Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 28, 2013

Group gears up for cycling tour of Tuscany

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Matt and Judy Vajda will tour Italy at an average speed of 20-24 miles an hour.

The Traverse City couple are gearing up for seven days of cycling in the Tuscan countryside in May with 14 of their closest friends.

“Quite a few of us have been friends (going back as far as about 25 years),” said Judy Vajda, 49, of the close-knit group, which gets together as many as four days a week. “We cycle in the summer and we cross-country ski in the winter.”

So far members of the group — including current and former members of the Hagerty Cycling Team and members of the Vasa Ski Club — have cycled in Italy, Spain and Croatia. But their first trip to Tuscany in 2007 was so memorable that they decided to return this year to tour a different part of the region.

“Everybody I talk to who’s been to Tuscany says you come back a better person,” said Vajda, who is planning the trip with a tour company based in Ireland. “Everything is very small, quaint and meaningful, not to mention the beauty.”

The group will arrive in Rome and take transportation to their starting point in San Gimignano, a walled Medieval hill town. That’s where their rented race-quality, carbon-fiber bicycles and tour packets — containing route, dining and lodging information — will be waiting. From there they’ll ride between 30 and 62 miles each day to a different hilltop or coastal town, where they’ll meet for dinner and spend the night at a bed and breakfast.

Highlights of the trip include cycling on Elba Island, where French emperor Napoleon was exiled after his forced abdication in 1814, and stopping for a relaxing soak in hot springs on the way to Paganico in southern Tuscany.

“You always know you can’t recreate the memories you’ve already had. So we’re looking forward to a different region and visiting different towns each day,” said Vajda, who was so taken with the simple charm of Tuscany that she remodeled her house to give it a Tuscan feel.

She said the group will pack their own helmets, cycling clothes, shoes, pedals and seats. Some will even travel with their own bicycles that can be condensed through the use of couplers to fit into regulation airline-size containers.

Each day will begin with an early breakfast followed by departure by 9 a.m. After a long day of cycling, with time out for a panini lunch and other stops, they’ll arrive at their destination town between 1 and 3 p.m. Then they’ll shower and wash their cycling clothes before meeting for dinner and a tour of the town.

“This is a self-guided tour, there’s no guide or sag wagon,” Vajda said. Still, those who don’t feel like cycling every day can ride with the taxi service that takes the group’s luggage from place to place, she said.

Kimber Bilby will take the trip with fiancé Bob Prust, who cycled in Spain with the group. A runner who also has mountain biking experience, Bilby is fairly new to the sport of road riding, having gotten in only a handful of rides with Prust and the group since fall.

To prepare for the trip, she’s taking spinning classes and riding an hour or more a day at home using bike training software. She also joined the group for last week’s Jolly Pumpkin Pedal, an organized group ride on the Old Mission Peninsula, and ordered a new saddle seat with plenty of padding.

“They’re very competitive, so it is a little intimidating,” said Bilby, 42, of Traverse City. “I’ve been training like the dickens to get my cadence up, my power up. My biggest nightmare is that they’re all going to look at their watches and be tapping their feet and waiting for me to come up the hill. It will ruin my trip if people wait on me, so that’s why I’ve been training so hard.”

Steve and Deb Westphal have been on all three — soon to be four — cycling tours, the first of which Deb helped research.

The couple began road riding as summer training for ski racing and now ride five days a week in good weather, putting in between 2,500 and 3,000 miles a year.

But they especially enjoy cycling in scenic Europe — home of classic bicycle races like the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia — where cyclists are given a certain amount of respect.

“Seeing the country from a bike is way different than seeing it from the seat of a car,” said Steve Westphal, 58, of Traverse City. “And there’s something really cool about being in these (ancient) walled cities. It’s a great time.

“It’s completely foreign — we don’t speak the language, for the most part, and the food is incredible and incredibly different. And we’re doing it with a great group of people and having an epic time.”