Monday, 21 July 2014


It was during the Italian Dolomites Smiddy Challenge that news reached me of my good friend Herman Herlaar was again unwell with the reoccurrence of his Melanoma. A disease he has fought for over a decade. I exchanged emails with Herman and he was his usual positive and selfless self. A blog from the second last day of the ride was dedicated to Herman and he indicted to me that he was tickled pink that we would do that for him. It never seems enough but we were all happy it had a good effect on Herman. Yesterday Alyssa and I returned home after an amazing three weeks in Italy. I turned my phone on at the airport and the first message is from Chris Geeves telling me that Herman had passed away. I couldn't believe it. I thought of that call that David Smiddy made to me back in 2006 when his son Adam passed away. I needed to sit down then and needed to sit down again at the airport. I had promised Herman I would be in to see him on my return. Once again I am devastated, once again I am sad and once again I am angry. The last time I got angry was when Melanoma robbed the world of Adam. I channelled that anger into doing something about it and Smiling for Smiddy was born. Herman's news is yet another reminder of the constant battle we face and how the march forward has to continue. I know when I return to the Mater Foundation on Wednesday as my first day back at work, that it will be with renewed vigour and enthusiasm to raise as much funds as humanly possible to enable our researchers to continue in their quest to find a cure for these cancers that are taking from us the ones we love.

This blog I would like to dedicate to my friend Herman and his partner Michelle and their families. I know Herman wanted us all to celebrate and live life like there was no tomorrow. I can honestly say I have been doing that ever since Adam passed away in 2006 and that Herman would be proud of me for the time that I had in Italy, first with Team Smiddy, and then with my beautiful Fiancee' Alyssa Coe.

It's been two weeks now seen the 2014 Italian Dolomites Smiddy Challenge finished. Our close knit band of Smiddy Brothers and Sisters, who had been through so much together during those six hard fought days of cycling over some of the toughest climbs in all of Europe, separated to follow their own agenda's. For Alyssa and I we had always planned to remain in Italy for a further two weeks for whatever unplanned adventures took our fancy. We did have a base to go to after the Smiddy tour; a lovely old home, nestled in the foothills of the Dolomites, that was built in the 14th century. One of my good friends owns this house and he kindly loaned it to us for the duration of our stay. A huge thank you to Mattia Anesa for entrusting us with his magnificent home. Half of the three story house is the original building, while the adjoining modern other half was built in the 80's. Venturing into the old part of the home was akin to stepping back in time and we could only marvel at how well structures were built back then to withstand the trauma's of time passing.

So I guess I wanted to write this blog as a memoir of our three week immersion into Italian culture. Hence I have managed to come up with ten memorable sights, events or occasions, that will have to suffice out of the many more that shaped this trip up as one of the highlights of my numerous trips to Europe over the past 20 years. In no particular order, I welcome you to, what was for Alyssa and I, our most excellent trip to Italy.

The Smiddy tour of the Dolomites for both of us is what came to mind first and foremost. The challenge in completing a staggering 15,000 plus metres of climbing over just six days of riding. The friendships we forged with Gary, Kerry, Matt, Jason, Peter and Phil, and of course our magnificent guides in Will, Pippo, Valentino and of course the 'hard as nails' Ingo, will always be treasured in our minds and hearts. The mountainous sights that we witnessed were indescribably and unbelievably beautiful, and it came as no surprise to find out it is World Heritage listed. The entire group were in awe of the power these high snow-capped mountains possessed and our appreciation for professional riders racing up these tortuous beasts was now off the charts. The food on that tour was typical Italian gourmet feasts, but more importantly those nightly affairs provided some of the best social times of the entire trip. You see, nearly the entire tour was so mountainous that we were either climbing or descending by ourselves. There was no real flat roads where the group could ride as a two-abreast peloton, which is perfectly normal for any other Smiddy tour but not here. I missed that, as I know did the whole team. But boy we made up for it in the huddles and the team dinners.

One of the joys about driving a car in Australia is just how easy it is. I have driven enough in Europe, Asia or America over the past 30 years to truly appreciate Australian roads and conditions. For all those drivers in Australia that experience impatience and or road-rage I just feel sorry for them. They need to hire a car in either of the above countries; not to learn how to drive again, but to learn how to appreciate just how good we do have it in Australia. I will talk just about Italy now as it is freshest in my mind, for we just survived two weeks and 2000 kilometres of driving amongst some of the most aggressive yet, and -here is the contradiction-not impatient drivers known to man. Let me ask you this: if Italian drivers can accept the fact that their fellow drivers can drive as if they are solely the only drivers on the roads and not lose their cool when their own drivers have blinkers but never use them, fly through roundabouts with no indication at all as to which exit they intend to take, changed lanes constantly, again with no indication, to overtaking on blind corners, double lines and through immensely long tunnels over double white lines, to speeding 50km/h over and above the designated 130km/h motorway speed limits, to merging in the utmost dangerous fashion, to suddenly coming to complete stops when on minor roads to make a turn but again without indicating, to pull out in front of you from a side street, again with no indication, to not stopping at stop signs, to tailgating you because you have the audacity to sit on the speed limit and the list goes on and on, then why can't we Australians, be more understanding or patient, with drivers in our own country, when on the very odd occasion, when any of what I have written above, happens to us? I just don't understand? Anyway apparently Italy is one of the highest risk countries in the world for tourists to have an accident in their hire car. The excesses they charge are indicative of this, as we were informed that if we did not take out an extra 600 Euro insurance cover we would be up for the first 2000 Euro in the result of an accident. This is where you need to check your travel insurance as the good insurances will cover your excess and save you a wad of cash when hiring a car in Europe. Anyway we were insured and more importantly we got the vehicle back intact, although Alyssa and our traveling companion Katie Dick, who hooked up with us for five days, both suffered passenger induced stress from all the close calls. They trusted my driving they said but not the driving of the locals.

Each and every time I visit Europe I am always blown away by the old architecture still standing, some up to and over 2000 years of age. They built shit to last back then! The sad thing is if not for all the religious wars, land wars, I have-larger-genitals-then-you wars and of course the World wars, a whole lot more of it would still be standing. Anyway we appreciate what is left and the history behind the buildings, monuments, cathedrals, statues and bell towers. I drove Alyssa crazy always asking this question; "Honey how old do you think this is?" I thought of Alyssa as my own personal European historian. It did not matter that she was born in America and this was her first time ever to Europe. She is a smart lady and surely those school history lessons she remembered... Not so apparently so anything that interested us we made a soft attempt to look it up on google when and if we had access to wireless.

Our good friend Katie stayed with us at Mattia's home for the first three nights. She then needed to get to Rome to catch her flight home to Australia. Thanks to Katie organising the hire car we decided that a trip to Rome was on the cards. A leisurely eight hour drive south from where we were staying in the North of Italy. To travel anywhere fast in Europe the Motorways are manically busy, you take your life in your hands, the diesel and the tolls are expensive and the Italians have not yet cottoned on to the joy of take away coffees at the motorway service centres. Here you pay for it at a separate counter, present your docket to the coffee counter and drink your cappuccino or expresso, along with your croissant, while standing at the counter with 25 other customers, or 55 if you are lucky to arrive when the tour busses do. The major motorways have four lanes, while others have three or two. The less lanes generally means narrower lanes as well. The two lane tunnels of up to and over two kilometres in length are impressive as they cut through entire mountains and are a engineering marvel. But man you so need to have your wits about you as anything can and does happen in those dark cavernous entities that seem to have a life of their own as the noise of the trucks and cars combined with the fans going full tilt keep the nerve endings tingling. All the hire cars are over geared here with six speed gear boxes. Sitting on the speed limit of 130km/h requires the car to sit on just 2000 rpm's, which is extremely low for that speed. I would jokingly comment to the girls that I was going to go into the 'Big Boys Lane' when I needed to overtake. If it was three or four lanes wide the safest bet was in the second fastest lane. Only when necessary would I venture into the Big Boys lane, and when I did, I did it quickly and got back to the safety of my lane. Otherwise someone doing 180 to 220 km/h would be up my butt and there would be no horn, no finger, no aggression, just the menacing cars presence. That was enough! Not once, not ever, could I actually switch off and enjoy the drive while on motorways. Back roads sure thing, but motorways never.

We have never stayed in a hotel that is specifically set up for cyclists. It was during the Italian Dolomites Smiddy tour that we got to experience it when we stayed for three nights in Bormio. There are five of these hotels set up across Italy and as we had such a good experience in Bormio we decided to try the cycling friendly hotel that was an hour south of Rome. The town was called Fiujji and was nestled at 700 metres above sea level. How a cycling hotel works is you pay the one price for the following benefits. Breakfast and dinner provided and a packed lunch to take with you on your cycling adventure on any given day. Your bike attire is laundered each day. A secure bike room in the basement is set aside for all the guests bikes as no are bikes allowed in the rooms. You can hire extremely good quality bikes for as little as 40 Euro a day. They provide maps of all the best bike courses in the region, the hotel in Bormio even provided free guides for group rides up and over all the famous climbs. Fiujji did not provide this surface but still had the course maps. The staff at Bormio were genuine bikers themselves but no so in Fuijji and the food they provided was plentiful smorgasbord type meals rich in carbs and protein.Lastly there are all the tools you will ever need and cleaning products, rags etc are all part of the deal. All for 90 Euro a day, which represented excellent value we thought. Our stay in Fuijji was awesome and we got in two great rides of 30 kilometres on day one and 90 kilometres on day two, which took us up to 1600 metres, with a reward of a 22 kilometre descent. Katie spent those two days with us and early in the ride she popped a spoke. Resulting in a rear wheel so badly buckled that she limped back to the hotel and went for a run instead. She was bitterly disappointed and we tried unsuccessfully to convey that the 90km loop was fairly ordinary, when in fact it was the complete opposite and another amazing day of cycling in the hills of Italy. A funny side story before Katie left us was when the girls passed some cows and horses and even one donkey as they were taking a leisurely stroll down the middle of the road. The cows took a liking to the girls and appeared to start chasing them down the road. I was watching it unfold and recorded it on my iPhone as I was behind them at the time and they were completely oblivious to it until I showed them the footage. Funny stuff!

After our great stay in Fuijji we dropped Katie to the the airport in Rome via those entertaining motorways... After biding farewell to Katie, Alyssa and I left the car at the airport and caught the train into the centre of Rome to spend half a day looking at just a few of the many sights that Rome has to offer. As it turned out we were happy with seeing the Colosseum, the remnants and ruins of the original Rome and the waterless Tevi Fountain, which was a huge disappointment due to it undergoing repairs, surrounded by fencing, a thousand tourists and hecklers all insisting we buy an umbrella or statue from them! It was kind of fun but we had booked into a hotel in Florence for that night thanks to a hot tip from the app Trip Advisor. Which we totally recommend as a valuable travelling tool if unsure of where to stay or eat. Once again it was back to the motorways and three hours later, with Alyssa's nerves once again frayed to a slivers edge, we arrived safely to our hotel in Florence. I am happy to report that it was just as delightful as the comments on Trip Advisor said it would be. We arrived at seven-pm and had dinner at 8:30pm at a great restaurant recommended by Trip Advisor. And no I am not on a commission! The next day we set out early and had a most wonderful day in Florence enjoying all the famous sites but without the annoying Rome tourists crowds and annoying hecklers. It was then back to our base at Mattia's home in Gorma St Marino, which meant another four hours of motorway driving and elevated stress levels all round.

I remember when I toured through Spain back in the 90's that every town you passed through enjoyed the mandatory castle. At first I wanted to visit each one, but upon realizing the frequency of these objects they quickly lost appeal. In France it was all the Cathedrals, museums and roundabouts, which I was happy to visit a few cathedrals and museums but roundabouts you had no choice in the matter, they just kept on coming! In Italy I can assure you that clock towers and churches are all the go. The same designer for the clock towers must be a rich man as we spotted hundreds in our travels and all were very similar in architecture and materials used. The traditional half and on the hour ringing of the bells can be heard for kilometres away. Too bad for any nightshift workers... I think they did not chime after seven-pm or seven-am. Our little village that we had as our base, two of these clock towers existed and Alyssa pointed out that they must have reached an agreement to not ring their bells at the same time. One would gong and when the other had finished, count 30 seconds and the other would follow. Brilliant! You got to hear these chimes 24 times a day! When Katie was with us we paid a visit to a local village just 20 minutes drive away called Cluson. Now it had a clock tower and a cathedral that was super impressive, not just for its sheer size but for the fact that one of the Popes actually paid a visit to this historic and gorgeous little town. I have no idea what came over me but I paid good money for a 1000 piece picture puzzle of the clock tower. As a bonus they threw in a mini puzzle of that Pope. I have never bought a puzzle in my life! So that is my story of clock towers and how they somehow managed to possess me to the point of buying a puzzle, that by all certainty, will remain in the box forever in the back of my wardrobe back home!

Now the north of Italy gets a lot of snow throughout winter. So much so that when the snow starts to melt in Spring, it fills the rivers and keeps them flowing continuously throughout not just Spring, but all of Summer and most of Autumn and never does all that snow melt. When it just about runs out Winter is back and the process starts all over again. On numerous occasions we got to experience just how cold that water was. Mid summer here and a dip in any of the rivers is feet only and if you can last longer than a minute without screaming in pain then you are either very brave or have no nerve endings in your feet. All the water out of the taps to drink is beautiful and cold and if you are fortunate enough to visit any of the refreshing spas in the area I can warn you from experience do try the hot sauna's but you take your life into your own hands by doing the cold water dip up to your chest. One of the Smiddy lads, Peter D'Angelis managed to stay in this tub of 10 degree water for one minute. I was pathetic and lasted less than ten seconds. Certainly was refreshing though! When out riding in the Dolomite region topping up your water bottles was never a problem. Just fill up from one of the many spots that are installed to tap into the natural fall of the water off the mountains. Hey an interesting fact about the Dolomites is that all those mountains were originally under the sea. To this day climbers are still finding sea shells and various evidence of the mountains origins atop some of the highest peaks. The Dolomites are about 250 millions years old, give or take a year or two... and are composed mainly of sedimentary rocks and limestone. Today, we can hardly imagine that once the mighty mountains were an enormous coral reef, formed in the primordial ocean called Tethys. Anyway that's your history lesson for this blog!

When it comes to speaking foreign languages I am really proficient at English and even that is open to argument. I literally suck at any other language other then good old Aussie slang. But I can assure you I more than make up for it with the pantomimes, facial and hand gestures and the mandatory speaking English with an Italian accent, when trying to get what I wanted out of any particular situation. It is hilarious and embarrassing at the same time. Let me share one story with you that had Alyssa and Katie cringing in embarrassment. It was during one of our casual 100 kilometre loops that we did from Mattia's home. These loops would take nearly all day due to the amount of climbing we did, but also due to the the stops for photo opportunities and mandatory coffee and croissant breaks at the many delightfully welcoming small mountain villages we would pass through. So we had just met up with a lovely Italian couple that were retired and out for a casual drive to admire the views. They both spoke English and when we parted company they suggested you visit the old church up the road that was 600 years old. When we got there there was a group of kids playing soccer on the cobbled courtyard. I was saying hello and trying to tell them my name and asking their names. I was successful and then it got funny when I was attempting to tell them where we were from. The Italians don't understand our pronunciation of Australia and would always give you a quizzical look of confusion. But once they got it their expressions would always brighten. As usual when you travel anywhere in Europe Australian's and Kiwis's are extremely popular. Being English or American does not favour as well. Alyssa would immediately fall back to her Australian tag in these situations. Anyway these kids were just not getting it so I then went into my kangaroo pose and starting hop, hop hopping around in my bike shoes. This is when not only the girls took leave and pretended not to know me, but when the kids started to back away as if I was a dangerous animal. I think they will talk about that strange foreigner for a time to come.

Well firstly congratulations if you have gotten this far into my article. You have just notched up 3384 words of my drivel. So you may as well go the whole hog and read this final tenth Italian highlight of our trip. Now personally I managed to clock up over 1000 kilometres of riding on Italian roads. Which included a touch over 30,000 metres of climbing, but more importantly over 30,000 metres of descending! Which is equivalent to a couple of hundred kilometres of descents. Yep Italy is a descender's paradise! Anyway I am hoping that this qualifies me for the following evaluation of life on the road as a cyclist in Italy. Alyssa and I found the drivers to be erratic but generally safe towards us as cyclists, but all that went out the door once we swapped bikes for cars. The interesting thing about how cyclists ride over here is that they generally don't ride two abreast. It is either single file or all over the road. What we found with the cars is that it did not matter where you rode on the road, on the side, in the middle, the cars would always go around you. Never would they blow their horns in anger but occasionally just to let you know they were coming. This was especially prevalent with busses and trucks coming up behind you. Most Italians seem to be not happy unless they are speeding, whether on the back roads or the motorways they always seem to be in a hurry. So when they pass you they pass you fast, way faster than Australian drivers, but in a safer manner as they don't come as close. Here in Australia we have the 'Metre Matter' rules, the campaign to pass cyclist and give them at least a metre of clearance. In Italy there is no such rule or government campaign, they just seem to do it. Guess it comes back to cycling having such history in these European countries. Having said that we would always, just as we would in Australia, choose back roads to keep us off the busier thoroughfares, which always makes for enjoyable riding. A word of warning though when it comes to tackling the big mountain passes like Stelvio and Garvia. Once any road in Italy either goes up into the clouds or has heaps of switchbacks you have to share the route with hundreds of motorbikes. I am a motorbike rider myself and was ashamed at how a large majority of them carry on with their passing maneuvers of cyclists in their quest to reach the top, or the bottom of these massive climbs as fast as possible. We all found it funny that we, as cyclists, would have to wait for the motorbikes to finish their photos at the Passo signs, signs which indicate the name of the climb and the altitude in metres, before we could get our shots completed. What took us two hours to climb the Stelvio or the Gavia at over 2700 metres using just our lungs and our legs, the motorbikes would do in 20 minutes using their right wrist to turn the throttle. I don't begrudge them of their fun and achievements, believe me I understand! I see it from both sides of the coin. I only wish they would respect us as fellow bike riders and pass us accordingly with respect and safety. Of course there were the polite motorbike riders as well, who were wonderful and my heart went out to them as I know that is how I pass cyclists when I do my motorbike trips back in Australia. Sports cars are also attracted to the mountains, as are just normal motorists and except for a select few, we were treated with great respect by the majority. To sum up we definitely felt way safer cycling in Italy than on the roads back home. But I always feel that way on any of my European trips that involve cycling.

I started this blog when in Italy, worked on it again on the trip home to Australia, and now suffering from jet-lag, both Alyssa and I are wide awake at two-a.m. this Tuesday morning. So while she is reading beside me I have finished off this blog. It is now six-a.m. Alyssa is up and getting ready for work. I am back at work massaging today at Allsports Physiotherapy, before returning to the Mater Foundation tomorrow for my work on Smiddy events. Like all good holidays, after a week back at work you begin to wonder if the whole trip ever happened. Memories are good but for me they eventually fade in my aging mind. Words are another matter, always there for reflection. Hence the reason for this blog. Memories of our adventures in Italy should never be forgotten! Just as memories of Adam Smiddy, Declan Duck, Herman Herlaar and many others will always be with me for as long as I have on this Earth.

Thanks for getting this far and my next blog won't be for a while now until the ninth edition of the Smiddy eight day Challenge begins at the end of August.

Until then take care and stay safe on our roads.



  1. We did a similar trip for week last summer and it was wonderful. We people enjoyed a lot. I want to do an eating tour of Italy some day. Thanks!
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