat. Tom jumped into his passenger seat and we were off.
Yes, it was that hasty. One moment we were toying up our options, next I was speeding through the Tunnel du Col de Tende. It seemed Antonio had spoken to this elderly Italian couple before opening up their back door and putting me in. They were delightful, however there certainly was a language barrier. I managed to convey that I was from England and heading towards Turin and that was pretty much it. They seemed to find it very interesting and fun though. I just loved sitting down on a comfy leather seat in a luxury car, such simple pleasures already seemed so exotic and invigorating. However I was distinctly aware of my dirtiness and smell, I was immediately embarrassed and in a way couldn’t wait to get out of the car. It felt wrong. I felt bad for intruding on these peoples lives; they definitely didn’t know what they were signing up for when they agreed to take me across the border. They probably had to disinfect my seat after I got out, I certainly would have. They were lovely though; I was genuinely touched by this show of affection and help from these Italians. Going out of their way to help us. There was no way we would have been able to cycle it, because it turned out the tunnel was about 5 kilometres long. And that meant we had 5 kilometres less to cycle today in order to make it to the outskirts of Turin.
We reached the end of the tunnel and were bathed in the warm sunlight once again. I expressed my thanks with many “Grazies” and bid farewell to the kind couple. Immediately I wished to be out of the thirty-degree heat and back into a nicely air-conditioned car. After a short while Tom and Antonio turned up, being the last car to make it through. Phew. During the journey Tom had been speaking on the phone to Antonio’s son, who was translating everything back to Antonio about our trip and what we were doing. He was very impressed, but not as impressed as we were of him. He was a lovely man and there needs to be more people like him in the world. We hoisted our bikes off his pickup and bid farewell. We stood there in awe of the Italian people’s warmth and generosity. We were on a high. We just could not believe our luck.
This type of interaction is such a common occurrence on cycle tours, be it people stopping to give you fresh fruit when your stopped at the side of the road or giving you lifts across borders. It is so amazing witnessing, and receiving, these acts of human generosity. It truly does make the pedalling easier and the experience of touring more enjoyable. I will always remember the kind acts from people on my adventures because at the time they meant so much, though to the people they probably just seemed like nothing. This is not just a reason to cycle-tour it is also a lesson from cycle-touring about how to treat strangers that you come across on the road.
This story is from my book The Boys Who Cycled Europe, which is available in a variety of formats and on Amazon here.