FBA Member Cycling Adventures
Tom DeMarco, MD, is a FBA member since 2001. He divides his time between Whistler, Vancouver and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Tom often shares his cycling adventures and we are happy to share them as well. This is Part One of a Two Part tale. Enjoy!
“It’s easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter paradise.”
Though not a particularly religious man, my father often repeated this quote from the Bible. (He repeats his words a lot, especially now at age 98.) On a modest professor’s salary, I suppose he needed to prove that he wasn’t jealous of his rich brother who made millions developing real-estate in Toronto.
More a devoted environmentalist than a devout Catholic, I would instead declare that it’s easier to pass a manatee through the spokes of a bike wheel than it is for a rich man to maintain a low carbon footprint. If environmentalism were a competitive sport, personally I must concede defeat to any sub-Saharan African, what with my income at least 1000 times greater. But it is my life’s ambition to achieve the lowest ecological impact per net worth of anybody living in this Anthropocene era. How many other multi-millionaires do you know who bicycle to the laundromat? No car, no washing machine, no dryer, no red meat in my diet and no children, yet I don’t feel like I’m exercising any real self-restraint as austerity comes naturally to someone who never could relate to society’s compulsion for comfort, convenience and conspicuous consumption. Perhaps a result of being one of 12 children (OK, maybe Dad is indeed a devout Catholic, after all) material waste has always appeared immoral to me, and extravagance downright disgusting.
Time is far more precious than money so I do however retain one carbon-intensive indulgence. Though I feel like a fish out of water in airports and on airplanes, it is much faster to fly to Europe than it is to go by boat. Curiosity continues to compel me to explore the world as I revel in my lifetime passions for geography, languages, photography, biodiversity, transit, postcard writing, postage stamps and historic covered bridges. Most of all, I love to bike new roads.
I continue to fly four times per year, with itineraries respecting the following rules: no short-haul flights, no back-tracking, minimum 7-day stay for continental travel (unless a lay-over), minimum 14-day stay for intercontinental flights and of course, no taxis to or from airports as no engine ever runs just for me. I’m also diligent with the purchase of carbon offsets, donating at least $1 to environmental organizations for every dollar spent on air travel, favoring the Florida Bicycle Association as well as the Aviation Environment Federation – which campaigns for the establishment of tax on aviation fuel (incredibly, it’s currently illegal worldwide, an outrageous subsidy for airlines). Hopefully someday we’ll have technology that will provide us airplanes that don’t burn fossil fuels at all.
With these principles in mind, I formulated my latest itinerary. Over the span of 34 days, I decided I would:
#1 visit 5 of my G-children (God and Green)
#2 drop in on my parents in Ontario
#3 visit the home villages of all 4 of my G-parents (Grand, that is) in Italy, as well as the memorial of an uncle lost in WWII
#4 add 2 new countries to my list of European countries cycled
#5 spot some life birds
#6 ride some unfamiliar historic covered bridges
#7 cross paths with the Giro d’Italia, Italy’s version of Le Tour de France
#8 collect stamps in 7 European countries
Remarkably, I determined this could all be done with a single return flight Vancouver-Zurich, with 1 lay-over each way. The rest would ultimately be covered with 7 journeys by ferry, 13 by train, 3 by coach, and almost 2700 km by bicycle.
Likely the greatest navigational challenge of my life would come one week into the trip. Take out your world atlas (if you don’t own one, I can lend you one of mine, as I have 4) and find the island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea and then locate the island of Sardinia, Italy, 700 km northwest, and then tell me how you can get from one to the other in 28 hours lugging 2 road bikes with no ferry service from Sicily, the only land mass in between?
Two short-haul flights would do it but, as stated, they are against my principles. So the answer is you awake at 3AM in Valletta, Malta (site of my uncle’s memorial), bike to the port, plead ignorance regarding the necessity to make bike reservations 24 hours in advance, board the day’s only ferry with 2 minutes to spare and then disassemble and bag your bikes under the glare of disapproving staff as you sail back to Sicily (which we traversed by bike the week before, home of my maternal grandparents), then you ride a coach to Catania, then you carry your bikes 1 km to the train station (remember, no taxis permitted) to catch a train to Messina, then another 800-metre walk, then you negotiate permission to board a ferry that is not supposed to accept even bagged bikes to get to Calabria (the toe of the boot of Italy, where we also rode the week before, to visit my father’s childhood home village), then you board a train to Naples, then you reassemble the bikes and slalom through the chaotic streets of Europe’s version of Manila, where cycling is actually nevertheless quite safe, as the motor traffic barely moves, then you somehow find the ferry ticket office (no sign) minutes before the week’s only departure, and then you triumphantly board the overnight boat to Cagliari, Sardinia, breathing the biggest sigh of relief of your life.
Huge stress and hassle today, but it could be worse…my grandparents set sail from the same port 100 years ago, with no on-board access to fine food, good wine and a comfortable cabin, and their journey was 16 days long, a one-way trip to New York City.
OK, enough about travel with bikes, I believe the editor was expecting a story about travel on bikes, so I’ll share the ‘good news’ first.
Every winter here in Whistler, I’m regularly asked “Isn’t it too cold to ride your bike?” I point to the mountain and reply “Is it too cold to ski?” Sitting on a saddle and pumping your legs in the valley is a lot more comfortable than sitting on an exposed chairlift, immobile, in the alpine. In fact, my only thermic concern is over-heating, especially if I’m in a rush pedaling to a house call up to a slope-side condo.
However, deep fresh snow can be a barrier, so in order to service clients on such days, I keep a pair of cross-country skis in my clinic. But it never occurred to me to bring them along as I embarked on a 4-week bike tour of several Mediterranean islands this spring. Yet, awakening in my hotel room in Vizzavona, Corsica (France), on May 15th, elevation 3500 feet above sea level, I peer out the window and suddenly wish I had bungeed my skis to the crossbar, as the island is in the process of receiving its biggest dump of the year – 6 inches of fresh snow, a full 2 months after winter! But I’m not too choked, as the poor riding conditions make for brilliant writing conditions, postcard writing, that is. Adversity becomes advantage as this extraordinary weather event provides interesting content for the folks back home, presumably a welcome respite from the past week’s boring literary accounts of consistently quiet, beautiful pedaling both on this island and on the previous, Sardinia (Italy).
Luckily, our Hotel D’Oro happens to be located adjacent to the only snow-clearing station in the area. By 2PM the mountain pass is clear, so I close my ‘postcard-iology’ practice and pack up the panniers. There’s not much to load in them, as we don almost every stitch of clothing in anticipation of a long, cool descent back down to the sea. Surprisingly, the snow does not disappear from the roadside until we are below 2200 feet altitude, the same as Whistler village…490 miles further north, when was the last time we got 6 inches of snow in the valley in mid-May?
I look at my watch…still 4 more hours of daylight, and it’s likely only 2 hours’ ride to the nearest hotels, down on the coast. (Of course, as usual, no rooms have been booked along the way.) That means there remains 2 hours in my life to find the rare and elusive Corsican Nuthatch, an endemic, a species of bird found only here, in the mountain pine forests of this island. The tiny bird eluded me 23 years ago when I first biked Corsica, and as lovely as it is as a riding destination, I don’t expect to return as I’ve now covered almost the entire island, and I never bike the same route twice. Back in 1996, except for my odometer, I travelled without any electronic device. I still don’t. In fact, it’s been 3 weeks since I last checked an email on a hotel computer. But Hisano, my partner, always carries her smartphone, presumably because she still doesn’t believe I can always score accommodation without one. I don’t own such a device, but now I wonder aloud “if your phone can find hotels, can it also find birds?”
We stop along a deserted road in the next stand of mature pines. It’s dead silent, not a creature is stirring. A confirmed Luddite, forever skeptical of both the value and of the capabilities of technology, I’m quite surprised to soon hear Hisano’s apparatus loudly chirping, supposedly a reproduction of the bird’s call. But I’m far more astonished when just moments later, creeping along a branch far overhead, I observe in my binoculars a…. CORSICAN NUTHATCH! My elation far exceeds the guilt of reliance on electronic assistance to find the object of my desire. It is merely #3164 on my life bird list, but one of the most dramatic discoveries ever.
This was the highlight of the entire journey, a sense of triumph that may even exceed that which we experienced the week before, when we also overcame unlikely odds to board the ferry to these islands. But fortune, both good and bad, tends to ultimately deviate to the mean, as we will soon be reminded a few days later, with a disappointing event back on the Italian mainland, rather more sinister than fresh snow. Part two has a little bad news, but a happy ending nonetheless. Stay tuned.
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