Sea story: My first long-distance solo ride: Naples to Rome and back (1986)

Right after Christmas 1985, I kissed my wife and son goodbye, and flew to Naples, Italy, for my second NATO tour. Carol stayed behind to sell the house, while Daniel finished school. Meanwhile, I took up quarters in the Pensione Canada near the Mergellina tunnel, which runs between downtown Naples and the Campi Flegrei (Fields of Fire), a collection of towns sitting in the caldera of a vast, ancient volcano. Napoli dalla MergellinaMy room had a postcard picture view of Naples with Vesuvius in the background. Crammed in with my belongings, a sink, a bidet, and a card table for my typewriter, I imagined what Hemingway or Theroux must have felt like, living and working on the road. I wrote more then than at any time since. Some of it was even published. 1986-03-21 Pensione CanadaEvery morning, I held my breath to ride through the Mergellina tunnel to the NATO base in Bagnoli. In the evening, I would dine at a trattoria in Bagnoli or near the pensione. In Naples, the food was excellent everywhere. Indeed, the menu was usually the same everywhere; the only difference was the price. I ate cheap, and well.

Every week, I took the required tours of approved housing with the other Americans. After three months of this, I found a new three-bedroom apartment overlooking the Gulf of Pozzuoli. Carol and Daniel were going to arrive in late May. In early May, I decided to take an extended long weekend to do something I had always wanted to do: ride to Rome and see my old school. The school had closed, but I was curious to see what had happened to the property. This also gave me a destination. After all, the ride was the thing. Once my family arrived, I would never get a chance to take a trip like that.

The Velosolex that I had purchased in Toulon in 1975 (see the blog post of 5 April 2014) fell apart ten years later, when I was commuting in Virginia Beach. The salty sand from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula (1982) had gotten into the frame, and corroded the welds from the inside out. Three years after I returned from the Middle East, every weld came apart at same time. It was quite a surprise to find myself suddenly standing over a pile of tubes between my feet. I purchased a Nishiki road bike built with the same geometry, and took that to Italy. I upgraded some components, and built my own wheels, sitting in the living room of our new apartment in Pozzuoli.

The April showers had stopped the week before I set out. I followed the coast road on the ancient Roman highway connecting Pozzuoli (the Romans’ major naval base at Puteoli) and the capital, starting with the Via Domiziana, then the Via Appia where the Domiziana ended, and then the Via Pontina to Rome. I don’t remember much about the ride from Naples to Rome (223 km), except the pleasure of seeing familiar places again at a slower pace. Carol and I had lived in Gaeta, 100 km north of Naples in the early 70’s, and we had driven the roads between there and Naples many times.

Terracina-Giove Anxur

The massive Temple of Jupiter sits atop imposing cliffs. The Via Appia winds its way between the cliffs and the sea.

The first night, I camped in a national park near Terracina, behind and below the Temple of Jupiter Anxur, which was almost exactly halfway.

The weather changed when I reached the Eternal City. Rome had only changed to the extent that the open countryside between EUR (Mussolini’s failed 1939 World Exhibition) was filled in completely with high-rise apartment buildings, and busy, multi-lane boulevards. The traffic was just like the traffic I remembered, except that there were more traffic signals, more room on the roads, and a more rational flow.

Via Pontina

The Via Pontina runs across the rich, agricultural plain from Terracina to Rome.

There was a campground across the street from the old school. I pitched my cheap little tent in the dark as the rain turned into a downpour. The ground was cold and hard, and rivulets of rainwater kept seeping into the tent. I fell asleep when the storm finally blew over after midnight, from sheer exhaustion, and slept fitfully.

As is so often the case, the next day dawned with beautiful sunshine and pleasant temperatures.

The Vatican owned the property and the buildings of my old school. I had heard that it was a rehabilitation center for clergy. The gate was locked, and there was no sign of movement inside. So little had been done to the exterior that I could still read the impressions left by the letters on the empty sign at the gate: Notre Dame International School.

I rode down to my old neighborhood near the Vatican, and located an outdoor supply store, where I bought a decent sleeping bag and a new tent. I still have that sleeping bag today. I spent the rest of the day riding around my old haunts, and eating in the rosticceria around the corner from the elementary school I attended. The second night was far more tolerable back at the campground.

For the return trip (229 km), I decided to ride the Via Appia inland to Latina and skip the Via Pontina. The route is scenic, passing through Castelgandolfo (the Pope’s summer palace), Frascati, and Lago Albano. As a reward for the hills, I treated myself to an excellent lunch in a first-class restaurant in the countryside on the southern side of the hills. Eating al fresco, shaded from the bright sun by large trees, I ate slowly, and enjoyed watching the well-to-do “doing lunch.” Some were obviously romantic couples; others were having what we would call a power lunch today, which was a much more relaxed affair than the American version.

After lunch, I found that I had underestimated how long it would take me to travel the winding route through the Alban Hills. It was mostly downhill or flat, but I was less than halfway to Terracina when I left the restaurant. I arrived late at night, thoroughly exhausted, cold, and sore. I found a hotel that I could afford on the far side of town, and fell asleep in a dead heap on the bed.

The last morning, I hit the road promptly after breakfast. Compared to the ride north, the ride from Gaeta to Pozzuoli felt like riding downhill.

The Via Appia crosses the Garigliano River before turning east toward Brindisi.

The Via Appia crosses the Garigliano River before turning east toward Brindisi.

Before I knew it, I was crossing the Garigliano River, where the Via Appia turns back inland toward Capua and on to Brindisi on the Adriatic Coast. The Garigliano is the border between Lazio and Campania, not far from where Daniel would be going to elementary school. After crossing the river, I took the right fork onto the Via Domiziana, and stopped for a quick lunch, only 50 km from Pozzuoli. I was home for supper before dark.

Looking back, I have to say that covering 500 km that way was crazy. Granted, the bicycle was a dream with its custom wheels, light weight and the latest components. I did not subscribe to magazines about camping and long-distance cycling, not that there were many to be had. I learned the hard way about sleeping bags, tents, and what to pack. What I had going for me was being on my home turf. Had I been in unfamiliar territory, the trip might have been a disaster. Instead, it was an adventure — and fun, too.

The next time that I would try a ride that long would be the Climate Ride 2012, which was totally supported and carefully laid out. I also trained for three months before doing the Climate Ride. I will be going back over that route from Rome to Naples again, older and hopefully wiser than I was in 1986.

Fast forward to 2014. Soon I will be on the road again. This is the last weekend of frenetic activity and urgent choices. Starting next week, each post will include a small update about the trip itself.

Next week, we will see about what to do with what is not coming on the road. There are enough new features about the Northern Trek 2014, that packing for it has been a monumental challenge. Of course, if one of your questions or comments suggests something else, I may write about that.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan.

5 thoughts on “Sea story: My first long-distance solo ride: Naples to Rome and back (1986)

    • Dear Michele —
      I have kept a journal since high school, and, although I don’t consult it to construct these sea stories, the act of writing them down does help the memory stick. Also, these are the memories worth remembering. The flip side is that my life is as exciting or as dull as anyone else’s; I don’t remember the dull parts. You have an interesting life story yourself, you know.

      Like

      • I agree that our life’s stories are as interesting as we remember them to be. I have had tremendous life experiences. I can even find humor looking back at some of my worst disasters. What is that expression: “Someday we will look back on this and laugh” Do I ever have a lot to laugh about.

        Liked by 1 person

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