13) Asti loop

With plans for a 4 day Italian truffle and wine extravaganza I flew to Geneva on a Wednesday evening in October 2016, arriving to find the weather pleasant and balmy. The next day the mother of all weather fronts was moving across Europe bringing with it death, destruction and sideways rain so we didn’t go anywhere until late Friday morning.

This is the scene that greeted us as we emerged from the Mont Blanc tunnel into Italy. We almost turned round and headed straight home, but fuck it we’ve come this far and we’re in Italy, let’s at least grab some lunch. After lunch as a result of all the wine we drank with lunch we decided to keep going.

Asti was wetter than a nun at a Chippendales show. Every flat surface was waterlogged, so we headed to a campsite because campsites have drainage but the campsite was closed. Luckily there was a non-flooded car park right next to the campsite.

Sleeping arrangements sorted, we heading into town we found a bar with a lovely flirty waitress who not very subtly encouraged us to drink many aperitifs before directing us to a restaurant which embarrassingly I’ve forgotten everything about except that it was in a vaulted cellar and was seriously good, and although (or because) we polished off two bottles of wine with supper Giles thought it would be a brilliant idea to buy a third bottle just in case. He also stole two wine glasses.

It turned out that “just in case” meant “to be drunk immediately”, but it was starting to rain so I suggested we put the tent up, but that just made it rain harder. I wasn’t very keen on drinking wine in a dark wet carpark so was about to hit the sack when Giles suggested we sit in the car and have a drink so we did and it was fucking bleak, but as I was serving Giles notice as to the terrible shitness of his ideas, to everyone’s surprise he actually had a good one: let’s climb over the gate to the closed camp site and have a drink sitting at a table on their covered terrace.

We had a good old drunken, shouty time until, on climbing back over the gate I drunkenly lost balance and fell and smashed my knee on a concrete bollard. It hurt like hell but I thought ah no problem it’ll be fine in the morning.

Day 1

We woke to find the floor of the tent was wet because I had stupidly put a tarp down as a groundsheet to protect the bottom of the tent from the wet ground. It didn’t work because whereas water seeps into soil, it doesn’t seep into tarp, and you get a kind of instant lake for your tent to sit on. I’d already made the same mistake on the last trip so not only was my sleeping bag wet, I also started to worry about the state of my mental capacities. Plus the morning was grey and foggy and depressing and we were both hung over (obviously) and my knee still hurt like hell.

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The fog lifted and the weather improved and we rode along surrounded by the hills of Piemonte on a gorgeous autumnal day, and apart from struggling with my knee which hurt like a bastard and riding through a swamp of thick gooey mud which jammed up our bikes, the morning was pretty uneventful until, a couple of kilometers outside Alba, we cycled past a massive field of weed.

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Granted we were on a tiny little back road, but I mean it was still quite a surprise: a whole field of big luscious sticky green buds, with no fence or anything. It stank to high heaven. I was getting all carried away and making plans to pitch the tent right there for the rest of weekend when Giles pointed out that a) it might just be hemp, i.e. no THC i.e you might as well smoke string and b) if it actually was weed then it certainly belonged to someone and that someone was probably armed and prone to violence if he caught people messing with his ganja.

Of course we had to find out whether it had any narcotic properties or not so we picked a big juicy bud, put it on the back of Giles bike to dry out for later, and continued on our merry way.

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But unfortunately we never did find out what it was. We stopped for lunch in Alba and Giles parked his bike in the middle of a square and left the weed there in full view of everyone and someone nicked it.

Anyhow, lunch. Lunch was things with truffles on accompanied by lots of delicious red wine. Basically it was everything we had come for, and we ate it in the sunshine on a busy terrace full of Italians having noisy, demonstrative, truffle induced foodgasms. Months later, Giles still talks gushingly about that lunch every time he gets drunk.

We set off alive with calories and ethanol and spent a glorious afternoon cycling mainly uphill. We ended the afternoon at about the same altitude we set off from so you’d have thought we’d have gone down as much as we went up but that’s not what happened. We went up much further and for much longer. But we’re learning to take hills in our stride, and they do come accompanied by views.

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At the top of one of the hills the booze wore off and my knee immediately set about letting me know what it thought about the strain I was putting it under. I swallowed handfuls of painkillers for the rest of the trip and managed to forget about it. That fucked it completely and I could barely walk for weeks afterwards, but hey, a nearly 50-year-old man’s got to do what a nearly 50-year-old man’s got to do.

Our destination was a small town by the name of Carmagnola and on arrival we headed straight to the municipal swimming pool. It was about to close but the kid running the place was a dude and let us take a warm shower (cost: €1). I think we amused him: two filthy vagrants on expensive bicycles reeking of alcohol and begging to be allowed to wash.

Carmagnola is, frankly, a bit of dump but we found a decent piazza with a bar on it and drank a couple of beers. Juventus were playing that evening (Turin is about 30km away) so the place was packed with jovial old wrecks getting stuck into the Fernet Branca and all shouting at once. In retrospect we should probably have stayed and watched the game, they beat Udinese 2-1 and I imagine the place was rocking.

Instead we headed for a great looking restaurant, which was full. They kindly directed us to another place which looked nowhere near as good but was friendly and busy and doing a roaring trade in takeaway pizza. Everyone in the place was eating pizza, so we did the obvious thing and didn’t order pizza. This isn’t the first time on a bike trip that we haven’t eaten pizza when we should have, in fact it’s the third and it’s frankly becoming tiresome. What we ate wasn’t very good.

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It was dark when we pitched camp by a beautiful moonlit field. In the morning we found we were right next to some industrial quarry thing.

Day 2

Without even really trying we managed to find the one solitary cafe in the whole of Italy which served bad coffee. Luckily though it was served by a bad tempered old hag and was squalid and fly-blown, so that was good.

The first few hours riding were flat and monotonous and I rode along missing the hills and scenery of the previous day, right up until lunchtime when, running on fumes because it was Sunday and there were no restaurants open anywhere, we turned left and were presented with a road that basically straight ran up the side of cliff.

Pushing, puffing, and feeling considerably older than is really fair, we finally made it to the top, where – joy! – there was an open restaurant.

They gave us beer, wine and food and it was all just as good as food can be when you’re very hungry and uncertain where your next meal would come from.

Then we cycled more or less downhill all the way to the car and went home. Short and sweet. The end.

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