This is not a travel story.
One of the last days of July is already ending; Bad Gastein, in the shadow of the Tauern mountains, Austria. Wet clouds have been playing with me like a cat and mouse for three days now.
There is a nice climb through the streets of the town, up to the waterfall and beyond, before reaching the hostel that is today’s destination. At the reception, just arrived too, another Italian. Photographic memory is one of the many talents I do not have, but I remember something about him: not high, essential; dry, shaved head, measured in all. Not nervous, not even wiry; was narvent, which seems an exotic word and instead is dialect and means: all nerves. I didn’t see her bike, but I think she looked like the owner: light, well-distributed, reliable, sharp.
We greet each other a little hastily, almost embarrassed for not having much to say to each other, and everyone finally goes to his shower, to his rest. We meet the next day, face to face, to share the breakfast table. Now, before another departure, I wanted some familiar words: the Italians who pedal north of the Alps are few and even less, diluted in a sea of German on two wheels. He is courteous but does not unbutton a lot. Methodical, meticulous, it takes as long as I needed to empty the tray just to peel and slice its fruit. It will weigh half of me.
I go to Grado, I tell you, because so far ‘what has made enough effect to the people to whom I have said it.
I go to Denmark, he says, unimpressed at all, and the last bite goes to me.
I cough hard, but what really shakes me is the thought of such a long journey, so much longer than my short ride. It ends like this: that I spend most of the day between rain and asphalt brooding, thinking about that reserved cyclist, fantasizing about his journey, imagining his smooth and silent ride, between the Czech Republic, Berlin and the Sea of the North, while I go down to a more modest Adriatic.
Who knows if he understood it? That going so far, even just by crossing me with a smear and granting me so few syllables, has moved my rod forward and higher and threw me, without having the intention, a new bait.
Four days later, somewhere in the middle of fields and springs, between Palmanova and Aquileia. I finally warm my bones in the sun.
Coming out of a country that I don’t remember, I passed an old lady waving on an old bicycle. I nod and pull straight, but then when he reaches me, a little further on, stopping to fold the map, he unilaterally decides that it’s time to have a chat and start talking. And the day complicates me: because it speaks of the beauty of this track so easy to follow, of the new asphalt, of the encounters made during the journey. I forget for a moment the paper that insists on not wanting to be folded and I reconsider the lady. It is not old: it is really old, indeed vègia, because in dialect it sounds better and has nothing offensive anymore. Robusta (even something extra); white and broken hair; long floral dress, standard uniform of all the grandmothers of the world; thick goggles. The bike is better than it seemed to me: sturdy (and even something more pure than her), not really from tourism, let’s say so, but not too shabby even if it is loud. He wears thick leather bags, a bit rough, hanging on the handlebars and the luggage rack, too generous to be used only for transport. Maybe he’s not coming back from the market.
I therefore establish that it is worth investigating and, once again, I am impressed. Yes, she is also traveling, yes, she too makes my way, at least a little bit, towards the sea. It will arrive the day after tomorrow or the next day (me by evening), but it will come to us. He goes back to seeing the places where he grew up, because he hasn’t been there for a long time; traveling alone, slowly, a handful of kilometers a day is enough. It’s so beautiful here.
Finally I greet her again, but with more warmth. Moving away from her, I once again felt overcome, outdated, by this other character that the street had offered me to meet: the solid old woman with her old bicycle, both born in that hard time when things were made to last . Here it is, I see it still that in the sunny plain you drink the beautiful panorama with great sips, with great looks, and with wise slowness and enviable courage challenges common sense and old age with pedal strokes, on the roads of his youth.
This is not a travel story, I told you, but travelers do.
Because the long hours alone perched on the saddle teach: the most precious piece of every bicycle you meet is that sweaty mixture of meat and breath that is at the top.