Castelfranco di Sopra
To my good fortune the bar that the cycling fans all hang out with is the Communist Party bar, much to the delight of the locals who think all Americans see Communists as our sworn enemies. The Christian Democrats are the soccer bar across the way and they are concerned for my welfare hanging out with the communists, so a lot of confusion and jokes were made about all that. I understood none of this for the first few month until I came up to speed with the language and could joke along with them and assure them all I cared about was racing my bike. One thing that helped immensely was that I insisted I was a Californian, not an American just as they were Aretina not Italian. (We were just over the border into the province of Arezzo, therefore proudly not Florentine)
I got sick about a week after I got there. It was bronchitis from riding hard in the rain. It’s always nasty in the beginning when you get there with new bugs, cold rain and hard training as you have to prove yourself to the other riders every day. I’d done a few races, and these were not local races because with a foreign license I could not race smaller races. My team mates did about as well as I did whaich was not good, and then I got sick. Coughing up blood sick. Taking antibiotics would set you back about 2 months in fitness so I didn’t want to do that and they knew it too. Fortunately they had a better way to treat you there that was not available in the US, using a device which turned the antibiotics into a mist you could inhale so it went right to where it was needed to go an didn’t wipe you out. Remedia took care of me and I regained health fairly quickly.
I was eating at the local restaurant which took great care of me and helped me eat proper Italian food for recovery. Everyone was concerned and helpful. The son in the restaurant even offered to let me listen to his Barry White records which as he said he knew was what all Americans listened to. I had to play for him some more current genres of the time to help him with his passion for American music which seemed to make him sad and for which I apologized and extolled the virtues of Barry White until he felt better. I was learning. Even so, they fed me well and made sure I ate only proper bike racer meals. I was well taken care of.
A sunny afternoon and I was still healing so I was sitting in a chair in the piazza trying to soak up some rays and Marcello drives up in the team car, a broken down Fiat with the name of the town on it and a humongous bike rack as big as the car.. He has some conversations and waits for a crown to gather, reaches into the car and pulls out a bunch of tires and marches over to me with this armful of flat tires and drops them onto the ground in front of me and says it’s time to earn my way a bit, then turns around and walks off. It was humiliating and very public. Even I understood the significance. They’d been paying my hotel and food bill and I’d done 3-4 races and not done well. I was racing with a couple of locals as my team in National Caliber races well above their pay grade, so they couldn’t win anything, and we were up against some really big teams with usually at least a dozen team mates. It wasn’t easy sick or healthy and I was still learning who the good riders and teams were.
Smilin’ George following his first big win. Renato is second from right and far right is a very pissed teammate.
But I was pissed and back to good health so the next Sunday I won a big race. Can’t even remember the race but it was big, and I remember what happened afterwards. Marcello wasn’t at the race I think because he was pissed off at me. No one had cell phones back then so as we got near town it was going to be a surprise. About a kilometer before we got back to town Renato pulls over and straps the humongous flowers I won to the front of the bikes on the roof of the car. We roll into the Piazza with all horns a blazing, and I mean that, they had insane horns on the team cars so you could hear them in the pack when they were coming up Every team was different so you know who was rolling by you and where your car was.
Into the Piazza we come and the entire town is out for a sunny Sunday afternoon of debating sports and politics and Renato screeches the car to a halt in the middle of the piazza almost killing a couple of people and probably some cats. He jumps out and if you think you’ve heard Italian spoken fast, think again. The entire town is hearing everything and all talking at once as I step out of the car to arms and accolades. I am almost redeemed, one last thing to do to make everyone happy. Seems like just a couple of minutes and Renato pushes me back into the car, we’re not done. I’m stunned, confused and tired but do as I’m told. We drive all of about 100 meters to the local church and he signals me to go in and give the flowers to the Father and I do as I’m told which confuses me a bit as I’m not religious but I am just smart enough to follow his lead. The Father is happy to see me and says something I don’t understand. Back in the car for another grand entrance to the piazza and we start all over again with everybody loving everybody and politics and polemica set aside for that afternoon.
The next day I hear Marcello is back and in town so I gather up the armful of flat tires and march down to the piazza and, in front of everyone, like a modern microphone drop, I let them fall onto the ground and in my bad Italian say “I don’t patch tires, I win races” and sit down to enjoy the sun.
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