When Lynne Ashdown, her new lover, and more than fifty Italian male cyclists departed Italy in June of 1990, no one had yet ventured into the long-closed reaches of Eastern Europe since the falling of the Iron Curtain more than forty years before. They would be cycling almost a thousand miles from Verona, across Northern Italy, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland to Warsaw, in just ten days. Ashdown hadn’t realized she would be the only woman cycling with the fifty-four men.
Lynne and Nino had met as cyclists in Marin County, the northern suburbs of San Francisco. As they cycled together and soon become lovers, she accepted Nino’s invitation to go to Italy with him for the summer. Nino makes a vague reference to a cycling trip there, and suggests that she pack her gear. She does, but is immersed more in their new affair and the prospects of the Italian vacation.
Once in Italy, Nino immediately calls Dino, the contact for the cycling trip, and makes a date to discuss it. Lynne, referred to now in Italy as “Lina,” realizes only at dinner the length and difficulty of the trip. Dino says the organizers have invited her to cycle with them. She is suddenly aware that this has been previously discussed, and she sees Nino’s hidden agendas; he wants to cycle with the men while she passes out rolls at rest stops. But neither Dino nor Nino knew that she had been a competitive athlete much of her life, or that she might take their invitation seriously. And, she had no idea that women seldom cycled for sport in Italy, where the sport of cycling is mostly a closed male club, or that she would be the only woman cycling.
The next day she asks Nino if he thinks she can do it, and is taken aback when he says no. She weighs it privately and decides to go anyway, making a deal with herself that if she goes, she’ll finish on the bicycle no matter what.
Preparation follows: Dino and his son Guido help them train, and put her to the test. They push her limits, teach her to draft, and how to ride in a pack. The men range in age roughly from the thirties to the sixties. They are from seven cycling clubs in the Verona region. She is fifty-two. She thinks, If they can do it, why can’t I do it? She passes muster after a harrowing ride through dark tunnels, and Nino grudgingly accepts that she will cycle with the men.
And so the trip begins, sweeping them up the Brenner Pass into Austria, across the Austrian Alps as they pass into Eastern Europe, the borders having been opened only that year. She describes people’s lives and the contrasts she sees between East and West as she struggles with the long miles and her deteriorating relationship with Nino. She realizes now that she can’t be an Italian man’s glamorous traveling companion and a cyclist tough enough to cycle across half a continent with fifty men, all at the same time. She’s made her choice, and must live with the consequences. Meanwhile most of the men accept her at whatever level she can participate, and most cheer her on. Through tales of cultural collision, misunderstandings, despair, and humor, she makes friends even though they speak little English and she no Italian.
Luigi, a famous corridore (bicycle racer) who is the cycling leader, makes no secret of his hostility and pushes her up a huge grade without her permission. She grits her teeth and hangs on, earning his respect and kindling a mutual interest, which plays out during the course of the trip.
They find themselves stuck on an autobahn entering the city of Linz in Austria, and are escorted to their hotel by the angry police. They get lost, roads end in the middle of nowhere, it rains, mud coats them, cobblestones jar their teeth, the sun brightens their spirits. They are a traveling little piece of Italy, connected in their joy of the freedom of the road.
They stop in Czestochowa to see the Black Madonna, and give the custom de Rosa bicycle intended for Vaclav Havel, then President of Czechoslovakia, to the monk who is their guide. In Lodz, they learn the bravery of the city’s people who have endured the worst of wars. They cycle through the Polish countryside waving to farmers walking behind horse-drawn plows, and stopping in fields where a farmer brings fresh eggs and they offer wine, in friendship. The farmers’ houses are bare and their bodies too lean, but smiles are wide and welcoming to the cyclists, the first people they’ve seen from the West.
The true essence of the sport of cycling embeds itself deeply into Lina’s soul, and she exults in her joy of pedaling freely with the wind over vast landscapes, and her connection to the Italians who care for her without language, as Nino’s indifference increases.
Whether watching the men sneak their own food out of the vans to get enough to eat at a spare Workers’ Resort, at a posh hotel where the men pine for a bowl of good pasta, at a sober dinner saddened by a cyclist who broke his leg that day, or at a rest stop under a dripping tree with paninos, grappa, and espresso on an especially cold day, they have become her family—her only family now—for this little piece of time and space. She clings to this.
Because of her growing fatigue, she inadvertently falls asleep at a rest stop, awakened by the last cyclists leaving. She struggles to catch up, but can’t. No one waits. Realizing she’s been left, she fights down her anger and her fear, takes stock, and makes plans to cycle into Warsaw alone and return to Verona. Eventually they notice she is missing, and send someone back to find her. Angry, she refuses help, and cycles to where they have congregated. Nino is indifferent, and she makes a scene. Miserable and embarrassed, she listens as her friends convince her that everyone thought she was with another group, that they don’t keep such good track of her now because she can keep up.
She accepts this, having little choice, and both she and Nino both know the handwriting is on the wall.
Lina rides with the group triumphantly into Warsaw, enjoying a moment of elation at the successful completion of what she said she would do, and who she thought she was. At their victory dinner, they present her with a big bouquet of flowers, telling her, “With sweat and tears, the flower always rejuvenates.”
She sleeps beside Nino with elation at her success, and tears for the romance that might have been.
Lynne and Nino come to a fragile friendship in the knowledge that the future together they’d envisioned will never be. At the dinner, Luigi, who speaks no English, slips her a card with an address on it on which he has written, “Find me.”
Ashdown writes an Epilogue, reflecting on being on such a woman, the price paid, and what it means to be a cyclist.