At the back: Lost in Italy

One wrong turn in Italy, and it could mean you’d never go back from where you came from.

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Coronavirus is suddenly forcing everyone to do just about everything in a different way. Social distancing, compulsive hand-washing and panic toilet-paper runs are part of our new collective realities. Only a week before writing this piece, I was wrapping up travel plans to cover the Giro d’Italia.

These sudden upheavals got me thinking about the different world we inhabited when I first came over to Europe to report on bike races.

It was 1996, and the Internet was in its infancy. Covering a bicycle race on the ground has always been a test of nerve, ingenuity and tenacity. Imagine doing it without a GPS or a smartphone, circa 1996.

Today, finding the start of a bike race requires little more than punching in the day’s coordinates into a GPS. Back in 1996, our navigation toolkit included a Michelin map, a good sense of path-finding, and faith that directional arrows placed along the highway pointed the right way. Any lapse of concentration would spill you off-course and into a mire of traffic and a spider-web of intractable roads with no exit.

The directional arrows were like following the yellow brick road to Oz. Only these were pink, and the Promised Land was the wonderful cacophony of the Giro caravan. Leaving its comfort zone was akin to the scene in Apocalypse Now when chef and Captain Willard look for mangoes in the jungle only to be attacked by a tiger. Never get off the boat. Absolutely goddamn right.

Every time I got behind the steering wheel, my heart-rate would increase and my palms would go sweaty. Not from the traffic, but from the dire consequences of a mistake. One wrong turn in Italy, and it could mean you’d never go back from where you came from.

Finding your way around Europe was never easy. One lesson I quickly took to heart in those pre-GPS days was to never book a hotel room online. One night I could see a hotel that I had booked at a busy crossroads, however I could never actually get my car into the entrance due to the rat’s nest of one-way roads, off-ramps and divided highways. After nearly an hour of futility, I drove into the night looking for another hotel. Unable to find one, I ended up sleeping on the ground in an olive grove. The next morning a local paisano was staring down at me from his tractor. I waved as I slinked away, and from that day on, I would simply drive around until I could find a hotel — problem solved.

Looking back, especially in the context of the world today, those problems seem trivial but also magical. Change is always for the best. At least we’re hoping so as we look down the double-barrel of the coronavirus bug. Everyone is hoping that we can come out of this crisis with little more than a warning call. Hopefully, racing and cycling will return to normalcy. And we can all get lost in Italy once again.