Day 1 - Milan to Claro - It's Just a Question of Time

Updated: Sep 10, 2019

It's was clear to me at the end of day 1 that one number will matter more than others on the trip: time in the saddle. I spent 9 hours on the bike on day one to cover 135km. Only 7 1/2 riding though, which means I had spent a lot of time looking for directions. Let's start with the day's other important numbers: 1. Life threatening potholes and tram lines in Milan; 8 million (give or take a few) 2. Old ladies on bikes that overtook me in Milan; 3 3. Cyclists who said hello back; 0 (seriously, not so much as a head nod) 4. Bottles of coke; 4 (and I don't drink coke) 5. Number of extra kilometres I rode after miscalculating the route; 27 (muppet) 6. Number of times I swore at my Garmin; 36 and rising 7. Number of times I said "wow look at that view" out loud to myself; 5 I started the day dreading getting out if Milan. The combination of Garmin failure and the crazy traffic had me scared I would fail on day one. In the end it was fairly straightforward. Only one wrong turn. At first glance the traffic in Milan is mental with no one obeying any rules and potholes everywhere. But in reality, there is an intricate ballet of traffic with everyone moving in and out of the flow. It's unnerving, but somehow it works: if you can avoid the drag racing scooters away from every traffic lights. The smell of Milan is the smell of two stroke engine oil. Something I've always loved from my years in the motorcycle industry. After Milan I was into the suburbs with the constant beep of the Garmin telling me I was off course, despite the fact I was riding in a straight line on one road all the way to Lake Como, where I stopped for lunch. The view was spectacular, but as it had already taken over 3 hours to cover the first 45km, I didn't stay too long. Switzerland was only a few kilometres away and wanted to get a move on. I believe that national stereotypes often exist for a good reason and literally 30 metres after crossing the border into Switzerland the difference with Italy was night and day. From chaos, potholes and rubbish, to order, bike lanes and cleanliness. Whereas in Italy I had struggled to find directions with a misfiring Garmin, here I didn't need them as EuroVelo 5 becomes National Route 3 and is well signposted throughout the country. On top of this, many of the roads have dedicated cycle lanes that are completely split from the road. I was enjoying this until I hit a section of the route that was gravel for 500m. I hate gravel. In fact all off road riding. I don't like the ground moving while I'm travelling over it. With one foot clipped in I pedalled slowly over it, imaging at least one fellow Lanterne laughing at my lack of bike handling skill (you know who you are Moto TJ). But it was soon over and I pressed on the stunning Lake Lucarno. Here I discovered the first of many mapping mistakes - the route I was following was somehow missing a big chunk. Instead of riding in a straight line north, I now had to ride back down the peninsula following the coast line. But it was stunning so I didn't care. It reminded me of another favourite ride, Paradise Loop in San Francisco, with the water constantly on my left. Except this was way better. I did care 5km later though, as when I returned to the cycle paths they were now all off road. I covered at least 15km of deep, loose gravel riding with all the grace of a PG Tips monkey (Google it kids). Not only was it nerve wracking, it was leg sapping. At one point I got a break from it and returned to tarmac paths, saying out loud to myself "thank God it's an industrial estate ". Not words I use that often. Or ever. In between all of these off road challenges, there was plenty of gentle climbing and descending, but it was nothing compared to the terrifying downhill towards Bellinzona: 10% for around 3km on a dual carriageway. By the end of the road my hands hurt from breaking and my forearms are burning. My Airbnb was another 10km away. I was tired I wanted it to be over for the day. I couldn't find the house, but worse I noticed that everywhere was closed. Where will I get food? I need like, a million calories to recover. I had to call me host for evening, Valerie, to ask for directions. It turns out that the house is another 1.5km away from where Google maps placed it. It's amazing how the shortest of distances impact my mood and by the time I arrived at her front door I must have been looking quite forlorn. She took one look at me on arrival and asked if I want some pasta. Being fed is not part of the Airbnb deal, so I was incredibly grateful. Not only did she cook me an industrial sized portion of pasta, it was washed down with two cold beers and I spend an hour chatting to her and her husband, an engineer who works on one of Switzerlands many hydroelectric dams. Over dinner Valerie explains that they actually accept very few Airbnb requests and she decides who can stay based on whether the people will have interesting stories to tell: "Since I now stay home home with my two young children, guests help me travel the world" she explained in flawless English (Her third language). People can be amazing if you open up to new experiences. Day 1 complete. Day 2 is the one I had been least looking forward to because I will have to climb over the Alps. In particular the St Goddard pass. It's 13k long, with 2,000m of climbing and the top 5km is cobbled. Because obviously someone decided it wasn't hard enough. Time to stretch and sleep.

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