Cycling in Sardegna

“Time is not a measure of distance,” Francesca’s son, Marco, says to her when she tells him the cycles last about four hours. It is the night before their first giro in Sardegna.

Time is not a measure of distance.

They lay on their single beds in the darkness.

“Don’t worry about your mother,” she says to her eighteen-year-old son. “This isn’t a race. This is about you overcoming yourself. Don’t look back. Put your foot on the pedal and go. I’ll be somewhere behind you, bringing up the rear.”

That he is in Sardegna at all with his mother is a gift. When Francesca told her own mother about her intentions to join this cycle group: “I’d feel a lot better if I knew your son would be with you.”

“Ma, I’m fifty-six. I don’t think I need a chaperone.”

“Just ask him.” Francesca did. He said “Yes.”

For not much longer now, will he accompany her. She knows this but has trouble accepting it, like Achilles’ mother, Thetis. She knew this, even as she held the feet of her infant son, kissing those little feet. “Ah, you kiss his feet now,” her husband had said to her, just years before their own separation. “These are the feet that will take him away from you.”

They meet the other cyclists, Robert and Mie, at the airport, with their bizarre bike suitcases. Robert will spend their arrival night reconstructing these bikes.

“She is Japanese,” says Francesca’s son.

“How can you tell?”

“Her voice sounds like leaves falling. Don’t you love the way she says his name?” Marco sings in a falsetto rise and fall, as if Mie’s voice were a leaf being lifted by wind.

And Francesca wonders, could any man, even one named Robert, hear his name pronounced in such a way without feeling himself cherished?

“Aren’t you going to try it out?”

Francesca feels like a circus bear on the bicycle: the handlebars too short, her legs not extending enough, wobbling all over. She gives up immediately before the horrified eyes of Robert and Mie. The bicycles Francesca and her son are trying to ride are rentals: hers with a small bell and a newspaper clip on the rear wheel, her son’s with the handlebars set high – an antique touring bike with thick wheels – nothing like the under-arched handles, heads down, rear-up racers with which they’ll be cycling.

“Fuck,” Marco says, as they walk their bikes past the ghostly rows of those belonging to the Italian cyclists – clip-on shoes tucked neatly under pedals, dust-shrouds protecting the work of multiple oils, and other forms of readiness. Hundreds of bikes, it seems to Francesca, losing count. To what has she committed them?

They deposit their rentals at the very back of the hotel storage tunnel.

“Forget the locks,” her son comments cynically. “Nobody, but nobody, is going to steal these.”

The room to which they are taken has one bed, a double.

“Sono mamma. Mio figlio è uomo. Non è buono, un letto…” she manages in her broken Italian. She is told in Italian to take the siesta, and afterward they will arrange a room transfer.

“Try not to disturb the bed,” she says to her son as they lie back, side by side, on top of the bedspread, knees bent over the end of the bed, still wearing their shoes. They pass seamlessly into sleep.

The next day it is raining, and the first giro is cancelled. Marco goes back to bed. Francesca hikes in the rain to the Grotto of Neptune with Dominique. Dominique is very French and feminine. She is the travel co-ordinator’s right-hand woman. Dominique tells Francesca about her marriage: “He was in love with his mother and, while I still cared for him and nurtured him, we could not continue in marriage. He had to love his oriental self.” Dominique is not resentful at all at her own betrayal, when he did eventually find an oriental woman to love. “Love simply died.” Is there ever anything simple about the death of love? Francesca wonders.

Upon their return from the cave of Neptune, the weather has broken. Broken or not, Francesca and son must get used to their rented bikes.

“Let’s try Alghero. It’s only fifty-nine kilometres.”

Francesca’s son will not wear his bicycle pants, insists on the ghetto basketball shorts. They struggle up the first hill and pause at an outlook.

“I can wait here while you go and get the shorts.”

“If you mention the bike shorts one more time, I’m over-and-out. O.A.O. You read me?” Marco talks like he text-messages.

“Fine, you want sore balls, that’s your choice. But what do I know? I’m just your mother.”

She rags on him all the way; and he on her.

“Do you really have to pee, again? What is it with women? My eyes are now trained to look for coverage for my mother’s ass.”

“Don’t make me laugh,” she yells forward. “I’ll lose what’s left of my energy.”

They make a lot of noise, mother and son.

There was something she had wanted to impart to her son in Sardegna. This, surely, isn’t it.

Getting to Alghero is not an arduous cycle. What makes it feel difficult is being uncertain of the way, as with all roads never travelled. The signs are clear, but she and her son are alone, together, in a strange country, and there are long stretches where not even a vehicle passes. Relief comes with a signpost.

A cycle group from France clips by – about fifteen cyclists – with a unison clicking of gears and whirr of wheels. And for a brief while, Francesca and son keep pace with the French on their rented bicycles. It comforts Francesca that they can. Then, the French cyclists, like a school of fish, flash suddenly to the right.

“If they were going to Alghero, they’ve just gone the wrong way.”

The sky looks ominous and desultory.

“I knew it,” her son says when the French pass them again – this time, the walled city of Alghero within sight. The French give them a backwards wave, and Francesca feels a huge gratitude – whether at Alghero, or the acknowledgment of other cyclists, she isn’t quite sure.

They are eating pizza, keeping guard over the bikes when the sky opens up and rain descends. After half an hour of watching rain, her son says, “There’s no way this is going to end. Let’s go.”

The way back is arduous. She is fearful, as they head out of the city in rush-hour traffic, in the rain. Her heart pounds. With Alghero at their backs, she has lost her sense of markers, simply struggles to keep up. Her son’s bike, which is without a back fender, throws the wet dirt up his backside, even to his shoulder blades. She is just about to say it, when her son feels her thoughts…

“If you say, I told you so, even once, I’m dusting you.”

“You can’t do that. I’m your mother. There’s no way I’ll make it back.”

On the last stretch, he surprises her with his gentle coaching.

“C’mon, Ma. One more hill. It’s all downhill to the hotel.”

“Why are my legs burning?”

“You started too fast. Your heart can’t pump enough blood to get a steady supply of oxygen to the muscles. Your muscles are probably burning glucose in the absence of oxygen. The waste bi-products are accumulating in the blood, and making your muscles feel on fire.”

“How do you know this?”

“Ever watch the Olympics? Those athletes who have been at the front the whole race? You’ll make it. Just keep pedalling. Past where you are is when the endorphins kick in.”

He makes her stop at the side of the road, drink some fruit juice and eat the crust of their left-over pizza, which he’d had the forethought to save in their knapsack.

“There’s only one way back to the hotel,” he tells her. “You have to do this. Tonight,” he orders, “you load up on carbohydrates.”

And this hill turns out to be the last hill and they coast back to the hotel, Francesca on a float of euphoria and gratitude for her son.

Look at you – so strong… You don’t know how really weak you are…
If anything ever happened to us…
You’ll never be able to keep the house, without me…
Sell when you can; you are not for all markets…
He’ll leave you in the end. He’ll betray you. They all do.
You’ll be alone.
Alone, and afraid…
All the voices through all the years – a choir of doubters, lending credence to her own.

Mie and Francesca try to learn the salsa together – after the siesta and before the evening ablutions. Mie’s body is supple and rhythmic, as fluid as her voice. Francesca is a stranger to women dancing together, stiff and inhibited.

Mie tells Francesca that her deceased husband was an artist, twenty years her senior, with adult children unsupportive of their father’s happiness with a younger woman. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and went quickly and in terrible pain. Alone in the depths of her grief, Mie was befriended by a street mutt, who pushed his furry head up under her limp hand as she sat on a chair in a public square of Florence.

“I named him Tosca. This name he accepted, as unconditional as his love.”

Mie brought Tosca home to her Florentine flat. With the advent of Tosca, Mie’s courage rallied, and she marshalled her deceased husband’s sculptures for sale, over the opposition of his adult children. She staged a final sale in Florence, and with the proceeds, funded her way home with the dog. The bureaucracy was byzantine over Tosca’s exit papers, the shots and quarantine.

“I knew my husband was watching over me, that he’d sent Tosca to guide and comfort me. Even this practical difficulty was to heal me. This is why I do not fear.”

“Robert is a lucky man.”

“Do you think so? Robert is a damaged man. I do not think he can trust a woman. He is full of fear. There is part of Robert that Robert cannot open. But so kind of you to say. I found Robert, the way Tosca found me. I held his hand. Robert has a choice to refuse. I wait. I still wait for Robert. Courage is not lack of fear. Courage is to choose, in face of fear. Now, Robert and I, we cycle together.”

Mie laughs. Her laughter makes the sound of loss and leaves, rising and falling on a sonorous breeze.

“I wonder how Robert likes living with Mie’s dead husband?”

Francesca looks carefully at her son. He is not joking. He seems to have accepted entirely that Tosca is the former artist, transformed.

That night at dinner, Robert says unexpectedly, “Son,” reaching across the table. He places his hand, palm down, across the left hand of Francesca’s son. “What you want to do in life is to avoid manipulative women. These drain your energy, pull you to earth, and leave you nothing but the memory of your own longing.”

Robert has silenced the table. Dominique, Mie, Francesca all look at him. Marco simply pauses in the cutting of his lamb chop, Robert’s hand on his hand.

Francesca thinks, Thank you, God. Thank you for this messenger.

At this moment, the hotel staff rescues them from their embarrassment – accordion, tambourine, and la bella Cristina – dressed in the traditional peasant costume of Sardegna.

“Ah, la bella Cristina,” Francesca laughs. “My son has always had a sweet tooth for the tarts.”

“Did you say anything to him?” Francesca’s son says in her ear, beneath the music, as la bella Cristina approaches, tambourine hitting her seductively swaying skirts.

“About what?”

“About Emma?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all. I think he was talking about himself.”

“I think so, too.” Marco releases her.

The way Robert had reached across the table…

When she was pregnant with this child, Francesca had marvelled at the way her body had seemed a universal property – the man who came up to her on the dance floor, and told her he did not think she ought to be dancing in her condition. And the client, who touched her stomach with both hands like a basketball player before shooting a foul shot – shocked at the hardness of it. She didn’t mind. It was almost as if it didn’t belong to her, this protuberance, her own body no longer her own. At the hospital, the Indian nurse had commented, “This is a spiritual child, very spiritual.” And those eyes, at three days of life, smiled up at her as if to say, Relax, Ma. We’re going to be just fine. You and me. It will all work out in the end. And in the end, there will be nothing more to cry about.

That’s the way Robert reached across the table – as if Francesca’s son were communal property, belonging to them all, everyone’s charge, everyone’s care and responsibility.

Marco stands on the little stage after dinner, before the eyes of the cyclists and their families, takes a piece of paper from his blue jeans pocket, and snaps open the page, like a fan. When he speaks, it is in Italian. Francesca is so surprised she almost doesn’t recognize her own son.

“La pillola del giorno dopo.
Un bambino si avvicina alla mamma e dice:
‘Mamma, mamma, a che serve la pillola del giorno dopo?’
La mamma risponde:
‘A digerire i piselli del giorno prima!’”

After Marco finishes telling this joke that he’d been rehearsing all day with the staff – young men and women with whom he has only the language of youth in common – the crowd of cyclists bursts into laughter. Where has he found the courage to stand there and communicate laughter in a foreign tongue?

“Hai capito?” asks a cycling co-ordinator of Francesca. “You understand?”

She understands only that her son has been embraced by an instant and collective affection – for trying to speak in their language, for having the courage to do so. The next day, walking toward the spot where the tourists have clustered amid the rocks, he will be greeted like a celebrity with “Marco, straniero.” The young men will pinch his cheeks, or snatch out at his ankles, as he walks past. She understands that this is a necessary affection, beyond the love that she unconditionally will always give, and for which she, his single mother, alone uncomprehending of the joke spoken in Italian, feels enormously grateful.


The Giro 

“La macchina antica è pesante,” one of the cyclists says, as Francesca walks her bicycle past, to take her place in the peloton. The Italian cyclist has reached out in a collegial way, but with critical concern, lifting the bike by the seat, as if to assess the situation.

“Sì, è pesante,” she answers, smiling back at him.

The number pinned to her bike shorts is 168. There are about 200 cyclists, she figures. There are two motorcycles at the front, an ambulance and provision vehicle in the rear. The cyclists fill the circular driveway in front of the resort, where the sounds of the flapping international flags and conversation energize their beginning. Dominique will be riding in the ambulance. She takes Francesca’s knapsack, which Francesca learns she is not allowed to wear. The organizers bark out the orders of the day on a megaphone, but in a jocular way, as if this is a Special Olympics. Francesca gives her son a swift embrace and heads to the back of the group.

The first seven kilometres feel like a meeting of the guys at the coffee shop. One cyclist chats on his cellular phone. Others talk among themselves. This is okay. Francesca thinks, this I can handle. But then, in unspoken unison, they pick up the pace.

“La signora canadese ha paura,” one guida says on his walkie-talkie to another guida at the front, telling him to slow the pace. They have just descended the first hill. “Non frenare,” the guida yells to Francesca, who has used her brakes on the way down.

With every downward hill she visually locates her son, climbing up the other side. He is the youngest cyclist in the group, and that he is at the front has everything to do with fearless youth and brute strength – a young man in his physical prime, no sense, as yet, of physical limitation or mortality. He is wearing the cycle shirt that Dominique gave him, which shows his abdomen and shoulder muscles, his slender male waist. He sits upright with those touring-bike handles, his large feet in Adidas running shoes, pushing the pedals, reminding her of the paws of a puppy golden retriever – so disproportionate in size to the clip-ons of the other cyclists. Son and mother are at opposite ends of the peloton, with the multicoloured flock in between.

One of the men at the back, riding with her, tries to urge her to move up into the group.

“Non mi tocchi,” she says to him, when he places his hand on her back to push her forward. “Non sono l’ultima,” she defends herself. “There’s you and you,” she indicates by pointing, not understanding that these men at the back with her are guides. One of them laughs. She hasn’t understood, as yet, that the group can only go as fast as its weakest link, and that there are men in this group who will be deeply resentful of the fact that she, a woman – worse, a woman who has clearly never driven in peloton formation – is slowing them all down.

“La donna indipendente…” is added to the growing list of labels. “La signora canadese…”

About an hour into it, she overhears a conversation neither men expect her to understand – thinking language a shield. One bets the other un milione di lire that la signora canadese will not make it past 11:00 in the morning. She stops looking at the Sardegnan countryside.

She books it out to the centre line, and lets go, flying past the cyclists on their lightweight racing bikes. Francesca discovers the joy of letting go, that her macchina antica can compensate with its heaviness on the downward inclines. And because she has trained on a mountain bike, her macchina pesante actually feels light. It has been as if she has trained jogging with weights.

When she joins the other Canadians, still breathless and on the outside perimeter, Mie encourages her to accept the assistance of the “pushers.” Mie tells her that on her first cycle, the guides had placed her in position where she was able to find her second wind. Robert counsels her as to how she can loosen the tension in her shoulders and neck, by being more buoyant with her grip on the handles. Robert also worries about Marco’s leg extension, which seems off balance in the right leg. “I’ll have to adjust his seat, at the lunch break.”

One of the guides cycles up beside her. His name is Paolo, he tells her. He asks if that is her son at the front? “Sì,” she says.

“Permesso,” he asks, respectfully, as he places his arm around her waist, pulls her cycle toward his own, and locks her in a form of embrace, their legs pumping in unison, his breath in her ear. He tells her gently, “Si soffre meno vicino a quelli davanti al gruppo.” You will suffer less near the front of the group. “Fidati di me. E potrai anche guardare tuo figlio.” Paolo must have a minor in psychology, as the ability to watch her son is definitely persuasive. Francesca lowers her head, relaxes her entire body to the point of closing her eyes, and lets Paolo pedal for them both. An amazing stillness enters upon her. She listens to his breathing, to the sound of the Sardegnan wind. When she opens her eyes she notices that Paolo has the most powerful quads she has ever seen. Robert calls out to her, with the insulation of language: “We’re all jealous, Francesca. Give into it.”

Paolo speaks quietly to the cyclists, as he moves her seamlessly forward into the group, telling each man, by name, to give way, jockeys her toward the middle, behind the front flank, three rows behind her son. Suddenly, he releases her, and there is wind beneath her. She flies, as if without effort. Uncomprehending. How did the obstruction lift, the wall that had kept her from this? Paolo is true to his word. She suffers less in this position – drafted by the strongest, those in front of the group, who take the wind on their chests.

Francesca looks around herself in amazement.

“Sei brava, Signora,” an old man says to her, sotto voce, just off to her right. She glances sideways at his face, at its wrinkles. Yet here, where they are, old as he must be, the man appears to have no trouble keeping up. Why does he whisper, she wonders.

“È vero?” she whispers back.

“Sì, è vero,” he whispers again, as if what he is about to say next must remain their secret, “Hai coraggio.”

Francesca rides like this for at least another half hour. She is euphoric. She takes the old man’s blessing. She takes the wind. She takes Paolo’s rescue and Paolo’s release. She takes joy in the Sardegnan landscape, joy in celebrating her son’s backside.

Her son, in the lead, has no idea whatsoever what has become of his mother. Knowing Marco, she also knows he will be worried. C’mon she thinks, let’s have fun with this.

They are close to the town where they will stop for refreshments before turning back. Francesca books it out to the left, to the mid-point of the road. Then, lifting up from the bike seat, she puts all she has into the homestretch. Excitement rises behind her.

Vada, signora, vada, vada…

The ripple of voices rises like a wave. The men at the front have no idea what is happening, Vada, signora, vada…!

Francesca whizzes past. As she does so, she breaks into song: “We are the champions, we are the champions…,” – which she and her son used to sing at the top of their lungs driving across the country, the car stereo blaring – glancing toward the right to catch the vision of her son’s “fish” look of amazement. Where in hell did she come from?

Grazie, Francesca thinks. Grazie, grazie…

And so they enter the town, with Francesca riding a wave of euphoria, laughing as she dismounts her bike and into the arms of Dominique who, unaccountably, is weeping, and her son, who keeps asking her over and over again, “Are you riding back? Are you riding it back?”

“Of course I’m riding back. The way through is the way back. There’s only one way back…”

“So what do you mean, I go for tarts?”

They are at the Rome airport, four hours of wait time before boarding the flight that will take them home.

“Do you think Emma is a tart?”

“No…” The unspoken but hovers in the air between them. And then Marco asks the question that is worth the whole of their Sardegna.

“So what, really, do you think of Emma?”

Francesca doesn’t hesitate.

“People fall into patterns, and this is Emma’s pattern… It is not if Emma is going to break your heart again, but when and how badly it’s going to hurt this time.”

Because, my son,
La bella Cristina to whom you give your love
Must treasure you,
As you do her,
As I do you –
As your father didn’t me,
My one, only son,
Whether she have the body of a goddess, or
Face of a dog.

Her first bicycle had been blue, with cream-coloured fenders, chrome handlebars, and blue-and-white streamers – one speed, with a bell. Every time Francesca’s foot had touched the pedal she’d gone off into her own adventure, face to the wind, home at her back. Over the years, the seat and handlebars had got adjusted upward. The bike had lost a spoke, never to be replaced. When she had gone to law school, her father had painted it and added a basket, for the groceries she purchased weekly at Ferlisi Brothers. She had kept it in the hallway of her campus apartment. Then, it had sat in the shed of her first home. She’d wept inconsolably at learning her husband, Marco’s father, had sold it without asking permission. That bike had meant the world to her. It had been the world. On it, everything had been possible, and she had been all she could be – setting the sidewalks ablaze.

It got you there, her father says, in defence of the old bike, when Francesca tells him this story to help pass the time. Francesca’s father is hooked up to his dialysis machine, and accepting, she thinks, of whatever is left of his journey. He has achieved the age of ninety-three.

More than there, Francesca suggests. Where is there, anyway?

There is not a place. Not a destination. 

There is the journey.

“You can make it, sweet pea, yes you can… Momma’s here…” And there she was, and is to this day, on her knees, praying for his journey, at the end of the long hallway, her arms outstretched, watching her son crawl toward her on all fours, pausing to understand the distance between himself and his mother, no concept as yet of time, the distance down the long dark corridor in the old house on Glebeholme Avenue – his face open – as yet without suffering, not even the suffering of birth, as he has been delivered by caesarean section. And when he reaches his destination, she sweeps him into her arms and, unaccountably, weeps and laughs, joyful at his accomplishment. Their accomplishment. For this is huge. Her son’s first journey… the one down the hallway of their first home, toward the destination of mother, who waits for him still, letting him seek and find, all on his own.

She knows this moment has to be, just as she knows he cannot stay in the same place forever. Yet she knows she somehow will also always be there, in that place, in the hallway, on Glebeholme Avenue.

“It is a good thing we didn’t know,” her son says of the giro years later. Francesca is describing how for months afterward, and even now, she will think of a particularly dangerous bend where her bike had wobbled and the voices of alarmed men had gone up all around her, the prospect of the tumble of bikes and bodies that could have happened. “It’s a good thing we didn’t know what we were getting into. We just put our feet to the pedal, and went.” 

Darlene Madott is a Toronto lawyer and fiction writer. Her most recent collection of short stories, Stations of the Heart (Exile Editions), was published in 2012.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 27.

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